New eatery Burnt Ends invites comparison with modern tapas bar Esquina in many ways. Not only are the two within a stone's throw of each other in the Keong Saik area, both are no-reservations, counter-seating eateries serving small plates of Western dishes meant for sharing.
They also share owners in hoteliers Mavis Oei and Loh Lik Peng. But while Esquina also counts Michelin-starred London chef Jason Atherton as owner, Burnt Ends is co-owned by Singapore-based chef Andre Chiang, whose Restaurant Andre is, for me, the best restaurant here.
Chiang is not involved in either the menu or the cooking at the new eatery. Those duties fall on the shoulders of David Pynt, an Australian who had worked at Viajante, an East London restaurant also owned by Mrs Oei and Mr Loh.
Burnt Ends, which opened about 11/2 weeks ago, specialises in roasts and grills, with most of the cooking done in two huge wood-fired ovens as well as three grills heated by glowing embers from the ovens. The grills can be raised and lowered with a hand crank to adjust the heat reaching the food.
The two ovens perform different functions. One goes up to about 800 deg C, more than twice what most home ovens can achieve, and is used for dishes that require short bursts of extreme heat. The other oven hovers below a moderate 200 deg C, ideal for slow roasts such as a saliva-inducing beef rib that was cooked for more than an hour the night I was there.
Sitting at the counter, it was fascinating watching Pynt at work. He deftly placed and removed food from the ovens, cranking the grills occasionally, and before you knew it, another dish was ready.
Many of the dishes were simple grills, topped with a sauce just before serving. There was no fancy plating either.
The intrinsic flavours of ingredients took centre stage and the chef's expertise was seen in how he controlled the timing and temperature.
The dishes did not always work though. The night I was there, the menu - which is printed every day and changes slightly - had a dish of white clams and XO sauce ($14) that was a weak copy of what you could get at a coffee shop zi char stall but at three times the price. The clams, grilled till they open before being tossed with the sauce, were undercooked. And the sauce had no fire.
I found another dish, baby eggplant and sambal ($10), somewhat confused in its flavours. The roasted vegetable, with its charred skin removed, was topped with yogurt and skirted by coriander sauce as well as a dash of sambal. There was too much going on in that little dish, I thought.
But when the dishes worked, they were good.
The smoked quail eggs ($6) looked like ordinary hard boiled eggs served in a plain white bowl. I certainly did not expect the unusual bouncy texture of the whites and the almost runny yolk that provided so much pleasure in the mouth, not to mention the intriguing hint of smokiness that permeated the eggs.
Sadly, there were only five eggs in the bowl and between my dining companion and me, they vanished in no time.
Another dish that had us gasping with pleasure at the first bite was the Burnt Ends Sanger ($20), Pynt's version of a burger.
It had shreds of pulled pork shoulder, coleslaw and chipotle aioli stuffed between a somewhat dense brioche bun. The pork, tender and intense-tasting, was the star while the other components of the dish expanded and balanced the flavours.
The onglet, bone marrow and walnut ($14 for 100g) was a winner too. The meat, charred on the outside and moist inside, was not a tender cut. But when you chewed on it, you appreciated how flavour was a strong point with onglet, or hanger steak. The pellets of marrow sprinkled over the meat were like fat that oiled it, and a delicious sauce made with beef juices was all that was required to complete the dish.
If that is too much meat, get the whole baby snapper ($60) instead. We, however, were greedy and had it on top of the steak.
The fish, enough for at least two persons, was simply grilled and served with a fennel salad. But with such a fresh and tasty fish, it needed nothing more.
We were stuffed by then but were so intrigued by a dessert of wild hibiscus, smoked ice cream and ginger ($10) that we ordered it. And were we glad we did. The smoked ice cream was amazing, creating the effect of aromatic wafts of smoke swirling around the mouth.
It was a sensation that I didn't want to end.
SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.