SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Expectations. Cannot live up to them, cannot live without them, either. After a sparkling debut at Thirteen Duxton Hill that ended as quickly as it began, the dynamic Aussie chef-sommelier couple behind it have since been "re-accommodated" in Chinatown at the former Restaurant Ember premises of Hotel 1929.
Where once they were under-the-radar, insouciant and cooking with no preconceptions, the newly christened Bistro November opens under greater public scrutiny as part of Loh Lik Peng's stable and hence, the pressure to be cool and noteworthy.
If it looks makeshift - as if they forgot to buy chairs and borrowed them from a nearby kopitiam - that's because the restaurant is transient. Like its name, it will stick around only till November, when the lease runs out and returns to the new owners of the hotel. What happens after that even they don't know, but until then, John-Paul Fiechtner is on a roll - a chef with a wild imagination and foraging instincts let loose in the bowels of Chinatown's market.
What he is going to cook, nobody knows, which mildly frustrates his partner Sally Humble, who says she has been writing new menus by hand every day. The menu is dictated by whatever is fresh or catches his eye in the market and it could either be the freshest squid, right down to frog livers usually discarded by the stallholders. He does not discriminate between the choicest cuts or the cut-offs. Everything has an equal chance of being turned into a parfait, sauce or main course.
The real challenge though, is trying to like his creations as much as he does. At Thirteen, the food was free-wheeling and effortlessly fun and tasty, with clear flavours you could get into even as you admired the original thinking behind each dish. At November, the original thinking is still there, but it is less about sharing something good to eat and more about the process, pushing an idea just to see how far it can go. We feel like polite outsiders, trying to smile as everybody else gets the joke except us.
The first on our $78 chef's selection menu is "brownie and ice cream" - a trick of the eye that is described as "red rice and sugar cane bun, margarine and celeriac". The brownie is a slightly sweet and earthy steamed sponge that is first covered with pickled fish and then a blanket of snowy celeriac mousse.
On the side is a wobbly disc of opaque jelly trying to hide under a cover of indeterminate black powder. It veers between tasting like tofu and unflavoured aspic but is made of rendered chicken fat and described as "margarine". We try to convince ourselves that it is interesting and delicious but our taste buds do not like being lied to, and refuse to corroborate.
"Parfait, egg yolk and longan" does not want you to judge it by its description so it conveniently leaves out the fact that you get shredded frog leg meat moulded over a bone and covered in a crunchy purple crust so it looks like a sweet potato on a stick. There is a rich, runny confit of egg yolk and little blobs of sweet-sour curd made from longan and fishbone vinegar. Powdered laksa leaf blanketing the plate hides an addictive, savoury frog liver mousse that is black and ominous but rich and full of umami. The frog leg sticks are packed with meat and, yes, tastes like chicken. But pulled all together and you have a successful balancing act.
The aged flounder with chye sim and shiitake broth makes you wish he could have scouted for some fresh fish instead of this tired specimen in an otherwise conventional broth featuring really fresh vegetables. That said, his knack for finding greens at their peak of freshness is quite uncanny as we've never come across such plump and sweet long beans that he serves with stringy fresh mozzarella cheese and sour cucumber rounds.
His penchant for tangy yogurt, acidity and creamy mousses made from root vegetables is a recurring theme, as in the main course of sous vide chicken breast coated in puffed quinoa and drizzled with fresh homemade yogurt and chopped fresh celtuce. On the side are warm roasted cubes of beetroot - comforting with the mound of mild burdock "custard" and chewy puffed rice.
When we happen to mention that so many things taste "green", the chef gets wind and pops up at our table with our favourite dish of the night - burnt barley porridge that's got a depth of flavour with chopped raw squid and swimming in intense prawn head butter. Cholesterol, take us now.
Chef Fiechtner's arty touch extends even to kitchen equipment such as the special mould he created to make anatomically correct baby corn, complete with wispy threads and presented on a husk. Dig your spoon into it and you come up with a mouthful of custard that is a little on the pasty side. To complete your offbeat dessert course, you get licorice ice cream, with the acquired taste dialled down, decorated with cubes of sweet-sour pickled peach.
We miss the old favourites like the baby corn tossed in prawn butter, raw squid with burnt eggplant puree and chilli-stuffed market fish from Duxton, but those are unfortunately part of the chef's past which he does not care to repeat at November. It's all about new ideas, experimental flavours, a veritable freight train of progressive thinking. But we wish he would slow the train long enough so that we, as diners, can get on it too.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
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