(BUSINESS TIMES) - Stepping into the newly made-over Atlas Bar, we're not sure which era or imaginary world we've entered.
But whether you vote for Art Deco splendour, random European castle with ceiling art or Batman's universe, it doesn't matter. Thanks to one very rich man's fixation with super-high ceilings and eclectic art, we now have one visually satisfying new place to lay our glass of gin and tonic.
The much-photographed gin bar - an ornately opulent shrine to alcohol that would please any boozing king or Bruce Wayne after a bad day - is, of course, the conversation piece.
And much of Atlas is about its veritable catalogue of champagnes, wines and spirits, and what you can make with them. You can just sink into one of the many plush sofas and read its meticulously crafted drinks menu which entertains you with a list of witticisms under each drink description. Like this one from Winston Churchill: "The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire."
Against the decor and the drinks, the food has an uphill battle to climb if it wants to dominate the conversation. While you would expect Atlas to support its cocktails with a selection of fancy bar bites, it actually offers a full-fledged menu by its executive chef Daniele Sperindo, who last worked at Tippling Club and boasts a resume of stints in Michelin-starred restaurants.
600, North Bridge Road
Tel: 6396 4466
Mon to Fri: 8am to 1am (2am on Fri) Sat: 3pm to 2am
Closed on Sundays
Here he has a few challenges, one of which is eating a proper meal in a lounge setting rather than an actual dining room. The service staff are more like hostesses used to serving drinks rather than clearing dinner plates and cutlery, so there's a little bit of a disconnect. It's also unclear what direction the food is going as it fluctuates between wanting to serve serious modern cuisine and little squares of toasted sandwiches.
Obviously it tries to bridge the gap between having a drink and deciding where to have dinner next. Here, you get to do both.
If you can resist the generous canister filled to the brim with cashews, try your luck with the platter of half-dozen raw oysters (S$32) flown in from Ireland which fluctuate from mildly tired to jet-lagged. Trying to mask the less-than-pristine freshness is a cover of champagne vinegar foam and a separate bowl of sweet grapes with a bit of fizz. They don't complement the oysters but are a nice snack on their own.
Mini croque monsieur (S$16) is a fancy name for bite-sized grilled ham-and-cheese toast cut into squares and made with "fancy Spanish cheese" that supposedly justifies each S$4 mouthful. Sweet-sour pickled onion gives a nice jab of contrast to the salty, rich sandwiches.
The plate of charred octopus, feta cheese and toasted pine nuts (S$18) is salty, sharp and uncooperative with the pine nuts that are tasked to soften the blunt flavours.
With a few misses out of the way, things start to improve.
The most inspiring snack of the evening would be the thin slices of crusty bread smeared with an unexpected combination of blue prawn tartare, sea urchin and a few pearls of caviar. While we're not absolutely sure about eating raw blue prawns, we love the smooth, supple texture and the clever match with uni, caviar and playful pearls of pomegranate. It seems like a snack a sushi chef might whip up at home when he runs out of peanut butter.
A risotto of "winter grains" and Jerusalem artichokes (S$24) is satisfying for a vegetarian option - creamy, al dente rice infused with artichoke flavour, adorned with crunchy artichoke chips.
Also decent is a simple sous vide chicken breast (S$30) shaped into a perfect roll and topped with crispy chicken skin that tastes almost like pork crackling. Peaches and crunchy hazelnuts are a happy twist.
Dessert is where the chef is in his element, turning out something as simple and elegant as perfectly warm, toasty madeleines with delicious crispy edges (S$18), served with homemade jam and unsweetened cream.
A playful mish-mash of shaved pear ice, sabayon, pistachio sponge and stretchy chocolate "leather" (S$18) is a circus in the mouth, with added fireworks from pop rocks. It's more fun than stylish and the chocolate too leathery but we're more than happy to lap up spoonfuls of fun.
The chef shows his inner Alinea (he says he spent some time at Grant Achatz's flagship restaurant) with a complicated composition of fudgy brownie, aerated chocolate and a slab of frozen chocolate mousse (S$18), artfully arranged with ice cream and edible flowers. It's pretty if slightly dated in concept, but points for effort and taste.
Without a proper dining room, and an all-day dining concept, it's going to be tough for Chef Sperindo to shape a food identity for Atlas. He has flashes of ingenuity and strong technical grounding, but he's still feeling his way around. Maybe instead of applying conventional restaurant rules in a place that defies them, he could take this opportunity to create new ones.
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.