There has been little buzz about five-week-old Oca Grassa, and the Italian restaurant in Bukit Pasoh Road was practically empty both times I was there for lunch. That is a real shame because the food is good and the prices are reasonable.
Chef Edwin Lau, a 29-year-old Singaporean, shows an aptitude for fine cooking that is often seen only in more experienced chefs. He used to work at La Cicala gastrobar in Club Street, but was transferred by parent company Empirica to head the new kitchen. And their confidence in him is well placed.
Whether it's pastas or steaks or seafood soups, he delivers. And in his case, being Singaporean rather than Italian seems to work in his favour, as he guns for what works with the local palate.
Take, for example, his linguine with sauteed prawns and squid aglio olio ($20). Instead of tossing the pasta with just sauteed garlic and olive oil, he adds prawn stock to the mix. The result is like an Italian version of fried Hokkien mee, which I find quite marvellous. Add to that a generous amount of fresh squid and prawns, cherry tomatoes and a hint of chilli, and you have a hit.
Then there are the pork jowl and king oyster mushroom tortelli with truffle emulsion ($22), which are so plump they remind me of Chinese jiao zi dumplings.
They taste totally different of course, and I like how the crunchy mushrooms add texture to the minced pork in the stuffing. The sauce, a rich jus reduction, is delicious though I don't detect any truffles.
I have been tipped off by a colleague that the steamed clams and rope mussels with white wine, shallots, cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs ($22) is excellent. Unfortunately, the mussels are not good enough the day I'm there and the chef has taken the dish off the menu. Instead, operations manager Andreano Carbotti suggests I try the fresh market seafood cooked with cherry tomatoes, vegetables and seafood stock. The dish is usually served for two persons at $56 but he offers to do a one-person serving instead for $28.
It comes chockful of prawns, squid, octopus, fish and huge Japanese clams that are sweet and juicy. It is one of the meal's highlights and for the price, a really good deal.
The restaurant's speciality, however, is meat grilled over Japanese charcoal embers. If you are in a party of four or five, order the chargrilled Fiorentina steak ($158 for 1.2kg). It's a huge slab of juicy meat on the bone served sliced and sizzling on a red-hot disc of Himalayan salt.
It arrives at the table rare but continues to cook on the salt. By the end, the meat is medium cooked and is still nice and warm. It also picks up just the right amount of flavour from the salt, rendering the accompanying sauce and mustard unnecessary. What I appreciate more are the garlic and onion confit on the side, both cooked in their skins till soft and sweet.
On my second visit, I try the ribeye ($40) instead but find that a bit chewy. The meat is also sliced too thin before being grilled, causing it to cook through too quickly. And the meat has little flavour.
The meal has a very pleasant ending, however. The dessert of pink guava creme with pomegranate granite and avocado pudding ($14) may sound confused. And it does not look very enticing either, with a green layer of avocado pannacotta covered with spoonfuls of thick, pink cream and topped by scrapings of pink ice.
But when you take a scoop of everything and put it in your mouth, magic happens. The rich avocado complements the sweet guava well, but it is the granite that adds sparkle to the concoction. The icy sensation that melts into tart pomegranate juice is exactly what is needed to bring everything to life.
In fact, when I taste another scoop without the granite, it feels mundane in comparison.
Little details are what make the food at Oca Grassa stand out. Whether it's adding prawn stock to an aglio olio pasta or serving a steak on a slab of hot salt, chef Lau takes what is common and makes it his own. And more importantly, he makes it work.
SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
6 Bukit Pasoh Road, tel: 6534-9854
Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm ( Mondays to Saturdays), Closed on Sundays
Price: Budget from $80 a person
Pink guava creme with pomegranate granite and avocado pudding ($14)
The guava creme and avocado pudding are a comfortable match but it is the granite that brings the dessert to life.