Restaurant Review: Explosions of flavours from Tippling Club's exciting food

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 12, 2014

Tippling Club may look a lot more conventional these days, after its move to Tanjong Pagar Road last month.

Leaving behind its previous premises in a bungalow in Dempsey Hill that used to be army barracks, it now occupies three units of shophouse space along the downtown road packed with eateries and drinking holes.

In place of the raw industrial look is a more cosy contemporary dining room.

You enter through the bar into adjoining units where the kitchen and dining areas are. Although the total seating remains about the same at 36, counter seating is cut down by about half to just eight, so most diners are seated at tables instead. There is also a private room upstairs that seats 12.

The look may be more conventional but the food is as exciting as ever. Chef-owner Ryan Clift, whose partner has been the Esprit Group since the restaurant opened five years ago, continues to steer the cooking in his own creative and often quirky fashion.

Much thought is put into every dish, not just to make sure the various ingredients complement one another, but that each dish is also plated in a unique way.

There is no a la carte menu, just two set menus: five courses for $160 and 10 courses for $265. During lunch, you can also customise your meal, from two to eight courses, and pay according to which dishes you select. There was no lunch at the old location.

The menus also come with wine and cocktail pairing at additional charges. If you find that too much alcohol for one meal, you should still order at least one drink. Zachary de Git, who runs the bar, makes really good cocktails. Or get restaurant manager Marcus Boyle to help you if you want a wine to pair with any particular dish.

Like with most modern Western restaurants offering multiple courses, the servings here are not big and five courses may not sound like much to eat. But when you add the snacks (there were seven at my dinner last week) and pre-desserts (four or five), which are not listed in the menu, chances are you will not be going home hungry.

In fact, when I had the 10-course menu at an earlier dinner, I was stuffed at the end.

Not a single item comes on a standard plate or bowl. Instead, you get food nestled on a bed of hay, on a piece of styrofoam, on a wire net or even at the end of what looks like an acupuncture needle.

The snacks and pre-desserts are where the chef is at his most playful, with a rendition of curry mousse topped with crispy rice and deep-fried curry leaves. Or a smoked quail egg with kombu that comes in a spoon nestling among a platter of hay.

And before dessert, there is the cheesecake prescription, which comes in the form of tablets inside a pill container. And you would never expect something like the strawberry fizz bomb, where fizzy pellets come sealed in an edible paper sachet that you pop whole into the mouth.

And in place of normal fork and knife, some items - such as the charred peppers with soya miso mousse - may come with something that look like a surgical instrument. And a bobbing piece of guava ice cream sandwiched between milk meringue has to be eaten without hands or utensils.

A lot of it brings a smile to your lips, but what is more important is of course your reaction when the food passes those lips.

And from my experiences there, the reaction has been good. Most of the little morsels unleash an explosion of flavours in the mouth.

I didn't enjoy every course at every meal, but there were more hits than misses. There were only two misses at last week's dinner: In the main course of venison with shallot nettle and salsify, the meat was bland despite a promising description of the animal being "wild and hand-shot" and in the dish of celeriac with crispy duck tongues, the oily deep-fried tongues threatened to overwhelm the dish.

But the other 12 or so items were very good. Which makes dining at Tippling Club such a treat.

SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.

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