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Blending artistry with earnestness
Level R, 213 Outram Road
Tel: 9858-8607 or 6595-1380
Open for lunch from Tues to Fri: 12pm to 2pm. Dinner from Mon to Sat: 6.30pm to 10.30pm
SO here's a burning question to start off the week: Are rabbits smart? We all know that in the animal kingdom, whales, dolphins and elephants seem to be regularly ranked at the top of the intelligence scale. Along with my elderly aunt's poodle, who apparently reads The Wall Street Journal. Online.
Did you find that an unnecessary question? Are you racking your brain trying to figure out what it has to do with the topic at hand? Do you even care if rabbits are smart? Then you'll understand our dining experience at Rabbit Stash - where good food is undermined by a disconcerting need to intellectualise it.
With its third - and perhaps final - iteration on the rooftop of boutique hotel WANGZ, former private chef Matthew Mok has come some way since opening his hole-in-the-wall eatery in Pandan Valley in 2012.
Coming in from the claustrophobic basement carpark/drop-off point and an equally tight lift, the narrow foyer opens up into a bright, cheery space awash in sunlight with an uncluttered view and semi-casual decor to enjoy it in. Think smart, air-conditioned poolside eatery without the sundecks, with a pretty alfresco section squeezed into the outer circumference of the circular space.
We initially don't think twice as the eloquent, smartly-dressed "operations manager" waxes on about the philosophy behind the menu, which gives you the option of two to four courses, up to a seven-course degustation priced from $36 to $148.
The seven-course menu we pick represents the chef's ENOSOPHI - an acronym for the inspiration behind each dish, eg, Exotic, Nostalgia, Ocean, Soil and so forth. Oka-ay.
This being our first visit to a Rabbit Stash, we're impressed by the painstaking effort behind the snacks - a thick wooden "trunk" with slots for wafer-thin butter crisps, and a base of "soil" made of bread and cookie crumbs holding baby potatoes topped with tomato jam and a little pile of garlic toast discs.
We're instructed to top the potato with the toast and spoon a creamy "yam jam" on top from a glass jar. Another wooden bowl is filled with a sweet lemony mayonnaise to dip the butter crisps into. We follow the instructions dutifully and the combination of starchy potato, sweetly acidic tomato jam, buttery toast and the mild, savoury sabayon-like yam jam makes for a nice carbo crunch.
A piping hot amuse bouche of intense mushroom consomme thickened with truffle-scented cream also hits the spot.
Chef Mok's sense of artistry comes through in the intricately plated "Soil" - an appetiser where little trails of cashew crumbs, basil snow, burnt butter, asparagus jelly blobs, herbs and other little bits lead to the "mother ship" - a scoop of beetroot sorbet. We can't remember the instructions we're given and dive right in, scooping up crumbs and herbs together into an indistinct crunch that makes sense only upon contact with the sweet sorbet - kind of like ice cream with toppings.
The "P" in "ENOSOPHI" stands for Pristine, manifested here in an austere presentation of perfect soft-boiled egg and fresh crayfish in a cabbage dashi, with popped rice grains and a side of sauteed mushrooms and bacon bits. Here, the fail-safe classic egg and mushroom combo with bacon bits is luxed up with the crayfish, dashi and truffle cream (despite truffle oil steadily gaining pariah status among top chefs for being an artificial condiment). It's more comfort food than pristine, but maybe "C" couldn't fit into the acronym.
Before long, ENOSOPHI becomes highly ENNOYING as we're inundated with detailed descriptions of the inspiration behind each dish: "Ocean", with a fussy arrangement of seared scallop on anchovy sauce, smoked ocean trout, black "coral" in the form of a squid ink coloured sponge, prawn tempura on top of mashed bananas and assorted gelatinous seaweed. Each component works fine individually but has little in common with each other apart from being, well, from the sea.
"Nostalgia" recalls - what, we're not sure. But on its own, it's a palatable seafood bisque with slightly-too- soft egg noodles topped with crabmeat. "Impression" fails to make any apart from being the weakest link in the menu chain with a so-so square of grilled Berkshire pork sitting on apple mash and beetroot-hued potato puree, hard crackling and a cube of watermelon. We much prefer "Heritage", even if the fork-tender gelatinous beef cheek, tomato-ey barley and a sesame crisp have no connection to any history we know.
Chef Mok's food is well-crafted if not polished, but its appeal lies in his earnestness and care in adapting Western recipes to suit the Asian palate (less salt, more umami, a bit of sweetness). But to achieve the kind of precision and technique he aims for with ENOSOPHI requires years of toiling in a professional kitchen under top chefs, and isn't to be attempted lightly. It's also discordant in an informal setting like WANGZ, where the chef himself is dressed in jeans and an apron rather than chef's whites.
In this case, a less-is-more approach works better than forced showmanship. Folks sometimes just want a nice meal, not an insight into the chef's mental processes.
Maybe we're just dumb rabbits, but we like Chef Mok's food, not the rhetoric.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good