Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published March 24, 2014
Spanish chef in his Element
Mikel Badiola plates up authentic Basque cuisine with an accent on homespun flavours, writes JAIME EE
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Spanish ayes: Badiola, who hails from the Basque region of Spain, home to multiple Michelin-starred eateries, serves up unpretentious dishes such as roast suckling pig (above), piquillo peppers and sopa de pescado - Basque fish soup. - PHOTO: DERRICK TAN

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Element on Tras Street

Amara Singapore, 165 Tanjong Pagar Road.

Tel: 6879-2555

Open for lunch and dinner daily

IF anyone were to do a movie titled Attack of the Killer Crustaceans, we would highly recommend shooting at Amara Singapore's lunch and dinner buffet. We'll even throw in a free script, about a justice league of superhero crab and crayfish seeking vengeance for their kin against Singaporean buffet-goers gorging on the free-flow spread of cold shrimp, oysters, crab legs and crayfish in a frenzy not seen since the bad old days when Singaporean buffet behaviour was truly ugly.

There is a greater sense of civility now, but the sight of petite women carrying their body weight of shellfish on a plate is still one to behold. Food wastage police, you know where to head next. But at the same time, if you're looking for a really good value-for-money buffet, Amara's newly revamped all-day-dining concept offers a generous deal.

But we're not here to talk about the buffet. If you can tear your eyes away from the spread, you might notice a tall, young, floppy-haired Spanish chef in a separate kitchen tucked behind the cooking stations. That would be Mikel Badiola - newly transplanted from San Sebastian to serve up authentic pintxos for the newly launched bar that now occupies Element's street-facing entrance.

His authentic, home-style recipes are the highlight of an eclectic a la carte menu that, weirdly enough, includes options from the hotel's Thai and Chinese restaurants and familiar coffee-house staples. This something-for-everyone concept is a little jarring on the senses, especially when chef Badiola's cooking deserves much more than a second glance.

For one thing, it's the first time he is cooking outside of San Sebastian - in the Basque region of Spain which is home to multiple Michelin-starred eateries - so his food has yet to be influenced by Asian palates or trends. That means his croquetas ($9 for two) - the ubiquitous tapas that's so easy to find here but so hard to like - are perfect balls of deep-fried crumbed bliss that burst with a perfect creamy bechamel filling studded with bits of jamon that immediately revive memories of our first croqueta encounter at a Spanish friend's home.

That same unpretentious, homespun goodness leads to another welcome deja vu moment - the melting soft piquillo peppers ($12) stuffed with freshly made salt cod bechamel and swimming in a pool of addictive puree of paprika-scented char-grilled peppers. The sad hotel bread roll that comes with it diminishes our joy, but it's still put to good use to mop up every bit of sauce.

For a winning hattrick, order the Spanish tortilla ($10) - a fluffy, almost souffle-textured omelette with bite and substance from the chunky potatoes and rich scrambled egg.

A bit of patience and an open mind are required to appreciate the Basque fish soup ($16) - a robust, briny fish broth reminiscent of Catalan suquet but here it's thickened with toast that's deliberately burnt.

So you get an immediate hint of charred bitterness upon first sip, but as you continue, you're rewarded with a nuanced sweetness as the base flavour of the fish broth comes through. Bits of shrimp, fish and clam also add to the flavour - but be warned, this is an either-you-like-it-or-you-don't option. But if you do, it's really good, especially with the hot buttered toast that comes with it.

We're less enthusiastic about the pulpo a la gallega ($15), mainly because the octopus is disappointingly chewy and tasteless despite being bathed in a fragrant oil that's used to cook the whole garlic cloves and potato cubes.

The same with the mussels cooked in white wine ($26) where the sweet mussels are overwhelmed by the alcohol that hasn't had a chance to burn off and add depth to the otherwise sweet clam broth. Also, the comforting braised pork cheek with mashed potatoes ($28) is undermined by the stringiness of the pork and a general mundaneness of preparation. The Basque tuna stew ($28) fares better with its saffron-scented briny sauce, tender potatoes and not-too-dry tuna chunks, but is let down by its over-saltiness.

But all are minor quibbles compared to the piece de resistance of chef Badiola's menu - roast suckling pig ($88 for half) that is almost to-die-for with its mix of fork-tender flesh and the wobbly, gelatinous cartilage and fat that envelopes the meat. The skin is commendably crisp if not shatteringly so, but the whole combination, with its richness cut through with the unlikely condiment of potent, garlicky Thai chilli dip, is mouth-watering. It's almost enough to overcome the pang of guilt at seeing how tiny the little piglet flown in from Spain is, compared to its scrappy Chinese cousins that are more common here. Chef Badiola also offers his own brown sauce which is itself tasty, but pales in comparison to the spicy Thai sauce.

To end off, the deconstructed cheesecake ($9) - a parfait-like concoction with cream cheese, cookie crumbs and berry compote is a winner, followed closely by a refreshing honey jelly ($9) topped with yogurt and rich walnut cream.

The greatest downside is that while Chef Badiola is technically supposed to cater to the bar "element'", you're really still eating in a hotel coffee house. Maybe the Amara should just let the crabby crowd deal with the crustacean avengers on their own turf. As far as we're concerned, the only show we want to see is that of chef Badiola and his San Sebastian sidekicks.


Rating: 7.5


10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average