Restaurant Ards - Ripe with potential
Two young and relatively unknown chefs came on the restaurant scene here two weeks ago, boldly launching a fine-dining restaurant with a cuisine that no one has ventured into before.
They find inspiration in regional produce and do not copy what others are doing. Neither do they go down the mod-Sin route, which is frankly getting a bit tired. I am sure I am not the only person who doesn't need to see another bak chor mee pasta or chilli crab anything.
At Restaurant Ards, the two chef-owners Ace Tan, 36, and David Lee, 24, use Asian ingredients and cooking techniques to come up with a menu that will not be out of place in a fine-dining Western restaurant.
And to their credit, they pull it off most of the time, without dishes that come across as gimmicky or trying too hard to be clever.
There is no a la carte menu at Ards, which stands for "Asia, roots, distinct, singular".
For lunch, there are three-to five-course sets ($48 to $68 a person). For dinner, there are three set menus: Dawn (three courses at $88), Roots (five courses at $128) and a 15-course Piquant Illustration menu ($188).
76 Duxton Road; tel: 6913-7258; open: noon to 2.30pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 6 to 11pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Price: From $48 for lunch and up to $188 for dinner, without drinks
The last menu best showcases what the two guys can do and, while there is certainly room to improve, there is much to commend. I like nine of the 15 items, which is not bad. Some well-known restaurants I have dined at have fared worse.
Among the items that has no place in a fine-dining menu is Ginseng Mantou And Tea Butter - a mildly flavoured steamed bun with a pat of equally flavourless butter, which seems pointless. The only nice touch are the bits of fried tea leaves sprinkled on the butter.
Apparently, that dish has been changed to a genmai cha mantou with ginseng butter a few days after I dine at the restaurant. But it still strikes me as a mere variation of the bread roll and butter that Western restaurants typically serve on the side. To make it a course in the meal seems odd and a cheap way to make up the 15 courses.
Mum's Chicken Soup also does not sit well in the menu. The concoction of reduced chicken juice and herbs with cubes of wintermelon and a touch of coriander and lime is a cross between a consomme and a Cantonese soup. But it is hard to beat a Cantonese chef at a chicken and wintermelon soup. And the reduction results in the soup being too salty.
Another dish that needs rethinking is a canape called Touch Of Asia, comprising smoked pork wrapped with sweet potato leaves taco-style in a thin slice of raw carrot. It does not taste half-bad, but it is too big for one bite and everything falls out when you sink your teeth into it - leaving a mess on your hands.
Desserts are generally weak too, including something called Desserts' Heritage that is too similar to a warm cheng tng, with its barley, dried longan, bird's nest and housemade fruit vinegar.
These hiccups are, however, overshadowed by the successes.
Soy Bean Skewer, comprising housemade tofu with soya bean reduction, caramel and topped with crisped black moss, promises a good start to the meal with its play on textures and balance of flavours.
This mild-tasting dish is followed by something totally different - a tart slice of pickled pumpkin served with mint leaves, dill and pumpkin reduction called Origin Pickle.
It wakes up your taste buds, not with an assault, but through more gentle sensations of pumpkin and aromatic herbs.
Another dish to keep is 21st Egg Tart, with a wonderfully crumbly tart shell filled with raw Japanese corn, raw carrot and cornflakes that magically transform into wonderfully full flavours in the mouth.
33 Ingredients is my favourite. Although the server cannot name all the 33 - nor do I want him to because it is more important that I eat the dish before it gets cold - the plethora of textures and flavours makes this a palate pleaser.
The base of the dish is a timbale of diced ingredients, which include various types of mushrooms; grains from Japan, Cambodia and Thailand; sea cucumber; and fish maw. On top is a piece of deep-fried lotus root, tempura-style, which provides the dish with its principal character.
With some dishes, I am still sitting on the fence.
An example is Fish On Fish, which is more striking for the beautiful fish-shaped plate the dish is served on. The red garoupa fillet served with flower clams, goji and a touch of wasabi is decent, but the various ingredients do not come together, leaving one to wonder whether they need to be put together at all.
Restaurant Ards is not perfect - yet. But its potential is unmistakable and I can only see it improving as the two chefs grow in confidence and build up their network of food suppliers. Their next menu will be one to watch.
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• The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here