This story was first published in The Sunday Times on April 28, 2013.
The Masonic Club in Coleman Street has long been a source of mystery to me, both because of the unusual symbols adorning the building’s exterior and the hush-hush nature of the club members, known as Freemasons.
Last week, I finally found a reason to breach its walls – to check out new restaurant Bacchanalia, which opened there about three weeks ago. And the experience was full of surprises.
Walking into the black foyer of the building, I saw no sign indicating there was a restaurant anywhere. In the centre was a small reception desk, with a stern looking woman standing behind it.
“How can I get to Bacchanalia?” I asked. She beckoned to an unmarked door beside her.
Walking through, I entered a different world.
23A Coleman Street, tel: 6509-1453
Open: 6pm to 1am (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 11am to 5pm (Sundays). Closed on Mondays
Price: Budget about $100 a person, without drinks
The dining room felt like a dungeon, as the windows were covered behind heavy curtains and the arched doorways reminded one of mediaeval architecture. But it was a sexy dungeon, dimly lit by a cluster of hanging globe lamps and throbbing with club music. The furniture was a mix of comfortable sofas and ruby-red armchairs that invite you to sink into them.
The menu was not what one would expect either.
Crafted by head chef Ivan Brehm, sous chef Mark Ebbels and pastry chef Konstantinos Papathanasiou, who all came from the research laboratory of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant in Britain, it did not classify dishes into starters and main courses.
Instead, they were listed as vegetable, seafood and meat, with everything meant to be shared. The servings were in starter portions – bigger than tapas but smaller than main courses.
And although the dishes might sound common, they did not always turn out the way you expected them to.
An example was the duck confit ($28). Instead of a duck leg that was slow-cooked in fat, this had tender pieces of duck meat wrapped in spinach leaves together with a dash of hoisin sauce and strips of cucumber. On the side was a cup of dashi stock flavoured with corn and cucumber.
In the mouth, the parcel tasted like a healthy version of Peking duck. A sip of the stock, however, cleaned out the strong duck and sauce flavours.
You were then ready to enjoy another dish, such as the HD scallops ($36). This was more conventional but definitely worth ordering for the plump Norwegian hand-dived scallops that were nicely cooked. Sweet and tender, they sat on a bed of borlotti beans, soft and delicious in a comforting tarragon butter sauce. There was also a bit of cocoa to bring out the flavours but it was very subtle. And tiny pearls of tobiko added bursts of delight.
There were also dishes such as steak and eggs ($38) that were a combination of the familiar and the new. The rib-eye cap steak was pretty straightforward but the eggs were not. The egg white was made with Japanese yam puree while the yolk was an egg confit.
The meat, while tender, was rather lacking in flavour. Still, the dish came with some really good fries that, though thin, were soft under a crisp coat.
For meat that was really tender and juicy, the 15-hr pork belly ($30) was the thing to order. Slow-cooked for 15 hours, the aromatic fat easily melted in the mouth, perfuming and moistening the meat along the way. And I loved the crispy crackling.
The vegetables that came with it were lovely too, with the red cabbage braised just enough to leave it with plenty of crunch, while giant fresh capers and strips of Granny Smith apples provided the acidity needed to cut the fat in the pork.
If you are lucky enough not to have to worry about clogged arteries, finish off with the foie gras satay ($30). The piece of sous vide liver was placed on a lemongrass and tamarind jelly, and drenched with peanut satay sauce. Grated chestnuts sprinkled like snow on top added more complex flavours.
The combination does taste unusual but it works, the fatty liver blending easily with the spicy sauce. The crunch of the crushed peanuts also provides contrasting texture to the soft liver.
There were also dishes that did not move me. The eggplant ($16) just didn’t hit the spot, and I found the acidity from the tamarind a distraction.
Among the desserts, my favourite was the pineapple tatin ($18). The heavily caramelised fruit was hidden under thin sheets of filo pastry. On the side was a scoop of cardamom and vanilla ice cream and a crumble of pistachio and white chocolate.
The different components contributed to a different sensation with every bite, flavours and textures working and contrasting with one another to keep your palate busy. And very pleased.
Life paid for its meal at the eatery reviewed here.