SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Just like we can’t decide which comes first, the chicken or the egg, we also can’t decide who gets Michelin stars – the restaurant or the chef? The Michelin Guide says it’s the restaurant. Many chefs will say it’s them. That’s why we’re always reading about ‘Michelin-starred’ chefs, but that’s partly because journalists are lazy and it’s much easier to type that than “Chef So-and-So from the three Michelin-starred restaurant Such-and-Such”.
There’s less to argue so long as the chef who steers a restaurant to stardom stays in the kitchen, but what happens when they leave? Do they get to take their stars with them? And until (unless) their successor retains the star in the next judging round, are you still getting Michelin-quality food?
We’re pondering this as we sit in Bacchanalia, remembering how this was once an open-kitchen concept customised for Ivan Brehm and Mark Ebbels – two slight-built chefs who worked quietly in near Zen-like stillness and non-existent clutter, turning out innovative but non-mainstream cuisine for a somewhat niche crowd. It was good enough to earn a star in Michelin’s maiden guide and draw more diners to discover a different, if somewhat esoteric approach to food.
But chefs Brehm and Ebbels no longer work in Bacchanalia. In their place is the newly-installed Aussie Luke Armstrong who fills out the space with his well-buffed physique, along with a strapping German chef working the hot stoves that were not there before.
Together with their kitchen equipment, they dwarf the compact kitchen space, displaying a totally different DNA that is louder (Chef Armstrong can be heard barking out instructions to staff) and more testosterone-filled than before.
When you’re told that Chef Armstrong is ex-Maze in London – part of ‘Michelin-starred chef’ (see what we mean) Gordon Ramsay’s stable of restaurants which had a star but lost it before he joined – you almost see the resemblance. The confidence, a touch of brashness, a fierce competitive streak. He is new to Singapore but in a hurry to make an impression from the food he pushes out – a whirl of intricately composed plates with myriad details and flourishes that require detailed explanations at the table which you forget as soon as your server is done reciting them.
The Kitchen at Bacchanalia
Where: 39 Hong Kong Street, tel: 9179-4552
Open: noon to 2.30pm (Tuesdays to Fridays); 6 to 10pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed for lunch Mondays and Saturdays, and all day on Sundays.
Info: Go to www.bacchanalia.asia
Chef Armstrong is experimenting with new flavours every day, says our server. He’s taken a shine to local chilli crab, hence his amuse bouche of misshapen brown blob that is a crisp sweet shell filled with a curried crabmeat mixture which doesn’t do much for us, arranged precariously on top of an empty crab shell.
That little gimmick aside, we like the contrast of melting-soft persimmon – overripe to us but deliberately aged six weeks in the fridge to them – and crunchy green beans that have none of the stringiness we’re averse to. Fresh almonds are a nice touch, while a good dusting of foie gras snow kind of pulls it all together with just enough richness.
It’s part of the S$125 lunch tasting menu, and the chef duly obliges with our request to have different courses for the two of us. Not many chefs are so flexible.
The approach he takes with the persimmon – a juggling of multiple components designed to fall into an alchemist-inspired whole – is something he repeats in every dish. It works from a technical standpoint much of the time and shows a strength in his foundation. By the same token, all that juggling becomes repetitive after a while – it becomes more of a quest to see how many things you can put on a plate before they start to fight, rather than taking a step back and let less be more.
The foie gras snow shows up again in the battle of three kinds of artichokes that are sour and salty in parts until you remember to mix everything up into a more cohesive whole. Mellow aged hamachi is used two ways: cut into thick slices and arranged on squid ink sauce for salty brininess, horseradish snow in place of conventional wasab, thin curls of sweet Fuji apple and sago pearls because, I don’t know – fun? There’s also hamachi tartare with dollops of jalapeno cream, avocado cream and wait – little bits of roasted Iberico pork fat.
We’re almost embarrassed to say that while the monkfish with vermouth sauce, fermented/pickled pumpkin, pickled carrot, mushroom cream, herb oil, mustard seed and pumpkin puree ticks all the right complicated boxes, we really like the crispy, light-textured lentil falafel that’s part of the garnish.
In general, the food pushes all the right buttons. Line-caught fish, sustainably-sourced chicken and five-week aged grass fed beef (which is good) from a specialist farmer who only raises a few cows at a time (or something like that). The cooking follows the template of your typical modern, buzzy city restaurant – it makes all the right noises, plays up to the demand for fancy plate footwork and generally gets the job done. Like the new transplant he is, the food leans towards salty and sour.
By the end of the meal, you get the feeling that Chef Armstrong’s ambitions are too large for this rather modest kitchen, and his style is hardly what you would call understated. It’ll be interesting to see how he makes Bacchanalia his own. Currently, he’s creating a lot of static – we hope to see a real story coming out of it soon. And hopefully, soon enough for the Michelin Guide to sit up and take notice.
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.