SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - "Is this your first time here?" The hostess asks as we step into Racines, a show-stopper of a restaurant space at the new Sofitel in Tanjong Pagar. When we say yes, she trails us to our table with a not-so-well-rehearsed recitation about the definition of Racines (roots), something about a fancy oven (we were not quite listening), and how it has its own herb garden - which wows us because it is an impressive-looking terrace filled to the brim with flourishing basil and other herbs we can't make out.
For an all-day dining restaurant, Racines is dressed to kill with its full glass windows, posh interiors and a dream kitchen outfitted with top-of-the-line equipment. The idea, presumably, being that you can have a full breakfast buffet and fine-dining level cooking at lunch and dinner, all in one place. The prices reflect that too, with a 180gm wagyu strip loin costing S$108 (or a "cheaper" Angus cut for S$78) and a 800gm to 900gm chilli crab going for S$110 - maybe it is a song for some wallets, but it is more like a Broadway musical to us.
But it's a tall order trying to be too many things. Racines is caught in an awkward space where it's sort of fine dining, and yet it's not; a buffet kind of place which yet feels too corporate for an all-you-can-eat scrum. It's also got a split identity, albeit deliberately so. It serves both French and Chinese food, with a menu that's split right in the middle with classics such as Lobster Bisque and braised beef cheeks on one side, and sweet-sour pork and kung pao chicken on the other.
At our dinner there, there is an attempt to inject some fine dining flair with an amuse bouche but it falls flat - poached halibut is moulded into a strange, intensely fishy pasty square, topped with some ikura and other bits and pieces we didn't try to identify. Maybe it's better that they skip this practice altogether.
We aren't lucky with our first course either - a door wedge of an octopus leg (S$26) that leans more in taste to a rubber dinghy than the Galician sea it purports to come from. The paprika-dusted grilled specimen sits on avocado purée, accompanied by creme fraiche topped with pearls of finger lime, none of which help to lift the dish.
Where: Sofitel Singapore City Centre, 9 Wallich Street, Level 5
Open: noon to 3pm, 6 to 10.30pm, daily
Info: Call 6428-5000
We are thankful to dive into an old favourite, Lobster Bisque (S$28) - the signature dish of executive chef Jean-Charles Dubois, a veteran of the local hotel scene who has also helmed his share of cosy French bistros. While the cool, modern surroundings does not quite summon the kind of rustic ambience that the bisque lends itself well to, it's still a pleasure to sip mouthfuls of hot, creamy, lobster-enriched broth with the bonus of tiny little cheese ravioli within.
For S$68, we get a two-rib lamb chop, sadly over-seared that it saps most of the moisture from the little bit of meat. Even though it takes up a chunk of the price tag, it's outshone by the spicy minced lamb sausage on the side, which has the right mix of gaminess and spices.
From the Chinese side, the wok-fried egg noodles with dark soya sauce and bean sprouts (S$18) has a decent whiff of wok hei and a hint of sweetness from kicap manis - but is plain fried noodles nonetheless.
Still, the Chinese kitchen shows some decent cooking chops with its tongue-lashing frog's legs (S$58) wok-fried with as much heat as the spicy Sichuan salt it is seasoned with. Served on a platter heaped with evil dried red chillies, it's joy laced with pain as you dig into plump and tender nuggets of lightly battered frog thighs that taste just like chicken.
Leave some room to cool off with the in-house version of mango sticky rice (S$14), deconstructed as a parfait of very sticky, stodgy rice layered with mango and homemade coconut ice cream which is rather nice, and a handful of even nicer crunchy pistachio cookies, and a nutty tuile for garnish.
Alternatively, the molten chocolate lava cake or Moelleux (S$16), with a rather constricted flow of lava, is a cliche but there's some comfort in familiarity.
As an all-purpose restaurant in a posh city hotel, Racines gets the job done with food that passes muster but does not leave a strong impression. If it wants to be anything more, then it has got to sink its roots a little deeper.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.