SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - You often talk about people looking for greener pastures but it couldn't get more literal for Florian Ridder. The former sous chef of the one-Michelin-starred Alma in Goodwood Park Hotel - where we have nothing against the food but everything against its happiness-sapping restaurant ambience - has found himself a patch of greenery to call his own and he can't hide his enthusiasm about it.
He virtually bounces from kitchen to table armed with his new creations - waxing lyrical about how this and that flower or herb comes from his two-month-old vegetable and herb garden. He describes harvesting his first eggplant and seeing midget strawberries sprouting from their vines like a gleeful farmer who's just delivered a calf after a most difficult labour. For the cow, that is.
He's found his happy place and invites you to join him. Even if you can't muster up the equivalent sentiment, you can probably manage a few positive-sounding noises.
While evening rush-hour traffic on the CTE can be a bit of a dampener, the big black-and-white bungalow that houses The Summerhouse and its out-of-town locale at the former Seletar Air Base puts you in a weekend-ish mood even if it's the middle of a work week. With the edible garden and chef Ridder's emphasis on using as much local seafood and produce as possible, his locavore-centric menu becomes a more plausible sell.
As much as possible, he makes everything from scratch, including his own butter - which he tried but failed to do with local cow's milk and settled for European milk instead. But the residual buttermilk he gets from the churning process becomes a delicious spread for his hot sourdough toast that he decorates with a butterfly pea flower that grows like wildfire in the garden.
The dining room is located upstairs, with the lower floor taken up by the casual Wildseed Cafe and Bar, also under his charge. It's airy and spacious, with a garden theme from the bougainvillea blooms tucked into the napkins to the floral chair upholstery. Well-meaning but quite untrained servers fumble about as best they can, in a way that is more tolerable outside of town than within it.
Where: 3 Park Lane, The Oval@Seletar Aerospace Park, tel: 8608-3340
Opening hours: For dinner only from Wednesdays to Sundays, 6 to 10pm (9pm on Sun)
There is a small a la carte menu, but most of the dishes are incoporated into the two "Collective Farming" tasting menus priced at S$90 and S$128. If you're so inclined you can study the accompanying chart about what produce is in season when and where - and cross-check it against what you're served so you can call chef Ridder out for serving something in the wrong month. But we are not so petty so we ignore the chart completely.
But we do agree with the freshness of the two prawns from a local kelong that he serves just cooked, showered with minced lemon peel and an intense Thai basil cream on the side. He calls the dish "kelong rojak" for its vague rojak flower fragrance, but if we did a DNA test we would conclude that this is more Thai than Singaporean.
The kelong rojak is served at the same time as the grilled sourdough toast and "taco" of beef tartare topped with two sweet crispy wafers. It's an odd combination but individually they're all tasty. The tiny mound of diced tri-tip beef has a slick of vinaigrette to offset the beefy flavour and nuggets of melting soft bone marrow.
While we bemoan the lack of real pasta and uni in its recognisable form in the "uni pasta", we get a wallop of sea urchin flavour whipped into an ice cream, placed on top of ikura while a slice of fresh scallop hugs the side of the bowl. We rather like the salty, cold, slippery sensation, even if the strands of fried vermicelli get in our way.
Many of the portions are tiny, so you're over and done with each before you can decide how much you like it. Except for the raspberry pickled beetroot, which is very big, very sour, and probably upset our pH levels for the rest of the week. We prefer the stuffing - a pleasing mix of ricotta, sesame and chewy barley.
A clear tomato broth drizzled with coriander oil is a nice flourish with the panzanella - the slinkiness of soft stewed eggplant and peppers disrupted by crunchy croutons. Next, it's hard to discern the buckwheat porridge under the pile of flower petals and parmesan crisps, but persevere until you get a mouthful of chewy grains, crunchy seeds and bacon bits that add up to a riot of textures.
A little square of pan-seared grouper is very fresh and fluffy - a mild-mannered foil to the mildly pungent belacan-infused reduction. An inspired touch. Orange blossom hollandaise and chunky carrot pesto round it off. In contrast, an over-seasoned strip of Mayura wagyu left too long in the Inka oven is hard on the outside although nice and rare within.
Chef Ridder puts a restraining order on sugar in his desserts which rely on the natural fruit for flavour. A guava yogurt sorbet is paired with sour raspberry puree and decorated with sweet meringue dots (thank goodness) that is refreshing and clean. A more unusual ending is the yeasty flavoured rye bread ice cream that's covered in milk foam with grilled plums, crispy rice puffs and honey (thank goodness) for sweetness.
Chef Ridder's cooking is easy to like even if it doesn't hit any highs. But you have to give it to him for his zeal in keeping the food as fresh, local or seasonal as possible. If he wanted to be ground-breaking he'd have to move back to town. But here, where it feels like an unintentional holiday, being true to your own convictions - and having your own garden to play in - is a high in itself.
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.