SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) First, there was the One. Now, there are three. Call it the Attack of the (Kitchen) Clones or weird-spawn-meets-spaghetti, but we've decided that ilLido at the Cliff, Aura and Osteria Art are really one and the same Italian restaurant.
Yes, there may be paternity issues involved. As in how the original ilLido in Sentosa is the real daddy to Osteria Art - a good kid but still just an opening act for Aura, the no-expense-spared true heir. And now, in a slightly odd who's-your-daddy moment, the old ilLido has returned not as the patriarch but as a younger step-sibling to the first two.
Of course, the real granddaddy of them all is restaurateur Beppe de Vito, who decided not to fold the first restaurant that made his name at the Sentosa Golf Club, but instead revived it just across the street at the recently rebranded Sofitel resort.
Unlike Aura and Osteria Art which are fully owned by de Vito, ilLido at the Cliff is a co-production with Sofitel, taking up the picturesque space vacated by the once popular restaurant The Cliff, when the resort was still known as The Beaufort.
ILLIDO AT THE CLIFF
2 Bukit Manis Road
Sofitel Singapore Sentosa, Resort & Spa
Tel: 6708 8310/8360
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 9.30pm
It still has a lovely view, and that is the main draw of this new place which, despite literally outsourcing the food and operations to ilLido, is still a hotel eatery. That means no surprises, acceptable food, polite service and a comfortable predictability to it all.
Decor aside, you could close one eye and pretend you're in either Aura or Osteria Art, as the menu is virtually identical - a pared down list of appetisers, pastas and mains that are variations of the same theme with some ingredients tweaked according to location.
While the grilled octopus at Aura shows up with crispy egg and corn, the same octopus in ilLido is paired with artichokes in both grilled and cream form (S$28). The Sentosa version seems overworked though, tasting flat and tired and flaunting a tentacle left too long on the grill by someone who takes the word "charred" too literally.
That same person might also have left the mushroom soup (S$22) on the burner too long too, or whatever it is that leaves the thick, creamy mixture with a slightly bitter, tannic finish. The candied walnuts, though, are a pleasant twist. Squid ink tonnarelli (S$29) is unique to ilLido and we're halfway through what we think is a rich and creamy tomato sauce with shredded crabmeat when we realise it's actually minced cod. We always knew cod could be versatile but to be able to mimic crabmeat is pretty uncanny. The dollops of artichoke cream are more like an afterthought, as if the chef had some spare cream from the octopus.
We have no expectations for the kurobuta pork chop Milanese (S$45), but it turns out to be our favourite as we fight for the last bite of juicy meat encased in a delicate crumbed crust, completely forgetting about the butternut puree on the side.
If there's room for dessert, hazelnut coulant (S$18) is a chocolate lava cake without the rich chocolate kick, while a baked ricotta cheesecake (S$18) passes muster with a dense cookie crust and hint of citrus.
If you've seen it all before at Aura and Osteria Art, ilLido at the Cliff may seem like a repeat telecast. But one person's predictability is another person's success formula times three. ilLido is no doubt a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". It may not be number One, but number 3 ain't bad either.
If ilLido was an attack of the clones, IO is like an Italian invasion in the sleepy neighbourhood of Hillview, where the closest you can get to a hipster experience is perhaps a cupcake or bowl of ramen at Rail Mall. Is it any wonder then that even on a weekday afternoon, this buzzing osteria is a magnet for the neighbouring office crowd as well as our military best from the Ministry of Defence's HQ.
Even those from outside this Upper Bukit Timah enclave have come to this neck of the woods, which is how strong the word of mouth is spreading about this offshoot of Etna, another popular Italian outpost in Duxton.
IO ITALIAN OSTERIA
4 Hillview Rise
Tel: 6710 7150
Open daily: 10am to 10pm
Step into the modest-sized Hill2 - a relatively deserted, uncomfortably open-air suburban mall where the shops and eateries flank an outdoor courtyard - and it's as if everybody is hiding from the heat at IO. We too, are immediately drawn to the welcoming layout with its many shelves of pasta, oils and other cooking ingredients for sale; home made cookies and cakes for takeaway; and an open concept kitchen filled with Italian chefs.
You know it's authentic because when you try to talk to the chefs manning the pizza station, they give you the same look as the non-English speaking counter staff in a Milan deli.
The servers, on the other hand, speak English perfectly well, some in thick but endearing accents. They add to the warm, bustling, welcoming vibe where the staff are relaxed and friendly, and the food unpretentious and rib-stickingly hearty.
And the pricing. We haven't had to pay so little for so much food in a long time - and in sizeable portions. A large hunk of porchetta - rolled pork belly roasted till the skin blisters in crackling crisp goodness, stuffed with tender fennel stalks and a smear of zingy peppery tapenade, sets you back by a mere S$14.
Cut into manageable chunks at the table by our affable Italian server, the meat is slightly underseasoned but moist, and the crackling crunchy albeit just a little hard on the day we visit. But even when cold, the meat doesn't lose its resilience, which is another plus.
The crispy golden seafood (S$12) features a large basket of shrimp, squid and salmon - all fresh and all dusted in semolina and deep fried for greaseless crunch, served with homemade spicy and regular mayonnaise. Make room for the home made bread, especially the stuffed Roman Schiacciati (S$15) - flat bread doused in olive oil and crisped on a pan, stuffed with a melting mixture of truffle salsa and mascarpone cheese.
The mains are more hit and miss, with the signature spicy roast chicken (S$22) boasting an appetising fragrance of chilli and paprika but let down by flesh that's alternately dry and mushy. Orecchiette pasta (S$18) is a generous portion of little ears smothered in an overly-rich cream sauce that's almost artificially yellow but with a good saffron scent, enriched further with pork sausage bits.
We prefer the more Asian-looking home-made tagliolini (S$22) which gets a good bath of garlic, olive oil and chilli infused with shellfish, never-ending nuggets of fresh chopped shrimp and crunchy asparagus. The house-made pasta is aldente and not dense.
Desserts, on the other hand, are disappointing, starting with a baked Alaska-like confection known as Zuppa Inglese (S$14). Thick custard layers - vanilla and chocolate - are sandwiched with a boozy rose syrup-flavoured sponge and covered with baked meringue. It's an odd fusion of unpleasant custard and odd-tasting sponge that makes us wish for the British version instead.
And our search for Italian cannoli (S$12) continues after we decide that the tasteless pastry shell filled with bitter, powdery ricotta could be better used as an assault weapon.
But that's just a minor blip at an enjoyable lunch in a place filled with happy chatter and people with relaxed expressions, compared to the more serious faces you see in town. If this is what neighbourhood dining is all about, we want more of it.
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 March 28, 2016.
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