SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - 28 Wilkie is styled as a caviar bar but does not feel like one. There is no need to dust off your Birkin lookalike, carry your credit card with the highest limit or practise saying "beluga" or "oscietra" like you really know the difference. The server does not present the caviar menu with a great flourish, nor does he give you the evil eyebrow when you flip past the caviar page and lock eyes on the truffle fries in the snacks section.
Instead, it is classy in a comfortable way, with just enough luxe to tell you it is a place with serious food, but not formal enough to merit anything beyond smart casual wear. The fact that it is off the city centre - in the Selegie area where gentrified condos sit easily with bohemian grunge - means it does not have to keep up with the hipster Joneses in the CBD. The sort-of conservation building that it is in also gives it a residential feel. The mood is relaxed, the jazz piano soundtrack soothing and directions to the restrooms that say something like "men on the left because women are always right" make you smile.
There is no pressure to order the caviar - the owners are investors in a caviar farm in China - but if you do, prices start at $130 for a 30gm tin of Siberian sturgeon to $400 for Kaluga, the Chinese version of beluga. You can order a range so as to compare the intricacies of each specimen. But when our experience with caviar is limited to what is offered to us by kind people, asking us about the nuttiness or butteriness of salty fish roe is like asking if we can tell a male unagi from a female one.
Where: 28 Wilkie Road, 01-01
Open: 3pm to 10.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays.
Info: Call 9776-2828
We are on stronger footing when it comes to the actual food, where equal parts Italian and Japanese add up to a cohesive whole. Head chef Kenny Huang is Chinese but you could easily be eating in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo, given his precise plating and fluid ideas that translate smoothly without hiccups.
Being too cheap to spring for a tin of caviar does not mean you will be deprived of it. The chef sends out two complimentary blinis - soft and light, not at all dry - topped with a couple of grams of the black gold, and its full-bodied rich brininess hits the spot. You also get a mouthful of creamy burrata cheese topped with tomato sliced to look like tuna - Chef Huang's idea of Italian sushi.
He has an easy confidence with his cooking, a fine example being a soft cooked egg that is cuddled in a bed of chunky crushed potatoes in a cheese fondue ($28) - our favourite artery blocker of unctuous egg and rich cheese, suddenly disrupted by a flash mob of crunchy toasted almond slivers that pull the elements together so well. And a bonus? A tiny dollop of Siberian caviar on top.
Hokkaido scallops ($32), over-seared but not to the rubbery point of no return, is a fuss-free starter - perched on cauliflower puree, a whiff of lemongrass foam and rocket leaves to help fill one's salad quota. The scallops are not at the top of their game, but each is topped with Siberian caviar, so we are forgiving.
A scallop mentaiko pasta ($28) is part of the day's set menu but offered ala carte. It is spicy, al dente and all things nice - tossed in spicy rich cod roe with a light creamy consistency, cubes of seared scallops and a sprinkling of crinkly seaweed. It is on the salty side, though.
Risotto with unagi and seaweed (S$28) is rich as rice cooked in stock and cream can be, and the added sweetness from onion confit makes it tasty but cloying. The real reason to order this would be the plump, succulent eel that stretches from one end of the plate to the other, basted just enough in sweet sauce without being overpowering.
Chef Huang could go a little easier on the salt, especially in the otherwise beautifully-executed pan-fried red snapper with seasonal vegetables (S$32). Cooked with the scales on, Japanese-style, the fillet of milky-fleshed fish is covered by a crackling crisp armour and paired with pea puree and a poised array of cooked vegetables. The satisfying crunch of crust on soft flesh would have gone down better with better control of the salt shaker.
Having cured our tongues on the fish, we need a good sugar fix to counter it. The tiramisu (S$18) does the job well - a simple and sleek parfait of slinky smooth mascarpone and deliciously bitter espresso and amaretto-infused cake, with crunchy cookies in the mix. The lemon tart (S$18) is a deconstructed confection of crisp sable cookie disc topped with refreshing cream cheese gelato, tart lemon curd swirls topped with flaky pastry, and torched meringue on the side. Never mind the lemon curd. The ice cream and the cookie crust deserve their own spin-off.
There are no gimmicks in this menu of well-honed, European cuisine which is familiar without breeding contempt, thanks to the chef's culinary linguistics. Maybe next time, we'll bring a serious credit card with us, and find out once and for all just how nutty caviar can be.
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.