70 Collyer Quay
Monday to Thursday: 5pm to midnight
Friday and Saturday: 5pm to 2am
(BUSINESS TIMES) - Location, location, location. On that point, Caffe Fernet has lucked out, with a vantage spot at Customs House that looks right out onto the Singapore River, where Marina Bay Sands looms large and shiny in the background. Dusk is particularly nice, especially when the twinkly fairy lights come into play.
With a view that sells itself to tourists, the CBD working crowd and general passers-by, why kill yourself trying to create a memorable dining experience? That seems to be the thinking of Jigger & Pony - the cocktail-centric group which made its name on edgy, niche F&B concepts but has now moved mainstream with the largely colourless Caffe Fernet.
When we visit, it is still happy hour, and there is a decent crowd sitting in the alfresco section on plasticky furniture. They are in good spirits anyway, and aren't too bothered that service is superficial and scarce. We have to wait for two staff to stop their conversation with each other before acknowledging our existence. One carries a plastic smile that she attaches to her face when absolutely necessary, and takes it off the moment she breaks eye contact.
Apart from the outdoor seating, the furniture inside is intensely uncomfortable, and clearly designed more for drinking than having a proper meal. Come to think of it, we've never been able to fathom the eternal optimism of restaurateurs who think that they can fit an entire meal on a table that can at best accommodate two dwarves on a very strict diet.
We want to sit at one of the three dining booths that seem the most decent, but some enlightened diners have already reserved them. Why the seat discrimination, we wonder, when we're paying the same price without the same comfort level.
In more conducive surroundings, we might enjoy the food a little more - but it hasn't got a chance, the way it has to compete with the loud music, cramped table space and non-existent ambience. Customers are there mainly to take advantage of happy hour and nibble, which keeps the cash registers going but is no help to our digestion.
The so-called Italian food with a light touch has potential, but needs a better platform and some re-working. One example is the raw tuna and spicy Italian nduja paste on crunchy sourdough toast ($17) which minces perfectly good sashimi and then obliterates it in the strong, dominant chilli paste. Both work well individually, but putting them together just cancels each other out.
On the other hand, crispy fried chickpeas with a lovely light, airy crunch is a perfect complement to the charred octopus ($26). The mollusc is just vaguely rubbery but still retains the appropriate resilience. It's unevenly drizzled with lemon juice, though, and sits on a pleasantly chunky bed of crushed potatoes. It's a small portion for the price, but generally well-executed.
While we initially find the spaghetti with Spanner crab meat ($29) underwhelming and one-dimensional, we grow to enjoy the al dente noodles dressed in a very simple lemon butter sauce. The astringent lemon starts it off on a sour note, but eventually we understand how it works to cut through the richness of the butter sauce. But for the price, we expect more than the grudging few bits of mild-tasting crab.
Apart from a dry, tough centre, the porchetta ($36) is the most confident dish of the lot. Spartanly presented with just the rolled and roasted pork belly, the layers of fat prevent the meat from drying out, resulting in a succulent treat. The crackling isn't very crisp, but it doesn't harden, so you just get a whisper of crunch that gives way to chewable skin. The sweet pickled mustard seeds that garnish the pork are crunchy and have the flavour of grain mustard without the sharpness.
Unfortunately, the desserts bomb. The bombolini ($13) deserves to be freshly fried, not served cold and oily, and oozing lemon curd in an almost off-putting way. The doughnut is so greasy that if you press hard enough, you might be able to extract enough oil for your next stir-fry.
The tiramisu ($15) is another oddity. It is served as a slice of cake with a chocolate cookie crust, layer of soaked sponge and mascarpone cream. It's a shadow of the real thing, plagued also by a weird Thai-like, perfumey flavour.
Caffe Fernet feels like Jigger & Pony has shed its indie, trend-setting status for a shot at commercial success, joining the ranks of generic waterfront restaurant-bars with few distinguishing features. Good for them, but as a dining experience, it leaves us pretty cold.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
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.