SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) He may have spent the last five years proclaiming his distaste for formal fine dining, but with his new upscale digs downtown, Daniel Sia aka The Disgruntled Chef might well have changed his mind.
The ex-White Rabbit chef struck out on his own in Dempsey in 2010 with the aim of bridging the gap between fine and casual dining with an "egalitarian" restaurant-bar that won appetites with a French-inspired menu of hearty "small" and "big" plates.
At the time, he even had his lengthy "disgruntled" mission statement hand-written on a large blackboard across an entire wall of the eatery.
But time - and the sale of one's restaurant to a private equity firm - has a way of changing one's outlook. In this case, it's not a bad thing because by embracing his inner fine dining chef, the new Disgruntled Chef packs a culinary punch.
THE DISGRUNTLED CHEF
28 Ann Siang Road
Tel: 6808 2184
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm
While the Dempsey original maintains its casual hipster vibe, The Club - as it's also known - takes top billing at the newly revamped boutique hotel in Ann Siang run by the folks behind Harry's Bar (also owned by the same equity firm).
It's also aimed squarely at the corporate spending crowd with its linen napkins, champagne by the glass and a private dining room with its own wine cellar.
The food has also been through an upgrade - in both concept and price (just note the S$12 for fancy bread and spreads) - but Chef Sia shows that you can up your game without crossing into the dark side of pretentiousness.
Yes, you have to pay for the bread, but it comes in the form of jet-black jagged chunks toasty-crisp on the outside and pillowy within - used to spoon up whipped cream cheese dusted with crispy fish floss.
It's a wacky meteorite-explosion-meets-Breadtalk-floss-bun creation that shows how Chef Sia thinks out of the bread box to delicious effect. Alas, we don't think to sample the more earthly truffle brioche with nori butter.
A newly-launched set lunch menu is an agreeable S$38/S$45 for two or three courses (excluding supplements) and the options are more Dempsey-like. There's a fail-safe steak tartare with a soft-cooked egg hidden in the mound of mildly spicy chopped beef and mustard mixture, accompanied by whisper-thin toasted sourdough bread.
Scallops are competently seared and fresh, sitting on individual beds of seasoned cauliflower couscous and a spray of verjuice.
Crab pasta is a worthy iteration of the lobster oil and konbu-slicked classic, with a couple of tired sticks of crab leg in place of sakura ebi. Nice, even if the konbu leaves an MSG-like sting on your tongue. Pan-roasted onglet (S$6 top-up) performs as a beef offcut does - chewy but juicy.
Chef Sia keeps the good stuff on the ala carte menu. A "small plate" (versus a "big plate") of grilled eel and foie gras roulade (S$26) is a fine specimen of textural harmony - discs of whipped liver mousse gently enveloped in circles of firm, meaty eel, garnished with spears of sweet cooked rhubarb and tart green apple cubes.
Technically, we would cry the tears of joy saved for when a chef hits that sweet spot where crunch-meets-soft, the sound of orgasmic pleasure emitting from one's lips.
We almost have it with the so-simple-it's-ingenious crispy beef short rib (S$38) that's as thick as our wrist, if not for a fat-to-meat ratio similar to a sumo wrestler fed intravenously with butter.
Layers of pure fat aside, who thinks to encase a gelatinous, wobbly-tender rib with a crackling crust that would turn BonChon's chickens limp with envy?
Dessert breaks Chef Sia's confident stride a little, with a lacklustre rocky road (S$16) that veers off path with its unconvincing combination of chocolate mousse, marshmallow and sour boozy cherries. Braised strawberries and mascarpone (S$16) are a better match, especially with pistachio sponge and some addictively chewy strawberry leather that we wouldn't mind more of.
But our favourite is the chocolate croquette (S$16) with its crunchy-tender choux puff-like shell oozing with chocolate cream within, perfectly entwined with the jellied strip of licorice-like bitter kahlua jelly.
There's a welcome confidence in Chef Sia's cooking at The Club - he's been around long enough to know what appeals to the local palate such that even if he calls his food modern European, what he really does is European food that Asians like. He's calibrated the flavours by toning down acidity and salt, leaning slightly towards a sweeter taste profile (with his penchant for caramelising and reductions) and our fondness for chewy and crunchy textures.
What we don't really like is the service, from the well-rehearsed but unconvincing recital of menu recommendations to the reluctance (or ignorance) in changing our plates used for sharing food. The restaurant might take pains to be as unstuffy as possible despite the fine dining menu, but not being able to identify diners' needs is a fail, even in a casual eatery.
Still, such shortcomings aside, we think there's enough reason for Chef Sia to cast aside any previous disgruntlement (do they really have to keep that name?) and put on a happy, upmarket face instead.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on August 17, 2015.
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