Escape hustle and bustle at Botanico
With the world opening up, I often get the urge to escape the hustle and bustle. Since I can't travel, I'll head to Botanico, a restaurant housed in an Art Deco bungalow at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
I have not been to this part of the gardens and am charmed by how laidback it is. Botanico is on level 2 of the house, above the cafe Bee's Knees. The 120-seat restaurant has an air-conditioned semi-outdoor area that is lit up prettily at night, and the main dining room has the feel of someone's dining room.
Someone lucky enough to have a very good head chef. Sujatha Asokan worked at Pollen and Esquina, among other places, before joining the 1-Group, which owns Botanico.
The 29-year-old Indian-Chinese chef has a way of taking the familiar flavours of Singapore food and showcasing them in surprising - and delicious - ways.
Take Herbal Chicken ($29). The accompanying couscous is cooked with ginger-garlic paste, which of course makes it taste like chicken rice. There is also a sauce made with angelica, Solomon's seal and Chinese yam, reminiscent of herbal chicken. The chef rattles off the names of these Chinese herbs in fluent Mandarin.
The rice and sauce taste so good I will overlook the fact that it's chicken breast - the least interesting part of any chicken - on the plate. It is cooked sous vide and isn't dry. But how about using chicken thighs instead?
Then there is Beef Tongue Tacos ($18), an appetiser with baby bok choy serving as the tacos. Beef tongue is brined and cooked sous vide so it is tender and velvety. You pile a slice of tongue on the bok choy, add a spoonful of bangkwang slaw and eat.
The yam bean salad is not there just for crunch. It has layers of flavour from baby bok choy pickled in fish sauce, lime juice, Thai palm sugar, chilli padi and Japanese vinegar; ginger flower; and toasted and ground up Thai fragrant rice. Sort of like a vegetable larb.
Rojak ($15) is similarly complex - guava; balonglong, a tart, crunchy fruit; green papaya; rose apple and kohlrabi are served with shrimp paste foam, ginger flower and prawn oil aioli. Every bite is intense and I could eat a bucket of those delicate sago crackers that top this salad.
Two other appetisers really hit the spot for me.
One is Assam Laksa Ceviche ($17), featuring raw cubes of seabass tossed with lemon and lime juices, housemade chilli jam, extra virgin olive oil, finely diced jalapeno, shallots, coriander and mint. The glass noodles under the fish is dressed with a tamarind-belacan sauce that tastes like assam laksa gravy, and the dish is topped with shrimp paste ice cream. It is cool, spicy and perky.
The other is Wing Bean Salad ($15), which boasts tender, young wing beans sliced thin, hardboiled egg and chickpea tofu dressed with belachan, lemongrass, shallots, garlic and ginger.
There is also lime aioli, which I think is overkill. That powerful dressing is more than enough. And I love the shower of crisp, deep-fried ikan bilis on top.
The rather prosaic names of chef Sujatha's dishes do not begin to describe their complexity, or hint at her skill in using fresh herbs, Chinese herbs, spices and Asian condiments to great effect.
And she showcases all this bounty in gardens full of the very botanicals that shine in her food.
WHERE: Botanico at The Garage, 50 Cluny Park Road, Singapore Botanic Gardens
MRT: Botanic Gardens
OPEN: 6 to 10pm (Tuesday to Friday), 11am to 3pm, 6 to 10pm (Saturday and Sunday), closed Monday
INFO: The Garage website
Lolla's new chef
One of my favourite restaurants, the nine-year-old Lolla at Ann Siang Road,is one of those places that transport me to Barcelona or London or New York.
None of these things would matter if the food is not good. And Lolla's food, sharing plates big and small, is always on the money.
The restaurant has a new chef - Johanne Siy, 39, originally from the Philippines but who has made Singapore home for years. The business management and accountancy graduate worked for eight years at Procter & Gamble here before switching careers. She trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and then worked at Le Bernardin and Cafe Boulud before returning to Singapore.
Here, she worked four years at the now-defunct Restaurant Andre, and has also done stints at Faviken in Sweden, and Relae and Noma in Copenhagen.
Her food matches the vibe of Lolla.
Oyster, Oyster, Oyster! ($22) is a cheeky dish of grilled oysters, with paper thin slices of king oyster mushroom draped over them. Each shell is then topped with an oyster leaf, which tastes like the shellfish. At the bottom of the shell is beurre blanc, its richness and acidity a perfect complement.
Tiny, tender Bouchot mussels ($38) are the stars of another dish. They sit on celeriac puree and this surf and turf dish is aromatic with dill oil, my favourite herb. After you have polished it off, chef Siy comes round with shot glasses of sweet mussel broth, the liquid from cooking the bivalves. I love how nothing goes to waste.
That's the case with Spot Prawn Crudo, Sea Urchin, Oscietra Caviar ($68) too. Sweet amaebi, uni and caviar get zing from yuzu juice and the crunch comes not just from popping the fish eggs but also from wisps of ice plant on top. After I am done, I get the prawn heads, deep fried. Happiness.
But really, the two beef dishes I have are what will keep my love affair with Lolla alive for a long time.
Mayura Wagyu Tartare ($38) is another land and sea dish. The hand-chopped meat, topped with parsley and freshly grated horseradish, is served with an intense oyster aioli. The shellfish takes the place of eggs in the emulsion. And if that is not enough, the dish is served with crackly Jerusalem artichoke chips, their earthy flavour so on point with the tartare and the aioli.
The main at my dinner is more of that beef. Mayura Wagyu Tri-Tip ($88) is cooked sous vide for 15 hours and then subjected to nuclear heat. When I bite into a piece, I hear crackling from the fierce sear and the veins of fat. No, it is not too rich. I ate two slices.
Cacao nibs are strewn over the slices of beef, a nod to the chocolate the cattle are fed as part of their diet. I love the charred Swiss chard and wish it came in a bigger pile. Mayura cattle are also fed the vegetable.
Who knew cow food could be so compelling? In chef Siy's capable hands, they are.
WHERE: Lolla, 22 Ann Siang Road
MRT: Telok Ayer
OPEN: Noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 11pm (Monday to Saturday), 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 10.30pm (Sunday)
INFO: The Lolla website