Ma Cuisine puts drinks before the food

Ma Cuisine's tete de veau (S$28) - rich, fatty, gelatinous head cheese made from calf's head that is sliced and seared for a crisp exterior to cut the fattiness.
Ma Cuisine's tete de veau (S$28) - rich, fatty, gelatinous head cheese made from calf's head that is sliced and seared for a crisp exterior to cut the fattiness.PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES
The interior of Ma Cuisine restaurant.
The interior of Ma Cuisine restaurant.PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - If you have kids, you probably know the feeling: You step into a nice restaurant with your brood and the maitre d's demeanour changes. It is the look that says the restaurant does not explicitly ban children, but is clearly uncomfortable about serving them. And you in turn feel uncomfortable because negativity is contagious.

Funnily enough, we feel the exact same way on a recent visit to Ma Cuisine - not because we are underaged, but because we under-drink.

Maybe we should have guessed from the people hanging around the bar counter and the colossal leather-bound wine list that is dumped on your table instead of a menu that you are expected to drink more than eat. As the friendly French manager - whose perfectly coiffed handlebar moustache so fascinates us, we barely hear what he is saying - explains, this is a gastro-bar. As in, the idea is to pick from its many, many pages of different kinds of wine and the chef designs your food around it.

"But what if I don't drink?", you ask hesitantly.

At which point he stops short, as if trying to process the thought that such a mutant actually exists, why one is sitting in front of him and how to be polite about it. The tips of his moustache quiver slightly.

"Okay, we drink a little," you finally lie. Which makes him super happy because then he can show off all the wines the restaurant has (and it is quite an impressive, if expensive, list) and even offers you a glass of whatever wine you want even though it is listed at per bottle prices in the menu.

Just bear in mind that you need a stretchable wallet if you go that way or be thick-skinned and ask for the per-glass price if you are not in the mood to splurge $70 on a glass, despite its very good vintage.

On the plus side, the restaurant does not seem to mind even if you settle for an $18 glass of house red which goes very well with the traditional Burgundian cuisine prepared by chef-owner Mathieu Escoffier - who is unrelated to the culinary icon but used to cook in the kitchen of Saint Pierre - who is now leaner, sleeker and with an immaculately coiffed beard to match his manager's moustache.

On the minus side, it is only after much to-ing and fro-ing where we seriously think we will not get any food unless we meet its wine quota, that a menu finally appears - a two-sided sheet of paper with proper starters and mains as well as plates to share. Almost half the recipes come from his family, which runs the original Ma Cuisine in Burgundy and is also known for its wine list.

There is definite attention to detail here, even if it does not pull it off completely.

First is some impressive bread - giant slices cut from a massive 2kg loaf customised for the restaurant by the Maison Kayser bakery here - airy, chewy and addictive.

The bread is good with the Burgundian snails ($20) - otherwise tasteless chewy morsels that depend on the searingly hot garlic and butter parsley sauce that smothers them for flavour. An odd hint of paint-like smell and taste in the dish that we cannot place is somewhat distracting.

A housemade jellied ham and parsley terrine ($27) is chunky, rustic and pleasant but does not really strike a chord. Neither do the seared scallops ($27) which are almost cold by the time they land on our table. They have a nice yielding texture and buttery pine nut crumble topping, but the root vegetable puree and sweet apple cider beurre blanc have cooled to a cloying texture.

We do enjoy the tete de veau ($28) immensely - rich, fatty, gelatinous head cheese made from calf's head that is sliced and seared for a crisp exterior to cut the fattiness.

The star dish of the evening is the cocotte du jour - a whole lamb shoulder rubbed with the chef's own blend of spices and braised in vegetable stock for five hours in a Staub casserole. He buys the spices in Chinatown and roasts and grinds them himself for a Moroccan-Indian semi-curry/tagine like flavours. It is too heavy on the coriander and cumin, but the texture of the lamb is lovely - it has none of the stringiness of long-braised meat, is fork-tender yet resilient.

We do get sticker shock later, though. The "market-price" of this dish is $120 for two people, which seems pretty steep for an inexpensive cut of meat. But it does come with very good gratin dauphinois with its waxy potatoes bathed in luscious cream and cheese, and a petite salad to make you feel less indulgent.

For dessert, chef Escoffier wheels out a trolley of sweets. At $15 a person, you get a slice of everything to share - silky creme caramel, top-notch chocolate pie, so-so lemon tart and a divine chewy fruit tart of some kind topped with creme fraiche.

Much of Ma Cuisine's cooking is rich and hearty comfort food that hits the spot, but you run the risk of indigestion from the market-priced items and other surprises that may come if you do not keep an eye on your tab. Plus its wine-centric concept smacks of Parisian snobbery, even if unintentional.

We like the food, but not the pressure that comes with it.

Ma Cuisine

Where: 38 Craig Road, tel: 9099-1687; open: 5pm to midnight (Mondays to Saturdays)