1 Scotts Road, #02-14/16 Shaw Centre
Tel: 6733 2225
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 2pm; 6.30pm to 9.30pm
IF one were to study the lexicon of the Singapore diner, a few key phrases might stand out. You know, like: "uber-cool, cutting edge"; "bohemian chic"; "first time in Singapore"; "chef is from Fat Duck/Noma/elBulli"; "latest restaurant by Loh Lik Peng/Cynthia Chua" and "OMG, is Jamie Oliver coming HERE?"
This obsession with trends, the culture of food blogging, Instagram and a general shift away from formal French dining with double-layered tablecloths and servers in full suits is a scenario that Les Amis has quietly operated in for nearly two decades (it turns 20 next year). That practically makes it a grandpappy in local restaurant years - in the revolving door F&B scene, surviving one year is a major accomplishment, 10 years almost warrants a fireworks display.
But 20? Never mind hot-air balloon theatrics - rather, Les Amis is comfortable just sticking to its mantra of dependable, gimmick-proof cuisine that is founded on ingredient quality and sureness of technique. It may not run with the "in" crowd, but with its latest casting coup - new chef de cuisine Sebastien Lepinoy and pastry chef Cheryl Koh - it may well find itself in the spotlight afresh.
Both Lepinoy and Koh come with considerable pedigree. They last helmed the one Michelin-starred Cepage in HongKong - Les Amis's first overseas foray which closed earlier this year after the restaurant lease expired. Prior to that, Lepinoy was a Joel Robuchon protege for years, and headed L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong. Singaporean pastry whiz Koh worked in the US before returning to Asia, and her tasteful, understated creations belie their technical prowess.
Another factor that makes Les Amis more accessible psychologically is its pricing, which has come down a notch to friendlier levels. No longer are $350 degustation menus the norm, making you feel like a church mouse on its first visit to the city if you ordered just a couple of courses from the a la carte menu. Now you can hold your head up high and order dinner menus that start at $150 or a set lunch from $45 - how much more extravagant you want to get is totally up to you. Dinner menus top out at $280 and lunch at $120, and Lepinoy's repertoire is so wide that there is barely any overlap of dishes among the menus.
Even with the price adjustment, service at Les Amis remains top-notch. It's always a little intimidating to first enter the restaurant, but the staff are friendly and down-to-earth, with a demeanour that says "Yes, we're in suits but we still want you to have a good time".
So don't feel bad if you can't stop digging into Koh's bread basket that's filled with crusty bread sticks with a surprise twist of ham within, sourdough that rivals any in France, and toothsome focaccia stuffed with olives. It will be to your detriment later though, when Lepinoy plies you with a onslaught of creations that are a confident show of well-honed technique and geographic influences.
You get a hint of his current obsession - Japan - and his clean Robuchon-influenced cuisine in both the $280 (seven course) and $150 (five course) menus. Dashi, teriyaki, seaweed and wasabi make frequent appearances, be it in a refreshing mouthful of raw scallop packed tightly into a sheet of nori and topped with caviar, or a milky smooth veloute of Japanese daikon with crunch from shredded raw radish and a sprinkling of black truffle.
One would venture that the Japanese elements detract somewhat from the sophistication of his creations. There's no faulting the flavours but some combinations sit a little uncomfortably and don't seem to come naturally. For example, a wafer thin, buttery filo pastry layer topped with creamy eggplant, sauteed king mushrooms, tomato and parmesan shavings wins you over with a crispy creamy mouth feel.
But you are slightly distracted by the little cup of dashi alongside that rightfully tempers the richness but feels a little awkward - like an unexpected guest you have to make small talk with. Amadei - the luxurious Japanese tilefish famously served deep-fried with scales intact so you can eat everything - is also deep-fried here, but loses all meaning when it is submerged in a delicate bouillabaise with lobster and stuffed squid. Despite the resulting tough scales, we happily dunk the accompanying tomato bread into the soup and mop up the accompanying rouille.
When he keeps the Japanese elements toned down, though, the food simply shines. Lepinoy can challenge any tempura chef with his shatteringly crisp, deep-fried langoustine served with a miniaturised caesar salad topped with fried whitebait. His caviar creations are also a must-have, including the cold angel hair pasta dressed in an oil-vinegar dressing that's slightly acidic on impact but quickly mellows out to a smooth finish with the little black pearls.
He also shapes asparagus blancmange into voluptuous quenelles, letting the saltiness of the caviar lift the mildness of the wobbly custard. For extra interest, tender potatoes are cut into little petals and arranged into a flower shape simply topped with cream and caviar.
He also makes cooking quail a cinch - this fiddly piece of poultry is succulent and he even finds space to stuff it with a bit of foie gras, accompanying textbook-perfect ratatouille.
Accomplished as he is with the complicated stuff, he also hits the spot with simple French cooking, as the great value-for-money $45 set lunch attests to. Start off with a refreshing caprese salad of crisp lettuce, sweet tomato and little mozzarella balls, then a French onion soup that's like a city cousin of its roughshod country relative - a neat square of cheese toast and clean tangle of meltingly-soft onions sitting in a clear delicate broth. Black cod Grenobloise - classic fish pan-fried in brown butter and capers - could not be better.
Well, unless you come to dessert. Above all, Koh's candied mikan could go down as dessert of the year - a whole mikan (Japanese orange) cooked till fork-tender in sugar syrup, filled with a combination of panna cotta and sorbet, with little blobs of Earl Grey jelly for a tinge of bitterness to alleviate the sweetness, rounded out with a bit of crunch from crumbled almond tuille. Otherwise, she turns chocolate and egg white into floaty souffles, tops mango cream with an addictive coconut wafer, and infuses creme brulee with thyme and tops it with braised apricots. Also, she has a light hand with the sugar, so her desserts will find favour with the health-conscious. But at no expense to the sweet-toothed.
Les Amis's popular appeal may have waxed and waned throughout the years in a gastronomic scene dominated by chefs pushing the boundaries of cooking. But all that envelope-pushing has also led to a new era of down-to-earth cooking, especially as more chefs embrace locavorism and sustainability. With its long-held belief in good food done well, it looks like Les Amis is comfortably on-trend now.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good