Moosehead Kitchen Bar
110 Telok Ayer Street
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm (Closed on Sunday)
THE relationship between a chef and his fire is not to be trifled with. Be it the Chinese chef and his wok hei; the Robuchon protege and the perfect sear; or the guy grilling suckling pig in the carpark behind his HDB zichar - he who masters the element is the guy whose door you want to line up at.
At Moosehead Kitchen Bar, the chef and his fire come in the form of 20-something Spaniard Manuel Valero Ruiz and his Inka charcoal oven, glowing like a home-baked deity behind the tight counter, casting its char-grilled powers over everything from oysters to kailan.
The Inka may not be as widely acclaimed (or expensive) as its flashier cousin the Josper Grill, but then Moosehead is not your average style-oozing glam eatery. Not by a long shot. It's tiny and gritty - a budget job on the corner of Telok Ayer and Cross Street where Ruiz cooks and serves while business partner Daniel Ballis does double duty as order-taker and general guy-in-charge.
With barely any air-conditioning, it's not the most comfortable, but the duo have created a cosy, bohemian hangout with casual, uncomplicated fare that's earned it a cult following.
While lunch is geared to the office crowd with salads and sandwiches, dinner is where the Inka gets cranked up and Ruiz gets his creative juices flowing.
Oysters of inconsistent sizes (ranging from creamy fat to malnourished ) are given a quick hot flash in the charcoal so that it's barely cooked and sits in warmed ponzu sauce dressed up with wakame and sea grapes for a briny, umami-rich treat.
Mild, chunky asparagus spears release a smoky, almost nutty flavour after its turn in the heat, again given the Japanese treatment with a perky miso-citrus sauce and bonus flavour from a shower of fried shredded leeks.
Less successful, though, is the haphazard tossing together of lightly roasted cherry tomatoes in a sweet-sour dressing that's more sharp than tangy, grilled green onions and bonito flakes that disintegrate in the sauce with a whiff of fragrance but no flavour.
Ruiz is better when he sticks to more gutsy recipes - such as a fail-safe egg and mushroom combo where a sunny-side-up egg sizzles on a cast iron pan crammed with caramelised onions and porcini mushrooms (frozen variety but still pretty good) and shavings of summer truffle.
You're meant to "smash" the egg against the other ingredients and smother the lot on two thick, satisfyingly chewy toasted baguette slices. It's a little heavy on the salt but you can't beat the comforting appeal of this breakfasty dish.
Grilled octopus and potatoes are let down somewhat by the mushy-textured octopus that might have been raked over the coals too long - its edges appearing crossed from char-grilled to almost burnt territory.
Some salvation though, is provided by some beautifully waxy roasted baby potatoes with crinkly, chewy skin, tomatoes and creamy piquillo sauce that pulls everything together. Our last main course, grilled wagyu flank is, as offcuts tend to be, a chore on the jaw, although some may not mind forsaking tenderness for beefy flavour. Here, it gets a boost with savoury mushroom onion "jam" and roasted kailan for that Asian nod.
To end off, creme catalan with grilled orange segments and a hard sugar crust does not impress with its pudding-mix powdery aftertaste and stodgy consistency, but we are charmed by the warm pistachio "tart" dressed up with fluffy whipped yuzu creme fraiche, glazed pistachios and crunchy oatmeal crumble. It's more of a cake than a tart, with a nutty chewiness amid the tender crumb texture.
Moosehead's cooking is more roughshod than finessed - street-wise guerrilla style rather than, say, the work of a fine-dining trained chef who's aiming for laid-back appeal. Instead of harmony and nuance, Ruiz's style favours broad brush strokes of flavour that jolt the palate with strong salty, sweet, charred sensations and leaves little to the imagination. It suits the DNA of this blues-and- soul-music blaring, no-frills eatery, but one would reckon that if you give it a bit more room, this is one fire that can burn even brighter.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good