SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Ever stepped into a new restaurant and felt a wave of deja vu?
Never mind the transience of life, the existence of a restaurant in Singapore is about as unpredictable as an MRT train schedule.
The last time we stepped into 97 Amoy Street, it was a restaurant called Zott's, serving alpine food. We rather liked it, but in all reality, there was no way Kaiserschmarrn was going to make it into the dining lexicon of Singapore diners. So it's gone, back to the Swiss mountains it came from.
Australian food? Now, that's something we can't seem to get enough of, especially when wrapped in a smart, urbane package as Blackwattle, the new resident of No 97.
Moody, black, sleek interiors? Check.
Loh Lik Peng as partner? Check.
Location in trendy Telok Ayer neighbourhood? You've got it.
Add to that chef Clayton Wells' pedigree as one of the hottest talents in Sydney right now with his acclaimed Automata, and you've got a textbook definition of what a cool restaurant is supposed to be.
WHERE: 97 Amoy Street
OPEN: Lunch (noon to 3pm) and dinner (6pm to 11pm) Mondays to Fridays. Dinner only on Saturdays.
Three years ago, this would have been a really big deal. But with so many stars - Michelin and otherwise - swinging through the industry's revolving doors, it's getting harder for such restaurants to get a word in. Still, Blackwattle makes enough of an impression with Chef Wells' confident, restrained use of flavours and ingredients that is clever without being showy.
Looking at photos of Automata, many of the dishes at Blackwattle are streamlined versions, taking into account what's easily available here. So we don't get to enjoy the kind of variety that you would in Sydney where produce is just a few hours' drive away.
He certainly knows how to get you into the right mood with an array of snacks, namely a crunchy cheese and tapioca cracker - a cross between a Parmesan tuile and puffed rice cracker topped with a savoury, espellete pepper-infused cream.
It's surpassed by the clean bite of stormshell clam, its juices replaced by dashi broth with a bare hint of rosemary and a topping of cream that swirls into the precious spoonful of broth for an almost oyster-like richness.
The snacks are part of a $115 dinner set menu that's a pick of both ala carte and special dishes. While there's plenty of food, we're encouraged by the head server to sample the grilled duck hearts (S$12) - little nuggets of offal speared on a skewer and lightly grilled, with a crisp-tender, yielding bite. They're tasty enough on their own, but a caramel-ly burnt onion puree on the side is there to dip into.
A refreshing plate of cape gooseberries is next - little pops of tangy-sweet fruit in ginger flower broth that's more like a herbal infusion, decorated with drops of kelp oil that blends with the broth for a pleasantly oily mouth feel.
Chef Wells' deft hand with flavour mixes is best seen in his rendition of octopus with XO red wine vinaigrette. Chunks of octopus are fresh and bouncy rather than tender, swathed in a thick, unctuous sauce - an unexpected liaison of squid ink, XO sauce and red vinegar. Briny, spicy, oily - it's a potent mix that goes well with the dense, pull apart home-made buns that come with whipped anchovy butter for good measure.
The winning streak continues with the king crab and braised pumpkin seeds in pepper broth (S$32) - a delicate yet full-bodied shellfish broth that you scoop up with strands of crabmeat and softened pumpkin seeds before attacking the chunk of crab leg on top. The seeds are a bit of a distraction that keeps you from gulping down the soup and crab in an instant - all that chewing gives you time to contemplate the intricacies of the broth and check WhatsApp messages at the same time. They are stingy with the broth but are happy to top up if you ask. Egg yolk 'jam' with a drop of sherry vinegar complete the flavours.
But all winning streaks come to an end, and our enjoyment starts to flag with the steamed green bone - a translucent fish fillet that's tender but with an unappealing texture and not-so-fresh flavour that's at odds with our Asian sensibilities. Charred lettuce and a green sauce of fresh basil, mint, capers, anchovies and lemon juice help to distract, but not by much.
In turn, wagyu tri-tip that's most likely been cooked sous-vide before being seared and coated in a salty tamari glaze is alright but doesn't quite excite, even when you add in the exotica of black fungus and carrot-kelp purée.
A dessert of pumpkin seed sorbet is like ice cream for cynical people - it's got a bitter, vegetal edge that is hard to embrace. Charred meringue, freeze-dried raspberries and honeycomb bits try to lift the mood, without success.
Blackwattle has only been open for about a week, so it's still finding its feet. It also seems to be playing it safe for a start, so it may be a while before chef Wells and his Singapore head chef Joeri Timmermans find the sweet spot between Asian palates and Aussie innovation.
Meanwhile, it's safe to say it's caught our attention. Let's hope it stays that way longer than its alpine predecessor.
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.