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A back door to warm hospitality and chic food
115 Amoy Street, #01-04
(entrance via Gemmill Lane)
Tel: 6221 6065
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm. Closed on Sun
WHEN it comes to doors, why is it that the front ones always get the attention? They open to the best view, lead into the nicest decor and people are more likely to walk in with a smile; unless they're shifty-looking ones who can't wait to sneak out the back way. Back doors, however, always get short shrift: a view of the back alley, dustbins or a tipsy clubber with a tight bladder ... so if you have to be a door, then you know which direction you want to face.
Unless you're a door on the extreme end of Gemmill Lane, attached to a shophouse which has an Amoy Street address but no frontage because it's fused to the backside of the main street-facing unit. They are like the idiot cousins of the shophouses with pretty facades - shunted to the back out of embarrassment, with only Gemmill Lane to look wistfully out to.
But back doors are now the new front, thanks to a bunch of forward-thinking F&B operators who have carved niche eateries out of that little row of shophouse units. It started with the likes of Maggie Joan's and now the latest is Le Binchotan - a charming little designer hovel that boasts warm hospitality and equally chic food.
In the same way that a French person would call Japanese charcoal "Le Binchotan", the restaurant is said to be Japanese with a French slant. Actually, it's neither. It's a hybrid of Japanese ingredients, a bit of skewer grilling, mid-to-high prices for small plates and a modern cooking approach. There are no big surprises but what endears us to Le Binchotan is the overall balance - it doesn't try too hard, yet there are enough subtle twists to hold your interest, and there is consistency in quality and flavour throughout the meal.
We especially like the relaxed, confident vibe of this compact Hobbit-spaced bunker as we stumble in just a few minutes before official opening time. Most places tend to freeze when you do that, as if you've just caught them in their underwear or intruded into their last precious minutes of personal space. But at Le Binchotan, it's as if they've been expecting you, like the first guests at a dinner party. You're guided through this luxuriously appointed bunker with impressive thick wooden "tunnel" feature that separates the communal counter dining space from the four individual tables tucked into a little alcove.
The menu is split into small and large plates, and a section devoted to the charcoal grill where you'll find traditional yakitori and other skewered meats. The staff are refreshingly mature and know what they're serving; we especially enjoy the service of Edwin and his knowledge of the food and drink and just about every aspect of the restaurant's operations. Singaporean chef Jeremmy Chiam, too, has us at "amuse bouche" - a complimentary sous vide egg in a sauce of reduced port and Japanese tare (usually used to glaze yakitori) and showered with shavings of fresh black truffle.
Maybe it's to prepare us for the pricing - starting with the house special of Myoban uni (S$23). It's something you should shell out for even though it's a minuscule serving of jellied corn stock, layered with corn mousse, grilled Hokkaido corn, crunchy bits of dehydrated soy and creamy lobes of bafun uni that offers unexpected contrast with the different textures of corn.
From the small plates section is a simple Gizzard (S$15), which is really a slightly tart mesclun salad studded with crisp-edged, chewy nuggets of broiled gizzard, given added heft with lentils and a soft-boiled egg. The elements don't form a unified dance but there's a jaunty jig about this fun salad.
Delivered straight from the binchotan grill is a silky-tender squid (S$17) which is at its peak of tenderness and easy bite, sitting in a bed of intense inky sauce with a strange but friendly bedfellow - Mr Uni, wielding its mellow, briny influence.
Thick chunks of very rare grilled lamb (S$13 for one stick) on a skewer is tender but doused in a sweet miso sauce that's a little too intense; the chicken tsukune (S$13) has a lovely light bounce from the minced chicken meat that's formed into a not-too-compressed "sausage" that gets extra texture from the soft bone cartilage used.
From the large plates is a well executed mushroom risotto (S$29) that is cream-less and therefore not cloying. Chicken stock and plenty of sauteed mushrooms give the plump Japanese rice its rich flavour, with no cream to get in the way.
There's also a pull-apart tender iberico pork jowl (S$35) rubbed with a hint of curry spices, its fatty richness tempered by green apple puree. Pumpkin wedges with a dark crisp batter made to look like charcoal also help to lighten the fat.
To end off, we order the intriguing smoked chocolate (S$15) and are greeted with a chainsmoking brownie that must have been dragged to our table after a long session with a pack of Marlboros - not the low-tar variety either. It's the only time of the meal that we feel a dip in our enthusiasm as we're not exactly sure we enjoy this more than an unsmoked version.
Even so, the meal has been enjoyable enough to offset any minor dips. In fact, if more eateries would follow the same level-headed approach to cooking and service standards, we'd happily ditch the front door for the back anytime.
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.