SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) If Aladdin ever wanted to do some re-decorating and called on Toulouse- Lautrec to "Dude, pimp my cave", the result might look very similar to 5th Quarter.
Hard-core minimalists, hold your breath as Loh Lik Peng's latest eatery in Hotel Vagabond replaces understatement with a life-sized bronze elephant and rhino frolicking in a red velvet jungle filled with golden trees and walls of French art.
And this being Singapore with its manpower crunch, the rhino will also check you in if you need a room - he doubles as the hotel's front desk. Literally.
Loh's co-venture with Vagabond's owner Satinder Garcha is a stone's throw from Sungei Road Laksa, in a neighbourhood that's probably not accustomed to having its own petting zoo or Andrew Nocente's Aussie-inspired menu of home-cured meats. The key selling point here is that he brines, ferments and smokes his own charcuterie, pickles and meats, but we like how he uses all ends of the animal and turns them into tasty morsels.
39 Syed Alwi Road
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6.30pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Mon and public holidays.
Already open for a few months, 5th Quarter seems to have ironed out most of its kinks with a different menu than what it started with. Flavours are confident and balanced, and chef Nocente has a strong grasp of texture and mouth feel. The beef tongue (S$12) is overly salty but the pile of meaty shavings is tender with just enough bite. Risk onion breath and eat the tongue with the charred pickled baby onions and radish slices which add crunch and distract you from the saltiness.
From the lunch menu (a small selection of "sharing" plates costing S$10 each - a great deal as two or three make a full meal for one person), a risotto of buckwheat cooked in a creamy seafood bisque has a chewy-tender bite that's just right. We would be happy to pay more for fresh peeled crabmeat instead of the packaged version here, although the dollop of uni butter gives it that jolt of umami richness that completes the dish.
We also can't get enough of the Japanese corn - almost sugary-sweet cobs slathered with spiced cream cheese that melts like savoury chilli butter over the hot kernels with chopped chives. Idiot-proof simple but deliciously so.
The less-is-more principle extends to the home-made pappardelle - fat sheets of al dente pasta that has a spring in every bite, so simply dressed in olive oil infused with rosemary, bits of crispy pork jowl bacon, or guanciale, and a sprinkle of toasted bread crumbs. The Aussie-Italian puts his heritage to good use here in this uncomplicated treat.
Speaking of animal odd bits, pork jowl is cooked sous vide and served wobbly and quivering in its own fat - pull-apart tender with basil and kohlrabi puree, the richness countered by pickled shaved kohlrabi. But we find more flavour in the steak-like slices of smoked and sous vide wagyu knuckle, with its fleeting aroma and tender, gelatinous texture. The creamy polenta it sits on hasn't got that baby food texture to it - a pleasant graininess makes you thankful for your ability to chew. And the cheesy wasabi butter on top nails it.
Duck is a tough meat to deal with but chef Nocente beats (or sous vides) it almost into submission with his version of duck, figs and hearts (S$28). The pieces of meat are thick and pink with a good bit of chew left but not the fibrous kind. The meat jus reduction looks tinged with beetroot for a burgundy hue while kale crisps bring up the healthy quotient, only to be brought down to earth by deep fried bites of duck tongue and tender cured hearts.
Dessert (both S$10 each from the lunch menu) is where he goes a little off key, with a deconstructed pumpkin pecan pie manifested as a spiced cookie dough layer topped with balls of frozen pumpkin mousse, pecans and a pulled sugar sheet. Give us a crisp sable cookie and pumpkin ice cream and all will be forgiven. Mild goat's cheese ice cream with wedges of blood orange jelly and cream offers a more likeable contrast.
Indian-Arabian-French opulence and laid back unpretentious fare are as awkward a personality match as having an elephant and rhino as colleagues (who gets the bigger share of tips?). Visual heart attack aside, it's good to know you have chef Nocente's cooking to bring you down to earth.
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.
This article was first published on January 4, 2016.
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