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A simple sense of well-being
Venue by Sebastian
6A Shenton Way
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 2pm; 6.30pm to 9pm. Closed on Sun
SIMPLE is under-rated. What kind of chef grills a single chicken leg and serves it to you like that? Or puts toasted bread on his menu? Fries up some whitebait and charges you S$9, instead of layering them with potatoes and calling it S$13 fish and chips? Sebastian Ng does, and thank goodness for that.
It's been three years since he left Restaurant Ember, the eatery where he made his name and none of the chefs that followed could do the same. Not with their fancy iterations of mod-Sin cuisine, not even when they made their own versions of Chef Ng's classics such as duck confit or wok-fried sakura ebi pasta. He's back with renewed energy and in shiny new surroundings at the Downtown Gallery which is so new, it looks as if he waded into a construction site and pitched a shiny stainless steel tent in the middle of it.
At dinner time, Venue by Sebastian is the only place that shows any sign of life on a ground floor full of boarded up units and a Chatterbox cafe that's shuttered for the night. Its bright, cheery lights beckon, and you follow them to this wide, open concept dressed in cool tones of grey and white. It's not so much restaurant as snack bar, with tables packed pretty close to each other and the staff, including Chef Ng's wife Sabrina, dressed in casual wear and overalls.
The stripped-down look and no-frills menu is a taste of what's to come. A disposable menu with tick boxes, a pencil and a choice of dishes listed according to the way they're cooked - fried, grilled, roasted - and not the way you expect them to be served. You can order a salad but it's not going to be the first thing you get. It takes a little getting used to but here, you're served whatever the kitchen finishes cooking first. So if you get your meat before your salad, too bad.
It takes a while for it to kick in that we're not getting our meal served according to our accustomed order of starter, main and dessert. We even think that the two little skewers of well-seasoned, just a little salty, nicely smoky, fat-riddled tender lamb must be a complimentary amuse bouche since they appear without warning. Until we realise that it's actually the two servings of lamb riblets marinated in chimichurri rojo - a spicy South American paste of garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper and vinegar. Each skewer adds up to a S$5 mouthful. Pricey for this satay-sized kebab but we won't go into the satay- versus-kebab debate this time.
That's because our burnt toast (S$3) has arrived and we can't imagine a restaurant disfiguring its bread on purpose. But Chef Ng has a grill trained to do his bidding and the toast arrives on the cusp of charred and at the peak of crunchiness - slightly garlicky and satisfying loud to bite yet ending with a resilient chew. Fried whitebait (S$9) is another winner - a pile of golden yellow fish crisps with a light batter dusted with chilli and salt.
As there's no order to this meal, you end up with a willy-nilly line-up with no method to your choice - just whatever catches your eye. So a salad of raw scallops and greens (S$17) with a too-sharp yuzu vinaigrette is followed by a plate of literally burnt cabbage (S$5) - limp, charred but amazingly tender and juicy, flavoured with grated parmesan and chive oil.
A roast chermoula chicken leg (S$15) which we expect to be something exotically Moroccan turns out to be just that - a plump drumstick and thigh which looks dry but pulls away into succulent strips of meat, deeply infused with spices and charred in all the right places, including crispy skin. A juicy whole chargrilled lemon lends zest which isn't really necessary.
Grilled octopus (S$27) is somewhat ordinary, requiring more jaw work than necessary, although the burnt butter and white bean puree are nice touches. Thin slices of grilled pork jowl (S$18) with very raw tasting gremolata and lemon are adequate but if we needed to sacrifice anything, these two could be passed over without any hard feelings.
What you want to set enough time for is the pear tart (S$14) which requires a half hour wait because it's made on the spot. Just the fragrance of the hot, buttery, flaky pastry is worth the wait. There's nothing delicate or dainty about the execution, just the way the crunch of pastry, squishy pear and cookie crumble topping punches all the right comfort buttons for us.
The odd thing is, it's not like anything Chef Ng did at Ember - and now at Venue - is rocket science. Everything is so normal, so simple, so familiar - he still does chocolate lava cake even - why aren't we feeling any contempt yet?
Maybe few understand simplicity the way Chef Ng does. He has this rare ability to make you connect food with a feeling of well-being and contentedness. And just for that, welcome back.
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.