SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) It may sound icky but bear with the analogy: If Ryan Clift and Julien Royer got together and produced a culinary love child, its name would be Johnston Teo.
To call yourself an executive chef at the ripe old age of 24, you're either a deluded rich kid whose parents bought you a restaurant as a reward for requesting a Thermomix instead of a Lamborghini for your 21st birthday; or a driven young man schooled by two of Singapore's top chefs who impressed Loh Lik Peng enough to hire him to helm his latest eatery instead of yet another foreign entrant waving vague Michelin-star credentials.
The young chef Teo couldn't have asked for better mentors - the technique-obsessed, boundary-pushing chef of Tippling Club, and the produce-driven, purity-of-flavour advocate of Jaan. With two years in each restaurant under his belt, he's well prepared for a solo career built on fusing the best of both styles with his own personal taste and aesthetic. The result is that the week-old Sorrel is set to be one of the brightest sparks in the F&B scene this year.
In his hands, the concept of "approachable fine dining" becomes less cloyingly precious.
The idea that fine dining can be had at down-to-earth prices is one that Paris has mastered with its bistronomy movement, but in Singapore, it wavers between truffle mac 'n' cheese, high-end but no-brainer comfort food, and wobbly attempts at fancy plating in lieu of solid ideas.
Sorrel is the closest we've seen yet to offering high-style but grounded cooking in artfully styled surroundings, at prices ranging from S$45 to S$118. There is no a la carte menu but three fixed-price sets of three, five and seven courses respectively.
Yes, there is no denying the resemblance to Tippling Club and Jaan in look and serving style from the little snacks he sends out to the tight designs on the plate but that's where it ends. His attention to detail is almost anal, and his originality shines through as he plays with textures and flavour combinations in ways that are surprising but yet always make sense.
A cryptic menu with little detail means a lot of guesswork and reliance on our server to fill in the blanks as chef Teo sends out snacks from home-fried potato crisps topped with a dab of white wine sour cream and edible flowers to a chunk of fizzy apple ice that you're told to suck on and then sip a cold, sweet lime juice from a little cup.
The juice melts the ice and you get this amazing sensation in the mouth while the refreshing tart apple-lemon mix cleanses your palate. Then from sweet you swing to savoury, with a wooden bowl of ikura and corn niblets in a savoury dashi.
Chef Teo's pickling skills come to the fore with an inspired creation of lightly vinegared petals of pumpkin and daikon covering tiny mounds of diced smoked eel, while warm cream of pumpkin is poured over at the table.
The briny, smoky eel flavour is amplified by the sweet-tartness of the pickled root vegetables, while the mellow creaminess of the pumpkin smoothens out the edges.
His eye for unconventional pairings comes through in the seared hand-dived scallop and foie gras bathed in a bright orange sauce that again displays his penchant for sweet-tart flavours, balanced off with the rich creamy liver.
At the same time, he does classics well, too, with a satisfying but not cloying mushroom risotto that remains slightly al dente in a lemony parmesan cream sauce topped with meaty mushrooms and shavings of black truffle.
That earthiness continues with an oversized octopus tentacle cooked sous vide till fork-tender but with a slightly mushy texture from the slow-cooking, unlike its more resilient Spanish counterpart. Still, the black "algae puree" tastes better than it sounds - the seaweed/squid ink-like sauce a good complement to the garlicky roasted cauliflower and potatoes.
A roast langoustine topped with black truffle, roasted celeriac, celery and a swirl of celeriac puree is a showcase of ingredients but while fresh, the shellfish doesn't reward you with sweetness. The acidity balance is a little off-kilter too.
There is a slight tendency to clutter his main courses with too many elements - the variety works most of the time but there can be too much of a good thing.
His homemade agnolotti stand out for their thin, chewy skin encasing a silky smooth potato puree but is weighed down by the fatty cubes of wagyu shortrib and a hearty portion of edamame and corn.
Either the edamame or the agnolotti would have made the dish - but both on the same plate is unnecessary heft.
Seasoning is also somewhat inconsistent, and even more so with the flattened sous-vide chicken pieces sizzling in over-salted crisp skin, but otherwise it's a comforting classic with mushrooms and caramelised onion puree.
Desserts include a playful interpretation of beer and beer nuts - bitter beer sorbet mitigates the sticky caramelly sweetness of bacon bits cooked in maple syrup, with pistachio in both nut and cream form, and fluffy sponge squares.
Another labelled simply as "parsnip" sounds like a pastry chef kitchen clean-out that actually works.
A slice of pickled parsnip that tastes like preserved fruit is thrown into a mix of cookies, nuts, chocolate ganache cubes, toffee bits and crushed cocoa beans that's sweet, sour, chewy, chocolatey and by right should taste weird but totally falls in place.
For something a little more straight-laced, there is buttermilk sorbet with fresh strawberries and sago.
The Malaysian-born chef Teo joins the likes of Cocotte's Anthony Yeoh and Ember's Sufian Zain in restaurateur Loh Lik Peng's growing stable of Singapore-bred chef talents.
While there's still room to grow and develop an even more distinctive style of his own, it's pretty clear that he's off to a rousing start.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on January 19, 2015.
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