SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) I had a lovely dream the other night. We were dining in Jaan, except that it was drop-dead gorgeous - luxurious table linens in a garden setting of warm neutrals and whimsical lighting; elegant staff gliding by with cloud-like grace; a sommelier more keen to share rather than show off his wine knowledge and of course, Julien Royer's familiar cuisine of 55-minute egg, mushroom tea, hay-smoked pigeon, choconuts... wait.
It's not a dream. It IS Jaan, except that it's moved from its penthouse setting to its equally iconic new home at the National Gallery.
By opening his much-awaited solo venture which he named after his grandmother Odette rather than himself - which would have been more apt - chef Royer is somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place. But no worries - both are nicely padded to prevent any real damage.
One - does he stick to a tried-and-true playlist which served him well at his old job and therefore not alienate his stable of well-heeled regulars who ultimately pay his rent? Or should he play to the crowd that has made him a media darling in the local dining scene - the vocal minority who will eat there once, maybe twice, nominate him for awards but otherwise aren't likely to return, at least not on their own dime?
#01-04 St Andrew's Road National Gallery Singapore
Tel: 6385 0498
Open Mon to Sat for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 2pm; 7pm to 9.30pm
For now, he is playing to the Jaan crowd who loved his way with the fancy little snacks and dry ice effects at the old restaurant and now doesn't seem to be constrained by a hotel budget. You pay for it, for sure.
There is no ala carte menu so the moment you step inside for dinner you are out of pocket by a minimum of S$208 for six courses or S$268 for eight. There's a vegetarian option starting at S$198 for six courses.
There's the usual showmanship involved as the snacks are laid out: you're asked to hold out your non-dominant hand so the server can lay a cracker on it and squirt egg yolk confit and truffle coulis on it, topped with a cube of cheese and flake of truffle.
This is so you can pick it up with your dominant hand and pop it into your mouth. Ok, we get it, but it's still a cracker and cheese, with truffle on top. The other snacks - his take on chilli crab piled into a kueh pie tee shell and a hollow crunchy pillow filled with smoked eggplant - are equally pleasing.
Chef Royer is as much purveyor as he is chef - plumbing artisanal sources from around the world so he can get his hands on the sweetest langoustine or the best hand-dived scallops which he treats with reverence so you can enjoy the original flavours with as little manipulation as possible on his part.
Raw langoustine, for example, is a minimalist composition of sweet sticky flesh mixed with a bit of Hokkaido uni, covered in thick white mussel espuma and topped with a spoonful of caviar. Playful chive stems stuck into the espuma make it look like a white sea urchin or an off-colour hedgehog. It's cute either way.
The clean, languid taste of Scottish scallop comes through with just enough salmon roe, edamame and horseradish snow to lend contrast, while an exquisite surfer clam is chopped up and served in its shell covered in a bisque-like shellfish emulsion - buttery, briny and creamy.
Meanwhile, the 55-minute egg gets a bit of a twist with a serving of 'forgotten' root vegetables on the side, including burdock root and worm-like Chinese artichoke. We still wonder about the dramatic dry ice effect for that one solitary egg, though.
And of course, there's the pigeon - brought to the table in its full, bird-in-a-haystack glory and then returning as perfectly carved sous-vide breast, confit leg and rich spelt risotto.
Make no mistake. Chef Royer is technically very sound and every single dish goes off without a hitch, whether it's the crisp-skinned Kushiro flounder dusted with truffles or the surf-and-turf combo of creamy-fleshed trout and roasted kurobuta pork belly.
With much of his appeal coming from his ability to source ingredients, half his work is already cut out for him.
Whether this works for or against him depends how you look at it. Money can buy good ingredients which in turn speak for themselves, but how far they stretch a chef in terms of his artistry is another matter.
For much of the meal, enjoyable and wrapped in such pretty packaging as it is, there is no escaping the predictability of it all. Sure, the expectations are much higher at Odette because of what chef Royer achieved at Jaan. But the niggling question festers at the back of the brain: are there more heights to come or is this the best he can do?
So yes, there will be the clientele who will welcome chef Royer's return and the best food that money can buy in the nicest looking restaurant in town at this point. But what we would like to see is chef Royer stepping out of his comfort zone and breaking even higher ground for a change. Until that happens, Odette is the perfect place to wait.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on November 14, 2015.
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