SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) If you're an unmotivated carrot, the last person you want pulling you out of your earth-filled comfort zone is Ivan Brehm.
You may be content to be grated over a salad but not he. The veritable life coach to vegetables believes that you have as much right to star on a plate as the next 48-day, dry-aged wagyu ribeye. To maximise your potential he will put you through carrot boot camp: sous-vide, dehydration, rehydration, fermentation. Even when you're ready to scream: "For crying out loud, eat me already!", Chef Brehm will say: "No, I can still make jam out of you".
But there you have it: the star - in our opinion - of Bacchanalia's menu at its new space in upcoming hotspot Hong Kong Street. Different textures play in your mouth as you bite down on chewy-crunchy slow-cooked carrots, feather-light carrot sponge, intensely addictive chunky spiced carrot jam, carrot cream, custard and goodness knows what else as this deconstructed carrot cake is rounded off with creme fraiche and dukkah for a whiff of a Lebanese accent.
Finally, the cooking of the Fat Duck alumnus can be the centre of attraction instead of fighting with the loud, boudoir-inspired interiors of the old Bacchanalia at the Freemasons building in Coleman Street. While Chef Brehm's sophisticated but understated cooking held its own, it was more in spite of rather than because of the space he had to work in.
39 Hong Kong Street
Tel: 6509 1453
Open for dinner Mon to Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm; lunch on Wed to Fri: 12pm to 3pm
In 39 Hong Kong Street, there's nothing to distract you from the food. The kitchen's right there - the centrepiece around which the dining action revolves. From this compact stainless steel space, Chef Brehm and sidekick Mark Ebbels send out inspired creations that make the new Bacchanalia a world apart from the old one.
Packing equal parts science and sensitivity, the pair's raison d'etre is to optimise the flavours of an ingredient, applying R&D know-how to get it to release its natural pectins and stabilisers - fancy speak for we have no idea how it's done - to create the textures and flavours they want without any artificial additives.
The servers are well-trained enough to give you a running narrative of how each dish is put together - listen and learn or tune out and just eat. Distillation, for example, is used to make the potent vegetable broth that's served in a shot glass with the home-baked crusty loaf that you break and scoop up a pond of cheesy polenta surrounded by a swirl of basil oil (S$10 at lunch but complimentary at dinner time). If you're the kind to judge a restaurant by its bread basket, you've come to the right place.
Lunch is a S$38 (two courses) or S$48 (three courses) good value treat which starts off with caramelised onion soup which again gets clarity and intensity from a distillation process. It's so good that the cheesy crispy nuggets and croutons are almost distractions. Wok hei gives a mixture of sauteed mushrooms the edge, along with the different textures from the cordycep and cauliflower mushrooms. A corn veloute adds sweetness and velvety feel. Giant scallops (S$7 supplement) are a carry-over from the old restaurant, but this time it shares shell space with a creamy emulsion made from its coral and natural juices, aided by melt-in-the-mouth borlotti beans and a dusting of cocoa to counter the richness.
We're especially sold on the comforting but meticulously executed smooth poached chicken covered in a blanket of cheese that's made to look like a melted slice of processed cheddar. Mountain yam puree is a welcome change from potato mash.
The scattering of salted egg yolk petals over seared striploin steak (S$12 supplement) intensifies the already umami-rich black mushroom puree that beats meat jus flat, boosting Chef Brehm's role as flavour match-maker.
Playing with this flavour pyramid intensifies at dinner (S$115 for five courses/S$150 for seven), where fresh barramundi is aged for 10 days in a blueberry broth which gives it a resilient bite and a pale bluish hue. Lightly pickled shaved kohlrabi and wasabi add a bit of kick but its subtlety is lost on us. We prefer the understated Thai nuances of the coconut cream risotto where fermented coconut bits, chilli paste and shredded herbs play off the richness of the rice.
Where chefs tend to run out of steam by the main course, Chef Brehm keeps up the interest level with fork tender pork loin paired with bitter dandelion puree and sweet aged balsamico and tarhana - a kind of Middle Eastern yoghurt and chickpea cracker. Chef Brehm plays havoc with our taste receptors as they try to make sense of the different stimuli but they all fall into place at the end - most of the time anyway.
The vanilla ice cream that comes with the cloyingly sweet caramelised pineapple tartin has an odd medicinal aftertaste, while the blackcurrant sorbet is too strong and sour a match for the mellow mousse-based tiramisu and pop rock surprise within. The lunchtime bitter grapefruit chocolate tart with assam tea ice cream, though, is a winner.
In the restaurant world, there are chefs who chase concepts and chefs who let their hearts dictate the direction of their cuisine. Chefs Brehm and Ebbels belong to the latter, quietly raising the bar of cooking without making a public song and dance about it. Chefs and other carrots, take note.
What our ratings mean
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on September 28, 2015.
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