12 Purvis Street #01-01
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10pm
IT'S 6.30pm. In restaurant-speak, it's that awkward hour where you are technically open for dinner but are surprised when someone actually shows up. Unless you are the budget French eatery Saveur in Purvis Street, which is packed with people chowing down like they are going to ban food before 7pm.
We like a bargain as much as the next person, but the sight of people hunkering down in tight, canteen-like surroundings for the sake of assembly-line $5 pasta and $12.90 duck confit convinces us that the perception of value is really in the eyes of the beholder and shoebox apartment buyers. For our limited budget, we'd rather take our chances with Sprigs, which opened a few doors down from Saveur, and is (it fills up later) comfortingly empty, with soothing bluesy jazz playing against a chic backdrop of warm woods and bold monochrome art.
By virtue of its location, Sprigs has set itself an unusual mission. It has to compete with the rampant price-cutting from Saveur, and indirectly with the high-end cuisine of Gunther's across the street - because that's where chef Shubri Basere worked as senior chef de partie from 2007 to 2010. He subsequently clocked time at spots such as Raffles Club and Shoebox Canteen.
With stints in high and mid-end establishments, he has settled for middle ground in Sprigs - with hit-and-miss mod-European cooking at friendly prices in accessible surroundings that are neither budget nor uppity. Even the servers are dressed in relaxed, collegiate uniforms of jeans and grey sweaters, looking like they might have been recruited from nearby SMU or something.
The food is simple - short on polish and technique but long on good intentions and effort. An attempt to marry chilled pea soup and crabmeat ($15) has potential but isn't possible to execute at this low price point that forces one to use commercially prepared shellfish rather than fresh. So you end up with a nondescript cold soup let down by an otherwise generous scoop of crabmeat that just missed its window of fresh-peeled sweetness. Imagine if a Sri Lankan crab fresh off the boat had sacrificed its right claw for this - we would be singing both its praises and its national anthem.
The evening's special of beef salad ($16) is a better example of how value and flavour can work together. Thin slices of tender-to-chewy beef are marinated in a sweet onion-soy marinade and served with salad greens which isn't exactly challenging but nevertheless pleasing to eat.
The chef also manages not to cook the juices out of the grilled pork tenderloin ($28) - three hefty chunks as pink and moist as you can expect Australian pork to be, the lack of fat compensated for in the buttery brown sauce, fluffy roast potatoes and sweet griddled apples.
We make the mistake of ordering the honey spices magret duck breast ($26) which is a variation of the same theme, where pork is replaced by generous slices of roast duck breast in a sweet citrusy sauce with delicious white beans.
The strongest main course is the baked cod in tomato saffron broth ($33) which hits all the right notes with solid fresh and firm-textured cod in a healthy seafood broth with distinct saffron tones and a mild tomato flavour.
While you can easily get a proper three-course meal for a shade over or under $50 a head at dinner, lunch is an even better deal with starters priced at $5.90 for a satisfying creamy carrot pumpkin soup and $6.90 for duck confit salad, albeit a small portion of greens and tender not-salty shredded duck. Check out the popular pork Milanese ($16.90) - excellent value for the meaty, juicy bone-in chop encased in a crisp breadcrumb and cheese crust.
What we don't like is being charged $4.90 (at lunch but not at dinner) for the paltry bread basket served with truffle butter, without being asked first. And the desserts are over-priced at $12 for diet-sized portions of sticky chocolate layered with cookie crumble and caramel (good), and texture-gone-wrong mango and passion fruit panacotta (middling).
There's lots of ground to cover at Sprigs from price correction to curating a menu that maximises flavour and creativity with "cheaper" ingredients such as off-cuts or local produce, rather than trying to do high style on the cheap, which never works. But as its name suggests, Sprigs is starting off as a young little shoot. With a bit of careful nurturing, it'll grow some solid roots.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good