SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) What is Latin American food?
When you consider that the continent includes everything from Cuba to Venezuela - and don't forget the Chinese immigrants who can assimilate anywhere they want and open the kind of Chinese restaurants tourists like us gravitate to in desperation and subsequent regret - the truth is that we really don't know.
But it's certainly not limited to what Gaston Acurio cooks. And our general lack of knowledge works to Vasco's gain for we don't know enough to quibble about its authenticity.
What we can tell you is that it's a welcome addition to Hong Kong Street which is already shaping up as Keong Saik redux with the likes of tapas eatery FOC and The Cufflink Club - a bar that's also run by Vasco's owners.
42 Hong Kong Street
Open Mon to Sat from 5pm (Food is served from 6pm)
Like its sister outlet, Vasco is primarily a watering hole, but with ex-Esquina head chef Andrew Walsh driving the kitchen operations, the food is much more than an afterthought.
Walsh does not cook personally, but in-house chef Jennifer Lee is no slouch either.
Despite a tiny menu, she cooks with care and everything has a pleasant wholesomeness to it.
Maybe not the snapper ceviche (S$20) - a somewhat tepid attempt to perpetuate the fish-in-lime-juice stereotype.
While it thankfully doesn't have that ear-curling sourness of some versions, the mild marinade isn't enough to mask the slight fishiness of the snapper.
Empanadas (S$12 for three) are a much-loved treat by Latin Americans and we've always wondered why.
Because no self-respecting Singaporean who appreciates a good crispy curry puff will understand the appeal of these miniature doughy calzones with spicy meat fillings.
At Vasco, chef Lee makes her empanadas with tender-crumb pastry dough that's filled with creamy ham and cheese or spinach and corn fillings.
On hindsight we should have gone for the spiced lamb version but in this case, the puffs ooze with piping hot bechamel sauce and aren't bad, but we think they can be a lot more addictive with a crunchier crust.
The beef tartare (S$29) gets a bit of kick with the addition of peppers, chillies and cumin to the chopped raw beef.
With a sprinkle of lime juice in the mix, it's a perky accompaniment to the wafer thin crisp tortilla chips which shatter upon tooth impact.
It's also a refreshing alternative to the more predictable beef (S$23) and prawn (S$25) pinchos - the former a skewer of chunky and chewy beef cubes which are well-marinated but a little too gristly and tough, especially after being fanned by the drafty airconditioning.
The prawns are meaty, bouncy and easier to eat.
The best thing on the whole menu is the Cuban pork sandwich (S$22) which arrives as a nondescript toasted panini-like sandwich but bite into it and you get the crunch of perfectly buttered toast and a divine filling of tender pork, mild pickles, spicy sauce and other odds and ends that add up to a moist, tangy creaminess that seeps through every bite.
Of course, Chef Lee also happens to be the founder of sandwich cafe Sarnies, which explains her magical ways with sliced bread.
In fact, the main drawback of the menu at Vasco is that it's too small.
There's so much emphasis on the liquid side of things that when we ask what's for dessert, we're told that they consider their cocktails to be the perfect sweet ending to a meal.
Right. Well, at least the drinks are more authentically Latin with its lineup of piscos and such.
But no wonder. With a Santiago Sour weighing in at S$23 for a cocktail and S$15 for a virgin pina colada or other non-alcoholic mocktails, the money is definitely in the drinks, although there's just as much potential for them to lure the dining crowd as well if they want to.
Chef Lee's cooking is controlled and proficient and she could definitely deliver more solid eats if she had more room to expand the menu.
And the place is nice for a meal, with its sleek dark interiors and quirky touches such as the way they write your name with an eraseable marker on the tables instead of a "reserved" plaque, and the recorded Portuguese lessons played in the restroom so you can learn a couple of words while you go about your business.
You're not going to leave Vasco any wiser about Latin American cuisine or culture, but then who goes to Esquina to learn about Spanish food anyway.
Instead, you go there to enjoy the vibe, get your imagination going and, if you go to the bathroom enough times, you'll at least pick up enough of the language to get by should you visit Rio sometime soon.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on May 18, 2015.
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