Sofitel So Singapore
35 Robinson Road
Open daily from 6.30am to 10.30pm
IN the lexicon of hotel design, I'm pretty sure that under "lobby", there must be something there that says "relaxed and welcoming ambience for travellers to check in without stress after a long flight". Methinks Sofitel So Singapore took that rule book and tossed it out of the window, along with other adjectives such as "sleek", "elegant", "minimalist" and "tasteful".
Instead, this hospitality upstart in the financial district is a full-on visual assault the moment you step in. This is no lobby - it looks more like the aftermath of a kamikaze attack by a grand piano. The glossy ebony-ivory colour theme is broken up in haphazard pattern, splattered with splotches of blood red rose displays, shiny glass and twinkling hexagonal light fixtures that remind you of Christmas trees or an SOS flare.
Whether you like or hate this display of psychedelic, groovy ostentation, you are at least guaranteed an experience, which, on the dining front at least, the inhouse restaurant Xperience offers.
Taking up almost half the lobby space, it's equally OTT with its head-pounding pulsating techno-pop (there's even an inhouse DJ spinning the decks) music, crystal-embedded glass table tops, rich velvet upholstery and plush cushions - along with a blue neon lit "bed" that acts as the chef's table. Breakfast in bed, get it?
Against this backdrop - and a droolworthy Molteni kitchen set-up - lady chef Anne-Cecile Degenne needs to do more than your garden variety all-day dining to stand out. That's why you get this quirky menu that's designed to look like a chef's notebook with whimsical sketches of cooking and hand-written notes. Instead of the usual demarcations of starter, mains and desserts, you get "crunchy", "zesty", "smoky", "spicy" and "juicy". The menu designer must have run out of steam because dessert is described as, well, "dessert".
Besides choosing your desired taste sensation, you can also tailor the size of your meal, from XS (tasting), XM (single portion) to XL (sharing portion). It gives you the flexibility to try a lot more things than you would normally do, and the tasting portions are decent enough to share between two people.
Chef Degenne's food leans towards East-West fusion and somehow manages to make it less pretentious than the surroundings. In fact, the food is probably the most grounded aspect of the hotel with its unpretentious, wholesome approach to cooking - so you're not going to find anything associated with the avant-garde or molecular movement here. Also, don't expect to find authentic renditions of local favourites, although the menu is peppered with familiar names such as siew mai, laksa, curry and chilli crab. It would be silly to expect chef Degenne to emulate the methods or flavours that local diners would just call her out on. None of the dishes tastes like the real thing, but what you can appreciate is the way they stand on their own for pure tastiness.
Foie gras and truffle siew mai ($15 for two in the XS serving) looks like the real thing apart from the familiar scent of truffle oil mixed into a bouncy, fluffy foie gras and mushroom mixture encased in the skin, with a blink-and-you-miss-it flake of truffle on top of each dumpling. Pleasantly earthy in flavour from the mix of fungi and liver, it's the delicate juices at the bottom of the dish that taste almost like a mild herbal soup that pique our interest.
Meanwhile, seared pork knuckle ($12 for XS) is stripped of bone and fashioned into a rectangular terrine of shredded pork and gelatinous bits panfried on each side to achieve a good crusty exterior with tender meat inside. Paired with marinated vegetable cubes and sliced radish, it passes muster.
Less successful is the chipotle chilli crab tacos ($24 for XM) with its bland mixture of crabmeat tossed with tomatoes and chilli piled into a tender warm taco and topped with shredded cabbage slaw. While we're no fan of the filling, we're won over by the taco's chewy tender texture and homemade taste. Switch the filling to something else and we're sold.
We're pleasantly surprised by the charcoal eggplant, organic grains and ricotta ($18 for XM) - one of the few choices not influenced by local cuisine. The eggplant's distinctive smokiness adds to the pleasure of chewing on plump barley, assorted grains and the melting-soft eggplant, rounded off with tangy ricotta cheese.
Not all will be enamoured of the lobster and scallop laksa risotto ($39 for XM) - but not because it doesn't taste like laksa. Rather, its al dente rice texture (with a slightly uncooked core which defines al dente as "firm to the bite") may not sit well with those used to thoroughly cooked rice. As for the laksa comparison, it tastes more like curried bisque with shredded laksa leaves, but the foundation stock is rich in flavour, and you get a good portion of scallop and meaty lobster claw. The downside is that risotto needs to be eaten really quickly or it gets stodgy, and the restaurant's air-conditioning speeds up its transformation into a gloopy, stodgy affair very fast.
Holding out better is the roasted lamb, lentil and coconut curry ($14 for a surprisingly big portion for XS). Pink lamb slices are served alongside a mild, fragrant lentil curry that stands out for the texture of the lentils - they're still whole and tender rather than turned into a creamy mash - although we would prefer more coconut milk in the curry itself, not in fancy swirls of foamy white sauce that's obtrusively salty-sour and detracts from the rest of the good stuff.
Desserts are passable affairs with an interesting lemon curd and marshmallow combination with fun pop rocks ($15) and "decadent chocolate" ($19) that features a smoky chocolate ice cream with an odd aftertaste paired with sticky chocolate ganache and crispy wafers.
Expect service to be slow and somewhat inexperienced. Can't really blame them, though. When you're working in a disco ball of a hotel, it's bound to be a distracting experience.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good