From The Straits Times Archives: Impressive fusion of French cuisine and Japanese finesse at Beni

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Aug 2, 2015.

When you marry the finesse of French cuisine with meticulous Japanese attention to quality and technique, the results can be very impressive.

If you need any convincing, you will find it at Beni, a 15-seat restaurant that opened in the Mandarin Gallery about three weeks ago.

The small seating capacity means that it requires some effort to dine there. Advance reservations are definitely a must for dinner, although you may still be able to walk in and get a couple of seats at lunch.

  • BENI

  • Mandarin Gallery 04-16B,333 Orchard Road, tel: 6235-2285

    Open: 11.30am to 3pm, 6.30 to 11pm, Monday to Saturday, closed on Sunday

    Food: ****

    Service: ****

    Ambience: ***½

    Price: From $128 for lunch and $298 for dinner

And the restaurant insists on getting your credit card details to confirm the booking, which poses a little difficulty in my case as I often use a false name to make reservations. Nonetheless, I managed to have a nice lunch there last week posing as someone else.

The dining area takes up almost the entire restaurant, which is shielded from the shopping gallery by a set of heavy black curtains. Diners encircle the centre space where the chefs work and mirrors are set at an angle overhead so that you can watch the dishes being plated wherever you are seated.

It is an interesting experience as you feel cocooned from the outside world in the dark, windowless room. The lighting is focused on the work area and the counter and it feels a little like watching a performance.

At the back is a small kitchen, separated from the plating area by an automatic door. But because the chefs frequently move in and out, the door ends up being open much of the time and the sight of the untidy kitchen does spoil the restaurant's aesthetics somewhat.

Another thing to note: In such an intimate setting, you have to speak in muted tones if you do not want the entire room listening in on your conversation. So if you're planning a business meeting, go elsewhere.
Lunch is a lot more affordable than dinner, with omakase experiences at $128 and $228 a person for five courses. Dinner is $298 a person for seven courses.

But you get more expensive ingredients in the evening, such as lobster and the exclusive ozaki wagyu. The beef comes from a small farm that is owned by Mr Muneharu Ozaki in Miyazaki Prefecture in Japan and is apparently the only beef in the country named after the farmer and not the area where the cattle is raised.

I get to taste it at an invited dinner prior to my lunch and find it rather different from many other types of wagyu. The meat is very tender and flavourful, but it does not feel too fatty in the mouth or rich in the stomach.

I also have an excellent pan-roasted tilefish, done "matsukasayaki" style with attached scales that are so crispy they are meant to be eaten.

But being an omakase menu, dishes can change daily depending on what is available from the fine food suppliers. For my lunch, the meat course is roast New Zealand lamb - not as prized as ozaki beef but still very satisfying as it turns out near perfect under the skilful hands of chef de cuisine Kenji Yamanaka.

The meat, still pink in the centre, is so tender that the knife slices through it without effort. The flavour is mild and pleasant, without any of the strong smell that often turns people against the meat.

And the fish is a red snapper from Japan, with the fillet nicely roasted and topped with diced confit vegetables.

Other courses include melt-in- the-mouth cubes of bluefin tuna with avocado puree and a dessert of chocolate fondant with raspberry ganache.

I add an extra course of seared Hokkaido scallop with celeriac puree and a slice of Australian black truffle ($22 supplement) and find myself stuffed at the end of the meal.

But I do not regret it. The scallop is sweet and plump and the truffle casts a lovely scent over the dish, making it just a little more decadent.

Beni means blessing in French. With such good food, it's easy to feel blessed. Although the bill may give you second thoughts about that.

Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke

Life paid for its meal at the eatery reviewed here.

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