SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Thirteen Duxton Hill is located at, uh, 13 Duxton Hill. That can only mean one of two things: the owner has a sense of humour about superstition; or he's one of those weirdos who carry black cats around, looking for ladders to walk under. Or the third option: he's Australian. Bingo.
Thirteen is a venture by newly transplanted Melbourne chef John-Paul Fiechtner and sommelier/manager Sally Humble. From what we've read, they're from Restaurant Lume, a modern-progressive, forward-thinking, fancy-adjective kind of eatery that generated a lot of good buzz and World's 50 Best aspirations. But a zest for travel and new living experiences - plus a good dose of serendipity - have now led the duo to Singapore. And for the past few weeks they have been helming this grungy cafe-bar-bistro with a mixture of easy-going hospitality and breezy cooking that makes you smile and spout cliches like, "what a breath of fresh air".
Thirteen is a late entrant to the Singapore dining scene in 2016, but it ends the year on a fresh note. Chef Fiechtner's cooking gets your imagination going again, and lets you see how a good chef can manage so much with so little. The restaurant is done on the cheap - yet it's so cheerful and real, thanks to the unpretentious personality of Sally Humble who truly lives up to her name. Even making the detour through the dodgy-looking back alley to the bathroom isn't annoying when you see the chef rushing to open the kitchen door to make sure you didn't get lost.
Food-wise, there is no fixed menu. It changes every day depending on what Chef Fiechtner gets from the local markets. The day's offerings are handwritten on a small piece of paper and the same dishes are served for lunch and dinner. At dinner you can opt for a S$66 chef's menu where he does the choosing for you and throws in a couple of surprises if he feels like it.
But it really doesn't matter what you pick as there isn't a single bad dish, just some you will like more than others. What's likely to be a firm favourite is a deceptively simple plate of baby corn (S$16) sitting on dollops of corn custard and doused in nutty brown butter that's infused with the briny essence of prawn heads (we would have liked a stronger hit of prawn flavour though). Burnt cocoa powder adds interest although we barely taste it. But corn and prawn butter is now on our list of top flavour profiles.
Thirteen Duxton Hill
Where: 13 Duxton Hill
Tel: 9054 1435
Opening hours: Open every day except Sunday. 9am to 3pm (Mondays); 8am to 3pm (Tuesdays); 8am to 3pm and 6pm to 11.45pm (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays); 10am to 3pm and 6pm to 11.45pm (Thursdays)
A pile of beautiful shavings of green apple and radish (S$10) impresses us more for the chef's mandoline slicing skills than the way it looks. But what seems bland turns into a deliciously refreshing salad of lightly pickled ribbons that pair perfectly with cold, sweet, whipped Jerusalem artichoke custard.
We also really like the slippery, chewy texture of the half-raw and very fresh squid rings (S$24) smeared with what looks like olive tapenade but turns out to be burnt eggplant puree. A shower of finely chopped broccoli dressed with a bit of vinaigrette balances off the earthy eggplant, while raw peanuts give you something else to chew on.
We're in two minds about the ox tongue and veal heart pastrami (S$28) which is an offal medley of tender long-cooked tongue and just-cooked veal heart that's still got a nice, rubbery bite to it, covered with a bed of edible flowers and bitter pickled watermelon rind. You get where all the bitter, gamey, rich flavours are pointing but they fall just short of complete enjoyment.
There's less of a debate with the fish of the day (S$38) - a rich, baked pomfret that's just bursting with juiciness from its own oil and thick, silky flesh. It's baked with house-made chilli paste that's clean and spicy - an interesting take on Asian barbecued stingray.
The beef flank (S$34) is a little too much work for us with its chewy, gristly meat, served with pickled shaved beetroot and charred spring onion. And even with our high tolerance for sugary sweet desserts, the soft baked meringue with cookie crumble and fresh cherries (S$16) tastes like melted candy floss and is just beyond us.
Since it's still the early days, you can tell that Chef Fiechtner is playing it safe in a new market and hasn't pulled out his full arsenal of tricks yet. So the "wow" effect is more fleeting - it's gone before you can actually savour what's going on. But there's enough there for us to want to learn more about this little restaurant with the same name and address. We're glad we found out about Thirteen when we did - that was quite a stroke of luck.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.