SINGAPORE (The Business Times) - It's been a long time coming, but Peruvian food is finally making its proper debut in Singapore in all its lime-infused glory.
It's taken Peruvian native Daniel Chavez a few years and several different cooking personas, but he finally has a cevicheria to call his own, waving the flag for the food he grew up with.
For the longest time, people thought he was Spanish when he was head of the kitchen at the late Santi Santamaria's outpost in Marina Bay Sands.
Then came a partnership with Osvaldo Forlino at Ola, which everyone thought was an Italian restaurant at first. Now that he has a different partner and is chef-owner of Ola, it's a bona fide tribute to paellas and pinchos - with maybe a few Peruvian accents quietly slipped in.
There's nothing quiet or understated about TONO, though. Peruvian for "party", this is full-on South American fare, with ingredients that are neither familiar nor pronounceable. With its rich, vibrant colours, it stands out like a beacon as the only - as far as we can see - dining outlet that's open in the new Duo Galleria just off Beach Road.
This construction site that tries very hard to look like a hotel-residential-office complex sits just in front of Parkview Square, home to the much larger, more ostentatious Atlas Bar. You may want to take note of that because it's such a long walk from TONO to the nearest bathroom that it's probably faster to nip across the road and beg to use Atlas's.
Air-conditioning that's controlled by a masochistic monkey is another bugbear TONO's landlord ought to do something about.
Otherwise, it's a warm (okay, too warm) friendly welcome by the staff, who speak with assorted accents; they are headed by Mexican national Mario Malvaez, who knows a thing or two about air-drying corn and serves addictive tooth-sized, flash-fried kernels or canchitas. Since we had dropped in on the restaurant's third day of business, Chef Chavez was there - uncontained in his unbridled enthusiasm like a pit bull welcoming his master home after a long trip.
You can't blame him. Like his idol Gaston Acurio, who drove the Peruvian food movement a few years ago before the craze subsided into a quiet simmer, Chef Chavez is keen to put an authentic stamp on the food - which is not ceviche and ceviche alone, by the way. TONO has a full-fledged menu with hearty main dishes and carbo-loaded potato salads that will put your baby-potato-and-mayo combination to shame.
But first, the ceviche - the lifeline of Peruvians, who can't go out fishing without a bag of limes and salt. The seafood may differ but the soul of a ceviche is the "tiger's milk" that binds it. Lime juice, onions, chilli and a touch of fish sauce - this is the basic recipe for leche de tigre, tweaked according to taste and one's preferred level of acidity.
At TONO, we're glad that Chef Chavez takes a middle-ground approach - which means fans who like their tongues curled rather than straight will find the ceviche here lacking oomph. But we like it just fine for the way he uses fish stock to take the edge off the acidity so you get all the flavour of the local limes without the aggression.
Of the three ceviches in the tasting option (S$35), the signature TONO has the best kick - with a mix of raw fish and deep fried baby calamari marinated in tiger's milk with added fish stock and smoked aji chillies. The mild smooth sashimi and the crisp squid provide interesting chewing variety, while the chilli, onions and fish stock harmonise very nicely.
Mixto, in turn, has squid, prawns and octopus in a similar marinade that's a little more gentle for the acid-sensitive; Nikkei has, as its name implies, has Japanese accents of soy, mirin and sesame oil cuddling raw tuna slices.
Most of the ceviches come with various types of chips - a snacker's heaven if you ask us. Plantain, purple potato and sweet potato are sliced and painstakingly fried fresh every day and, while great on their own, they come alive when dunked into the tiger's milk.
The canchitas (fried Peruvian corn kernels) are crunchy right through, so there are no hard bits to crack your tooth enamel on.
Peruvians are big on potatoes and there are some pretty elaborate versions of causas here at TONO. Lima (S$22) is creamy potato mash huddled with crabmeat, smoothened with avocado mash and tartare sauce with added crunch from tobiko and quinoa. It's rich stuff, but hearty and comforting.
Meanwhile, slightly too soft sous-vide octopus slices are paired with a pleasant olive mayonnaise and salty olives with a nice sprinkle of crisp garlic bits.
And for the mains, Aji de Gallini (S$28) is a version of baked rice and cheese, with a heavy cream sauce, chicken and boiled eggs with their yolks still nice and runny. We're told this may be taken off the menu.
For dessert, Combinado (S$12) is rice pudding with a purple corn cream mazamorra that's sweet with a hint of spice and served with grapes. We prefer it to the Alfajores (S$12) - powdery cookies that crumble into a pasty finish, filled with dulce de leche and finished with mango mousse.
Overall, TONO's food is fresh and tasty, but Peruvian food seems limited in terms of complexity, falling mainly in the range of sour, creamy and sweet. So it does get one-dimensional after a while, as flavours start merging into a predictable flow.
But you can't fault the freshness of the seafood and the heartfelt cooking. As long as the restaurant keeps that up, TONO will be in good hands. Besides, it's been open less than a week. The party's only just started.
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.
7 Fraser Street
#01-49/50 Duo Galleria
Open for lunch and dinner Mondays to Fridays: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10pm. Dinner only on Saturdays: 6pm to 10pm.