SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Imagine, if you will, a not-too-distant dystopian future where restaurants are no longer places where you are waited on hand and foot: where menus are brought to you; every bite you take is anxiously observed for signs of displeasure; every dish is explained to you at the table and; tap water is still free.
Instead, robots will take your order; drones will fly out of the kitchen to serve your food; and you will have to pour your own water from a common jug and still pay for it.
As human serving staff rapidly become an endangered species in Singapore, the reality is that we may have to rethink the way we eat.
Whether it's a cool new concept or a harbinger of things to come, Michel Lu's new venture in the leafy Bukit Timah enclave of Evans Road will either make you shudder at being wrenched out of your dining comfort zone - or welcome the idea of eating in a restaurant where you are your own waiter.
Wildfire Kitchen + Bar
26 Evans Road
Open daily 11am to 11pm
Located in the same casual dining cluster as Mr Prata in a retro brick building with the kind of faded edges and 1970s aura (as a trip to the restroom will attest to) that appeals to nostalgia lovers, Wildfire Kitchen + Bar is a fast-food joint in appearance but a serious bistro at heart.
When you first walk in, you're greeted by the ubiquitous spartan industrial look that's the uniform of choice for hipster eateries. High chairs, communal tables - too many hard surfaces make it cool but not cosy.
The young chap behind the counter looks surprised when we ask for a table, pointing around in general that "you can sit wherever you want".
He also instructs us to order and pay at the counter, and gives us a buzzer to bring to our table. We will soon spend our entire meal jumping up every time the buzzer goes off to collect our food, as and when each dish is ready.
Now we understand why dogs can't stand Pavlov. We want to bite the guy who gave us the buzzer, but we're kind of hungry so we have to control our urge to salivate every time it goes off.
The menu's mainstay is burgers - all 11 of them in various permutations and meat quality - but it's the grill section that gives Wildfire its upmarket slant.
You don't expect to find S$36 wagyu inside skirt at a burger joint, especially not one that claims to be cooked in a Josper-equivalent grill over Binchotan charcoal. Or Canadian tomahawk pork steak (S$28) and S$30 New Zealand lamb rack.
When the buzzer first goes off, we're startled out of our high stools to collect our starters of sweet-spicy Sriracha-glazed chicken pops (S$13) - essentially battered chicken nuggets coated in a fiery red but mildly spicy sweet glaze.
Bouncy chicken pieces are too thickly coated but the glaze is addictive with an equal hit of sweet and heat.
They're better than the tightly packed frozen-tasting meatballs stuffed with tasteless, runny melted mozzarella cheese (S$13) that come sizzling on a hot plate with tomato relish and gratinated cheese on top.
The house salad is an insipid waste of S$6 with its paltry handful of tasteless greens.
Basic burgers start at S$16 for a classic patty with beer-caramelised onions, cheese and signature sauce - just a tad pricier than Omakase Burger but a good size bigger.
We opt for the ultimate Blackmore Wagyu for S$26 - made from chopped fullblood wagyu from Australia.
The hefty patty is packed into a toasted, slightly sweet brioche-like bun and dressed up with the sweet onions and sauce.
When you get right down to it, the beef doesn't taste discernibly better than generally good quality beef, but here the marbling adds to the juiciness.
A bit more adventurous seasoning would have added to the overall taste, but otherwise, it's a very decent burger. Do note that flavours here tend to be on the sweet side, which is great if your palate leans in that direction.
The buzzer goes off. We're well-trained by now and scuttle for the next dish - grilled pork tomahawk - aged Canadian pork served with maple-glazed roast sweet potato and carrots.
Inconsistent grilling means that one half of the steak is perfectly pink and juicy while the other half is dry as a bone.
The tender lamb chops are a better bet - done pink and tender with addictive little niblets of melting, soft-roasted garlic and a toffee-like miso sauce that really lifts the meat.
Dessert is - well, there is no dessert per se. Pavlov - aka the counter guy - points us to a freezer filled with frozen ice-cream sandwich cookies (S$6 each) in flavours such as butterscotch bacon, marshmallow or peanut butter.
If you need to choose, the marshmallow is best. No buzzer needed, just stick your hand into the freezer and pay Pavlov the six bucks.
Wildfire is a clever concept that will be a good test case given the manpower crunch. Can we get used to eating this way? Of course, this concept works best in a casual environment where you don't have to pay service charge and the food remains simple but with an eye on quality.
What it needs is for Pavlov (and the other limited humans on hand) to have better PR and product knowledge to at least lend some personality to the space. After all, buzzers may be the sound of our dining future, but let's not say goodbye to the human touch just yet.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on Feb 16, 2015.
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