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Journey of discovery through eclectic menu
30 Victoria Street
Open for dinner Mon to Sat: 6pm to 12am (1am on Fri and Sat)
MAKEOVERS are a tricky thing. It's all well and good to get all dolled up at a free make-up counter session, but you want to be able to go home, tap your unsuspecting other half on the shoulder and go "peekaboo!" without him screaming and lurching for the nearest weapon. You want to make an impression, but as it is with diets, moderation is key.
But when you've spent 14 years in the business - 11 of them in tourist-entrenched, style-devoid Clarke Quay, who's to blame you for going hog wild in designing your new persona? Especially when you have a vast second floor space at CHIJMES to fit out, and a whole year to work on it. And so it is that the new Coriander Leaf looks expensive and designer-ish - in the eclectic way of one who likes too many different looks and can't decide on just one. Broody, dark interiors? Check. Dramatic wall murals done by graffiti artist that's so hip now? Check, even if the place is too dark to really appreciate the details of this stylised Peking opera performer painted with x-ray effects. Fancy heritage-style tiles and whimsical lamps? Got it. Do a large panel of tiles above the open kitchen and on accent walls, and hang the lamps all over the ceiling. Oh, and there's that strong colour contrast thing too - with bright red bar stools to counter the dark grey. In fact, everything looks really nice on its own, but put them all together and you suffer a serious bout of designer intoxication.
That eclecticism has filtered down to the menu, which reprises chef-owner Samia Ahad's approach to Asian food - which is to essentially inter-marry Chinese, Indian, Korean, Persian and other cuisines and see what edible offsprings result.
The menu isn't divided into the usual starters, mains and so on. Small plates are all the rage now, so you pick instead from five different flavour "profiles" - fresh, familiar, spicy, umami and sweet.
We adore the chopsticks in our set of cutlery - ingenious sticks that rest with the tips elevated so you don't even need a chopstick rest. It means you have to set them down on the correct side, but that doesn't dampen its cuteness. We use them to pick up refreshing cubes of lemon-scented watermelon tossed with salty Turkish cheese (S$10) and pomegranate seeds, with swirls of syrupy pomegranate glaze for you to add as much sweetness as you like. Not Asian per se, unless you want to argue that it originates from the Asian side of Istanbul.
Chef Ahad's signature (because it says so in the menu) frontier chicken (S$18) is relatively appealing - chilli and spice marinated chicken chunks in a gravy that's half curry and half yoghurt for intermittent mouthfuls that play off each other, even if the sour yoghurt wins more often. What you need is a basket of naan (S$3) that come thin and crispy, almost resembling the texture of good frozen prata while still retaining that bready bite.
Once we get past fresh and familiar (our exceedingly pleasant server who takes pains to explain each dish, suggests that we order something from each category), spicy and umami territories are filled with edible land mines that we step on more often than not. There's potential for the kong bak pau-inspired braised beef brisket and kimchi in pillowy mantou buns (S$14) if they braised the dry and stringy brisket slices to the same melting tenderness of the original braised pork. Instead, the perky Korean spicy sauce that drenches the beef goes to waste.
The same with the sambal stingray (S$18) - the hawker staple grilled in banana leaf otah style with a stinging but enjoyable chilli rub that can't mask the less-than-prime quality of fish.
Already a staccato performance so far, the meal spirals down further when the lovingly described clay oven fired beef kebab (S$20) emerges as flaccid cigarillos of minced beef coated in grainy sumac spice on baked butter rice that has had the butter and moisture tortured out of it in the oven. Uneven squirts of lemon juice on the rice and meat give your eyeballs some exercise as they pop in and out of their sockets.
We shan't go into detail with the umami wannabes of softshell crab in salted egg yolk sauce (S$16) and the sea urchin, scrambled eggs and prawn sauce (S$25) although we would make a couple of suggestions for improvement. Firstly, the soft shell crab would look less creepy under its thick yellow blanket if it were small and crunchy - not as big as a normal mud crab and squishy, with its icky innards still intact. And while they say the sea urchin in the fluffy scrambled eggs and funky-tasting prawn sauce is flown in from Hokkaido and has to be eaten in four days, we would argue that our uni missed its flight and got here on the fifth day. Sweets-wise, bland avocado ice cream with banana fritters and gula melaka sago is ok if rather stodgy and sticky.
We do need to factor in the fact that Coriander Leaf has only been open a week and the usual teething problems apply. Still, with 14 years in the business, it's no newbie. If you stick with the less oddball creations, Chef Ahad's spice combinations actually work quite nicely - if better quality ingredients are used. And there may be some gems we just haven't come across yet. Meanwhile, fine-tuning is in order so that the journey of discovery doesn't become a dead end.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good