Restaurant Review

Ember's new menu shines

New head chef Alex Phan works local ingredients into French cooking and the flavours work

Restaurant Ember has changed chefs again, less than two years after Sufian Zain took over the kitchen from founding chef Sebastian Ng.

This time, the head honcho is Alex Phan, who was with the now-defunct Sorrel - also owned by restaurateur Loh Lik Peng - and Open Door Policy before that.

With the change, the menu at Ember has changed direction, moving from contemporary French to one that consciously incorporates local ingredients into French cooking.

That is not easy because - much as one would like to support local farmers and reduce carbon footprints - local is not always good or may not lend itself to happy couplings with Western food. So it is very much to Phan's credit that most of the new dishes at Ember boast harmonious, well-balanced flavours.

For dinner, there are two sets aside from the a la carte offerings. Three courses cost $68 a person, while four courses are $78, with a few choices for each course. The dishes are taken from the a la carte menu, but the servings are slightly smaller.



    50 Keong Saik Road, tel: 6347-1928, open: 11.30am to 2pm (Monday to Friday), 6 to 10pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

    Food: 4 stars

    Service: 3.5 stars

    Ambience: 3 stars

    Price: Budget from about $70 a person, without drinks

My dining companion and I decide on the four-course set so we can taste more dishes while paying slightly less. The servings are enough to fill you up, but not leave you feeling stuffed. If you have a big appetite, it may be wiser to go a la carte instead.

My first course of Baby Carrots ($14 for a la carte) sounds and looks simple, a little heap of tender baby carrots cooked in carotene butter and topped with crushed local peanuts and fresh chervil. But it makes an impact in the mouth, with the sweetness of the carrots blending well with the nuts and herb. I like how the crunch of the peanuts contrasts with the soft carrots too.

Even the temperature at which the dish is served is just right - warm, not hot - to best bring out the flavour of the ingredients.

Angelhair ($18) is another simple but impressive starter. The pasta is tossed with diced jicama, shimeji mushroom and bits of bonito, resulting in a medley of textures in every bite. Pine nuts are scattered on top to provide flavour.

Phan seems to have a fondness for nuts as they appear in a number of his dishes. These include Foie Gras ($24), where the crushed peanuts work so well with the liver, which is seasoned with five spice. The wedges of rose apple or jambu air, a local fruit, accompanying the dish are bland, however, but do their job of balancing the fat in the foie gras.

I am usually not a fan of seabass, but I like the locally farmed variety because the meat is firmer and tastes sweeter. Phan cooks it perfectly in his dish of Ah Hua Kelong Seabass ($32), with the fish pan-seared to a golden hue and the skin well-crisped.

The tomato butter it is served with lacks character and the wild fungus (what the Chinese call cloud ears), though nicely crisp, is without much flavour. But these are weaknesses I can overlook because the fish is the star and the accompaniments do not detract from it.

The main course of Market Pork Belly ($34) comes with a nasty parsley sauce that tastes too green. So I leave that on the plate and devour the pieces of delicious kong bak (pork belly slow-cooked in dark soya sauce) with the balsamic glaze instead. The other components of the dish work well, though - crushed cashew nuts (yes, more nuts), deep-fried enoki mushroom and a piece of crackling.

The Local Duck Leg ($36) is the weakest dish in the meal, mainly because local ducks are too lean and confit needs fat to get its melt-in-the-mouth texture. Here, the meat lacks flavour and comes across as a tad dry, faults that the accompanying stew of puy lentils, wild mushrooms and caramelised onions cannot hide.

The two desserts we pick are good.

Tiger Beer ($14) is the more innovative one, with a scoop of sorbet made with the famous local beer and topped with what the menu calls "lap cheong" and pineapple. The lap cheong tastes more like bacon than Chinese sausage, but that does not matter because the sorbet is the highlight, boasting the unmistakable flavours of malt and hops without the bitterness.

Kaffir Lime ($12) plays with a safer combination of tropical flavours such as coconut and lemongrass and, despite their familiarity, it still works. The dessert is bursting with flavours and every spoonful carries a sense of satisfaction.

Phan is certainly someone to watch among the up-and-coming chefs here. His ideas reflect an understanding of matching flavours, albeit with occasional lapses.

He aims to eventually use only locally sourced produce in his cooking. And although I do not think that is achievable, given Singapore's lack of produce, I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke

•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Ember's new menu shines'. Print Edition | Subscribe