SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) When you're so used to the way celebrity chefs are feted in Singapore, we almost do a double take when we turn up at La Ventana just in time to see the one Michelin-starred Carles Gaig switching on the restaurant's lights and opening the door to let you in.
He has no minders, and if not for the huge poster with his face on it at the Dempsey restaurant's entrance, he could well be any kindly gent welcoming you into his cosy family eatery. In fact, he may have been setting the tables himself just minutes before.
It's a nice change from the usual glitz that surrounds the opening of a Michelin-linked eatery in town, and it fits in with the homey set-up of this tapas-centric Spanish restaurant that's inspired by chef Gaig's own Catalan roots.
As it is with most consultant chefs, he's just here for the opening, but he's installed his daughter Nuria Gibert as the restaurant manager, while son-in-law Eduard Casterllarnau mans the kitchen. Our Spanish - we think - server completes the romantic image of a folksy garden restaurant serving up recipes handed down by the chef's great-grandmother.
#01-01 Dempsey Cluster (Tanglin Village), 16A Dempsey Road
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm.
Closed on Mon
If you take a few liberties with the truth - the real owner of the restaurant also runs a Korean barbecue - you can almost imagine that you're in a residential neighbourhood in Barcelona enjoying some old fashioned staples such as croquetas and paella.
La Ventana apparently takes its cue from chef Gaig's family restaurant which dates back to 1869 - at least before he turned it into its current guise as Restaurant Gaig in the trendy hotel Cram, where he does a mix of traditional and avant garde.
But the Singapore outpost focuses purely on the former, winning us over with a Boqueria-worthy rendition of pan con tomate or "crystal" bread spread with crushed tomato and topped with a generous shower of Joselito jamon iberico bellota (S$26). Considering how much they charge for a few slivers of this premium brand of ham made from acorn-fed black pigs, this is pretty good value - the bread is crisp and light, slightly oiled with fresh tomatoes (not the awful paste some versions try to get away with) and the ham a reminder of past visits to Barcelona.
Croquetas (S$16.50) - or fried fritters filled with creamy chicken bechamel - are also Boqueria-quality in the sense that they're unrefined, stodgier and not as crisp as we would like. In other words, it isn't easy to find really good croquetas in Barcelona either.
The Canelon 1869 (S$12) is an Italian-style canneloni apparently created by Gaig's great-grandmother. In 1869, it was a treat to stuff a pasta tube with crumbly minced meat and a bit of foie gras and bathe it in a wave of cream sauce and minced black truffle. In 2015 you need a doctor's permission to enjoy this overly rich creation that would also send a paleo advocate into carb and dairy coma.
Do note that authenticity according to the Spanish palate can also mean adding enough salt to cure your intestines. We think the chef has dialled down the sodium a lot, but there's enough of it in the slow-cooked octopus (S$38) to make it our least favourite, along with its mushy texture and latent fishiness. The sous vide potatoes and rich bisque-like gravy help to distract somewhat.
The carabinero paella (S$39) hits a home run with its swollen grains of rice just barely al dente, infused with a rich seafood stock thickened with the briny sweetness of squid ink topped with a single Spanish prawn that is not at its peak but close enough. Crispy suckling pig (S$38) arrives as three squares of meat that can barely hold itself together as they collapse in a cover of thick fat and wafer thin crisp skin. The ensuing richness is contained by a clever strawberry salad tossed in balsamico.
Desserts are not so inspiring with a Catalan creme brulee (S$18) which is just pure cream with a token brush of sugar coating on top and a layer of golden syrup at the bottom. It's a lot to pay for cloud of foam though. Spanish french toast Torrija (S$18) also leaves little impression with its thick overly dense brioche soaked in a cloying syrup.
The Michelin star isn't quite evident in La Ventana's cooking right now, but it appeals with its general level of authenticity. Authenticity and the local palate may not see eye to eye for now, so whether it settles into a comfortable equilibrium will dictate its staying power. Another question is just how long the current team will remain in Singapore. We hope long enough to give Gaig a reason to come back and set the tables again.
What our ratings mean
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on July 13, 2015.
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