(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - KINOU is a small plates restaurant. That puts it with all the other small plates restaurants which don't want to pay for the extra ink required to print the words "starters", "mains" and "desserts" on their menus.
What you get is a laundry list of palm-sized dishes, supposedly meant for sharing in a one-teaspoon-per-person kind of ratio; or to see which hero among you will gallantly give up his share of the single scallop on a plate. But the general idea is for you to order a stream of dishes which are too small to fill you up, and in the process order a lot of alcoholic cocktails to wash them down with.
It's a formula that is working wonders at Kinou - which has seemingly come out of left field with no prior buzz but is packing them in like condo buyers in a beat-the-cooling-measures frenzy. On the evening we are there, it's like we're at a party no one invited us to. It's filled with the happy hour kind of crowd - those who just got off work at their nearby co-working space or shophouse office; in fact, it's only when one of the staff asks us for our last order that we realise that it IS happy hour.
But the buzz continues into the dinner hours as we pick from a menu sprinkled with ceviches, tartares and "starters" for those who want something small to start before they go on to other small things. But Kinou does bend the small plates rules with larger platters like the Vegan Nightmare - a S$99 flesh fest of wagyu ribeye, signature burger, duck breast and sausages that three to four people can share.
It also takes the mickey out of conventional restaurant menus, filling it with bad puns (Taste of Brine, A Leggy Encounter and Prawning Spot) or outrageously mangled food descriptions that sound like a non-English speaker feeding foreign words through Google Translate. So you get things like "Fresh prawns dressed flamboyantly in a grapefruit and lime concoction, served with flames" or "Tastes like a duck that got kidnapped from a forest".
It's all part of the manufactured carnival atmosphere which is a pretty clever move by chef-owner Benjamin Tilatti, a newcomer to Singapore who named Kinou after his nickname for his mother and lends an original spin to the tired small plates trope. He's French but has travelled around the world, especially Asia, so much that his cuisine is a reflection of where he's been rather than where he's from.
Ceviches get prominent billing on the menu, and while the mention of it usually gets our tastebuds puckering in involuntary fear, Kinou Lost in Peru (S$22) is a gentle mix of sliced raw white fish and tomatoes subtly cured in lime juice with sliced onions, avocado and creamy guacamole. There will be accusations of it being underseasoned and an unworthy representation of Peru where Tiger's Milk goes with everything, but we're quite happy to eat this without distorting our faces in pain.
We point it out to the chef when he comes round to chat with diners, and he says that he's learned to adapt to Asian palates who prefer less acidity and a little more sweetness, and flavours that aren't overpowering.
So in general, the food works along those lines - pretty fresh ingredients, some clever mix and matching, and generally understated flavours. The Prawning Spot (S$14) is a take on Spanish gambas in garlic and chilli oil but a gentler version since it's not so much sizzling on a hot plate but just poached lightly in oil.
We have A Leggy Encounter (S$15) with a pretty skinny octopus leg thats too thin and not resilient enough to make this encounter a memorable one, even with the chunky tomato and onion puree underneath, drizzled with melted butter and breadcrumbs.
We're more attracted to the macho Signature Beef Tartare (S$20) with its chunky texture and pleasantly cheesy nuances, and the Chompchae Deopbbap (S$22) - a tenuous but tasty riff on Korean bibimbap which has spicy chopped up tuna, quinoa, corn nuts and pickled egg yolk. The only resemblance to bibimbap is that you mix everything up. Otherwise it's just a good-to-eat grain bowl.
Since we're sharing food by the teaspoon, you're on to the next dish before you're bored with the previous, so it keeps us going till we finally get some hot food in the form of the inhouse burger (S$24) - a smallish patty of beef that's got bounce and juice in it so the quality control is very much in place. It's sandwiched between brioche toast either deliberately or because someone forgot to deliver the real buns. It doesn't make it any easier to eat but again, the lightness of the seasoning makes a difference.
There is no dessert menu, so you get served Some Sort of Chocolate Dessert (S$15) which has chocolate, ice cream, caramel, nuts and some savoury notes that pull together into something sticky, sweet, chewy, nutty and quite enjoyable. Or you can go with the creme brulee (S$13) which is some kind of crunchy sugar topped custard in a flavour we forget but remember it as pleasant.
Kinou is not a spot for fine dining as it is for fun dining, where you can swig a cocktail or two, practise your punning skills and not take the food or yourself, too seriously.
81 Tras Street
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sat: 11am to 2pm; 6pm to 10.30pm.
Brunch on Sat: 12pm to 4pm
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times 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.