Opened in 1994, Les Amis is generally acknowledged as the first fine-dining French restaurant in Singapore that was not run by a hotel.
It also finds a place in the history of the local food scene in that its immediate success spurred the opening of other independent, high-end Western restaurants and started the trend of dining outside hotels.
But far from becoming a fuddy-duddy institution, the 21-year-old restaurant has always stayed relevant as a top dining choice and regularly appears on lists of best restaurants in the world. This is achieved through constant renewal, whether it is engaging chefs who keep up with global trends in French cooking or by regular touch-ups to its interior.
A similar touch-up was done earlier this year, when the restaurant was closed for a $1.5-million facelift. It reopened last month.
Part of the improvement was in the kitchen, but the dining areas have also been spruced up, though in such a subtle way that it is not immediately noticeable. But look more closely and you notice that the beige-grey leather chairs and carpets are new, and so are the artworks on the walls.
The menu by executive chef Sebastien Lepinoy has been refreshed too. There is no a la carte menu, only sets and degustation menus for both lunch (three to seven courses for $55 to $145) and dinner (six to eight courses for $165 to $280).
What I like about Lepinoy’s cooking is that while it is contemporary French with a slight inclination towards Asian ingredients, there aren’t any of those cliched “espumas” and “soils” that populate the plates at many other fine-dining restaurants.
I opted for a good-value $80 four-course lunch, where you choose a cold appetiser, a hot appetiser, a main course and a dessert from a long list of options. Servings are small – even the main course is starter-size – just enough for a light lunch that won’t have you dozing off in the afternoon.
Appropriately for lunch in Singapore’s eternal summer, most of the dishes do not have heavy sauces, depending instead on the natural flavours of the ingredients to shine.
A fine example is the Prawn Carpaccio from the cold appetisers. The paper-thin slices of raw prawns are so sweet that the drizzle of extra virgin oil to smoothen both flavour and texture is enough.
Among the hot appetisers, the Steamed White Asparagus shines too with its simplicity. The asparagus from Provence is a little bitter, warns the server, but turns out sweeter than many inferior varieties I’ve eaten. The spears need nothing more than the mousseline sauce they are served with, though the chef sprinkles chives and lays a shiso flower on top for aesthetics.
The Mushroom Tart is more mushroom than tart, with the slices of grilled ceps totally blanketing the thin tart pastry at the base. In between is a layer of eggplant puree, while a few shavings of cheese and some olive oil on top complete the dish.
If, like me, you like both mushrooms and eggplant, you will be pleased.
But even better is the Warm Lobster Rouelle, another warm starter which carries a $10 supplement. Organic baby spinach leaves are used to wrap a sweet mousse made with lobster and langoustine, and the combination is classic and delicious. The sauce, made with fish stock, complements the flavours well. This is a more substantial serving as well, so the extra $10 is certainly worth paying.
01-16 Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, tel: 6733-2225 Open: Noon to 2pm and 7 to 9.30pm daily Food: **** Service: **** Ambience: ***½ Price: Lunch from $55 to $145, dinner from $165 to $280, without drinks
Among the main courses, I like the Pork Loin. The charcoal-grilled pork from the Carpathian Mountains in central Europe comes slightly pink in the middle, boasts a firm, succulent texture and is bursting with meat juices. It is accompanied by a silky potato puree in a cup made with slices of carrot. I find the strong flavour of cumin in the carrots a tad jarring, though.
The Rum Baba comes heavily recommended for dessert and it is certainly pretty. The cake, which is soaked in rum, is sliced down the middle and stuffed with creme chantilly. Surrounding it is a blackberry coulis that is reflected in bunches of fresh berries on top of the whipped cream. Taste-wise, it satisfies, but won’t stop you in your tracks.
Come to think of it, that sort of sums up the cooking at Les Amis. It speaks up but doesn’t shout. You won’t be raving about it to your friends, but quietly, you’ll go back again and again for some fine cooking that comes without histrionics.
Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke
SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
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