Chef Ivan Brehm finds his true culinary voice at Nouri

Afro-Brazilian fritter, turmeric and coconut sauce, bread and salted prawn from Nouri restaurant.
Afro-Brazilian fritter, turmeric and coconut sauce, bread and salted prawn from Nouri restaurant.ST PHOTO: ROBIN THANG

Chef Brehm creates a kind of universality that says people are culturally different but fundamentally the same.

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Put down your avocado toast. Cease and desist with the foie gras, s'il vous plait. Por favor, no mas tapas. Wagyu omakase? Chotto matte kudasai. It's time to learn a new culinary language and its name is Nouri.

The author of this new lingo is Ivan Brehm, ex-Bacchanalia and now proudly - finally - at the helm of his new restaurant, developing an original vocabulary that he succinctly dubs "crossroads cooking".

But don't get too glassy-eyed at the little card on the table with beautiful fonts that merge into a mission statement about celebrating "people in all our differences and similarities". At its heart, it's an earnest and heartfelt invitation into Chef Brehm's headspace, where the boundaries that make Italian food different from Chinese, French from Brazilian, Korean from Spanish - disappear, leaving behind a kind of universality that says people are culturally different but fundamentally same same.

It's a message that's wrapped in a warm, welcoming and calm package, a sane respite from the cacophony of Amoy Street where Korean steamboat, Greek mezze and Singaporean wonton noodles trumpet their individuality. At Nouri - Latin for "nourish" - you get a totally different perspective with Chef Brehm in all his New Age hippiness telling you to come in, have some tea, and explore possibilities you may not have considered before.

The first thing he wants you to do is break bread with your fellow man - and it's some serious sourdough indeed, naturally leavened with a starter made of pineapple water and wild yeast. Spongy-textured, crunchy crust and a rich, complex tang, you break off bits to dunk into a dish of white custardy - pannacotta? Silken tofu? Well, that depends on whether you're from Europe or Asia, and that is Chef Brehm's point - that different cultures can share similar reference points. In this case, it is neither tofu nor sweet custard - it's a savoury "silken cheese" made from steamed infused milk that picks up flavour from olive oil, aged balsamico, pickled nutmeg and chives. Chase it down with a cup of intense vegetable broth - the only vestige of the Bacchanalia he left behind.

Memories, shared references, refined technique and an overall eloquence are the common traits of Nouri's dinner tasting menus that are priced at S$140 and S$170 each.

Snacks include a "blinidli" - a mischievous play on Russian blini and Indian idli, with the tiny pancake of fermented batter smeared with cultured coconut milk and holding up a mound of Chinese caviar. There's also a crunchy black rice cracker topped with a fragrant lavender and salty miso-uni cream with a sweet finish, while a piece of pickled cucumber is topped with a chickpea paste and an evil pickled peppercorn that shows no mercy.

Chicken and Fennel from Nouri restaurant. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

The menu is a slow build-up rather than a wham-bam performance, and keeps getting better as the evening wears on. Things move at a languid but not slow pace, and the calmness of the chefs in the open kitchen adds to the serene nature of the dining room.

Chewy, stretchy burrata cheese, gooseberries, cherry tomatoes and tomatillos hang out like best friends in a milky oat "broth" with their different characters of sweet and tart creating different flavours in each mouthful. Petai leaves add a garlicky flavour without any of the bean's pungence.

Tomato and Oat dish from Nouri restaurant. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

A luscious chunk of Alaskan king crab is covered in a soya foam that tastes quite beany on its own but harmonises immediately with the brininess of the crab and the crunchy dehydrated crab crumbs. Then an Afro-Brazilian fritter that looks just like a quenelle-shaped falafel is served in a two-tone turmeric and coconut sauce that recalls India and Thailand and yet claims Brazilian parentage. It's an edible version of an inter-racial family - a big mashup of bold yet loving flavours. Okra seed caviar is a clever touch.

Chef Brehm may have a dim sum chef as a second or third cousin, the way he turns out slinky, slippery cheong fun noodles filled with confit of chicken leg, garnished with celery, dill, pomegranate seeds and toasted Sakura ebi in a subtle yet super-tasty first parter of his Chicken And Fennel Two Ways main course. It's totally Chinese, yet not, which makes it maddening to rationalise but it's too tasty to think too much about it. The second part is sous vide chicken breast, covered in a dandelion purée that also feels totally second nature with the shower of herbs on top.

Chicken and Fennel Two Ways from Nouri restaurant. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

He probably has an Italian cousin with some Korean heritage too, the way he chops wagyu and home-made kimchi into a paste resembling the Italian Calabrian fermented sausage nduja, sandwiched in lavosh crisps and a smear of cashew romesco sauce. It's part one of the Wagyu Two Ways, the second part being sous vide rump cap that's memorable for the home made A1 sauce given a good umami kick with buah keluak. The sauces in all the dishes are top notch, including the black pepper sauce with a hint of vanilla that dresses the locally farmed grouper fillet.

Black Pepper Fish, a locally farmed grouper, black pepper and vanilla sauce, charred pickled carrot from Nouri restaurant. ST PHOTO: ROBIN THANG

His Chinese side emerges again in the White Sanctity Mushroom (which will be changed to Maitake mushrooms because we finished the last of the abalone-textured smooth sliced mushrooms) - paired with mushroom druxelles, the evil peppercorns from before and a killer mushroom broth. It's supposed to be a take on Szechuan hotpot but it's universally good.

There's too much to recount, including a dessert of banana and rum foam with buckwheat crumble and a composition of different ways with plums served with oolong tea, but it's very clear that Chef Brehm is the most original chef working in Singapore today. He brings to mind chefs such as Ben Shewry, Dan Hunter, Dan Barber and Eduard Xatruch of Disfrutar - who look at food as a means of communication, going beyond just product-sourcing or award-chasing. His food functions at two levels - there is enough technique and process in the cuisine to please any food geek, but you can also switch off and enjoy a really tasty meal. In Chef Brehm's previous restaurants, he was on the cusp of achieving this balance but at Nouri, all the stars have finally aligned.

With Nouri, he's developed a new vocabulary and found his true voice. He's a rare chef who actually has something to say. You should listen.

Rating: 8

72 Amoy Street
Tel: 6221-4148
Open for lunch: Mon to Fri (including public holidays): 11.30am to 3pm. Dinner and bar from Mon to Sat: 6pm to 12am