SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Watching Britain's Got Talent is one of our guilty pleasures - a show where budding performers file past a po-faced Simon Cowell, singing for his praises or a pithy, go-back-to-your-shower putdown.
But what we really like are the "Cinderella" segments - where some weedy-looking underdog or frumpy auntie from Putney shuffles on stage and shocks the judges out of their inertia with a voice that packs the power of Adele on a James Bond soundtrack.
Simon's eyes pop, the crowd screams and the hand that zealously guards the Golden Buzzer comes crashing down to send that underdog straight down the Susan Boyle road to stardom.
Oddly enough, we're reminded of this at Whitegrass, a restaurant that barely opened last week with hardly any buzz surrounding it. For the longest time, we've been watching Singapore Gets Talent - where "branded" chefs are imported to cook for a dining crowd that's getting less impressed by the day with each new entrant that arrives at our door promising some new variation of celebrity cuisine.
Apart from his resume which says he spent three years as head chef at Quay in Sydney, we know little about Sam Aisbett. He's from Australia; he's bankrolled by a Malaysian couple rich enough to kit out a large restaurant in Chijmes with three individually-decorated dining rooms; he has a lot of tattoos and thinks he knows enough about Asian food to use century eggs in his cooking.
30 Victoria Street #01-26/27 CHIJMES
Tel: 6837 0402
Open for dinner Tues to Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm
What we know now: He sure can cook. He can juggle Australian, Japanese and Asian accents all in the same dish and make it taste totally original. He fancies light, delicate fare just like we do. He does not over-season. His cooking is effortless and not at all contrived. He actually knows a thing or two about century eggs and will totally change the way you look at pork.
As is the trend these days, there is no ala carte menu. Just two menus priced at S$170 and S$265. Since it's opening day, we don't want to take any risks so we pick the cheaper one. And the chef is nice enough to let us swop some of our dishes with those from the more expensive set.
An amuse bouche sets the tone for our meal: pearls of ikura and diced trout jelly are gently briny against an unusual background of fennel cream and crunchy fennel balls. Shiso flower petals scattered show just how much detail goes into every dish.
Hokkaido scallop is turned into a layered composition of shellfish slices, shavings of sweet pickled melon, raisin-like emu apples (indigenous to Australia) and tiny cornets of daikon filled with caviar. It's a delicate balancing act of textures and flavours with a relish of minced melon cooked in honey and cider vinegar lifting the mild scallop that is itself matched with complementary fresh cultured cream. Any lack of seasoning is made up for with the naturally salty caviar.
The sashimi of yellowtail amberjack is Japanese without really being Japanese. It's like a sashimi maki without the rice, the smooth flesh melting into a horseradish cream lined with a nori "pesto".
Two kinds of slow roasted beetroot are matched with smoked eel in yet another inventive exercise where the acidity of roselle jam and cherries take the edge off the earthy beetroot, while cream fraiche adds a smooth mouth feel. Beetroot and eel crisps are both decorative and fun to eat.
Butter-poached quail breast is tender but with a firm enough bite, and comes with a laundry list of accompaniments: crunchy nuts and seeds; diced century egg whites that are mild enough to pass as jellied consomme; toasted crisps made from the film created by heated milk. It's a textural mouthful that's intricate although it doesn't pack an overall punch.
What hits the spot is the slow cooked mangalica pork - cubes of meat that your knife literally sinks into, this fatty unctuous smoothness reined in by fermented cabbage that tastes comfortingly like Chinese kiam chye. Chunks of chewy tender tiger abalone add to the Asian feel, while turnip cream and a pork-seaweed broth make this a cross-border success.
The meat course is fatty, melting-soft marbled full-blood wagyu from Australia, topped with chewy barley and joined by a caramelly, almost meaty-tasting charred celeriac puree.
Dessert is a too-sweet but still good jackfruit ice cream with longans, coconut cream, crunchy meringue and cubes of strangely soggy cake.
Considering we're there on opening day - when things that can go wrong usually do - the service and food at Whitegrass go off without a hitch. But pleased as we are with Whitegrass as a breath of fresh air in a predictable dining scene, it's too early to press the Golden Buzzer just yet. If chef Aisbett keeps it up, that will happen pretty soon.
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.
This article was first published on February 1, 2016.
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