SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) There is a piece of foie gras in front of me. I look at it. Not in the way that one looks at pan-seared goose-liver quivering slightly above a shaky bed of diced pickled apples, but the way an Aussie customs inspector stares at you explaining for the third time that you do not have any belacan in your bag. I am sitting in UsQuBa - a new Scottish restaurant in town - and I can't decide whether to eat my food or ask for its passport.
UsQuBa seems like an idea that sounded good on paper - perhaps fuelled by too much "usquebaugh" (whisky) by owners bold enough to not just open a new restaurant in the tough local market, but with cuisine from a country we don't really hear much about except when we want a stiff drink or if it wants to separate from the UK.
Although it sounds like an introduction into the world of Scottish cuisine - whatever that is - it is not. It is instead a showcase of Scottish ingredients - as in the aforementioned goose liver, and everything from lobster and scallops to meat, fruit and vegetables. The cooking style is, for lack of a better word, European. Which in this case means mostly French and a bit of British, aka the wrong side of the UK. Think mushy peas and beurre blanc sauce. Sometimes on the same plate.
So, short of interrogating every ingredient to ensure that it really is from the Scottish Highlands or Lowlands as depicted in the very large map that takes up a full page of its menu, there is little to set UsQuBa apart from its generic fine dining brethren. Not its Turkish-born chef, nor its location in One Fullerton with its view of the spouting Merlion and Singapore river boats spitting out tourists onto Clifford Pier.
#02-03B & 04
One Fullerton Road
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm
Once you get that out of the way, your mind can wrap itself around the cooking of Guven Uyanik, who has been in the employ of Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller at various stages of his un-Scottish cooking career. For the most part, his cooking shines more for its competence than imagination, although a few deft twists in the dessert department almost has us clapping.
Before that, hunks of warm house-baked focaccia studded with sun-dried tomatoes are a welcome introduction, especially with the slices of black summer truffle (gratis) that are nervously dispensed by our very-green server. It's from a bottle rather than fresh, but we appreciate the generosity.
From a very restrictive set lunch (S$38 for two courses) we have no choice but a lobster bisque with ravioli and it's bold, rich and briny with the essence of crustaceans distilled into a cream and tomato enhanced broth. Add to that two flat raviolis floating in the bisque, featuring a decent amount of minced lobster within a casing of slippery thin pasta sheets.
The aforementioned seared foie gras (S$21) feels more firm than wobbly and is a little over-seared, failing to embrace the pleasantly sweet-tart pickled apples or the equally stand-offish waffle - itself too hard, crispy and breakfasty an alternative to brioche.
Orkney Islands Scallop Ceviche (S$25) is more carpaccio than ceviche - whole raw scallops nestled among compressed cubes of cucumber and apple, with a cloud of horseradish snow that tastes more like milky air. So far so refreshing with the contrasting mellow and pickled flavours. What should come along for a jolt of the unexpected but little lobes of uni - with a slight funkiness either from the Orkney trip or a Japanese box of bafun. Even so, it all somehow holds together - a bit of edge to the squeaky-clean scallops.
A sous-vide piece of cod from the set lunch is slinky and smooth, unperturbed by the beurre blanc sauce and creamy puddle of peas it sits with. Shavings of fennel even out the blandness. The sauces work hard in this menu, with the mushy peas showing up again with the roast pigeon (S$32 for half) - a nice piece of meaty, tender bird - that also has squid ink sauce and strips of squid. Looking like three startled strangers wondering why they ended up in the same work group, they nonetheless try to get along and the union, while strange, is not unpalatable.
Also, the lobster bisque pops up as a sauce to pretty up a plate of butter poached whole lobster (S$58) - body and claw meat firm and succulent with the same fennel shavings from the cod.
Plucking us out of the comfort zone we've settled into is the Singapore Breakfast (S$11) - a unique creation by chef Uyanik who turns his fascination with kaya into a lush, creamy ice cream against an unsweetened bread and butter pudding studded with peanuts which turns our initial cynicism into sheer joy. The pudding is perfectly textured - custardy but maintaining its bread pudding DNA, and the idea to blend kaya into ice cream is so simple yet genius.
Tastings of Strawberry (S$15) also more than passes muster with its scone-like pistachio biscuit in a pool of strawberry sauce and sorbet that gives you plenty of texture and sweetness.
While UsQuBa misses the chance to show local diners a bit about what real Scots eat, chef Uyanik does justice to the produce even if the food is generally a bit of a yawn. We look forward to a more challenging menu and until then, excuse us while we go interrogate a certain pigeon about its country of origin.
This article was first published on June 20, 2016.
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