Wednesday, 1 October, 2014

 
Published August 04, 2014
Dining
Vigorous push to mod-Sin cuisine
Most dishes by Willin Low, the poster boy of modern Singapore cuisine, reflect a maturity of thought and a clearer narrative, says JAIME EE
BT 20140804 JEDINING4 1206826

Broad spectrum: Pomelo salad (above) is an inspired creation that turns the Thai staple on its head with the ingenious idea of churning the savoury coconut milk-based dressing into an icecream. Low's version of the Singaporean fried noodles is really sakura ebi pasta. Also on his more confident menu is crabmeat linguine. - PHOTOS: YEN MENG JIIN

  • 1 of 3
BT 20140804 JEDINING4 1206826
BT 20140804 JEDINING4A 1206827
BT 20140804 JEDINING4B 1206828

RESTAURANT REVAMP

Wild Rocket

Hangout Hotel

10A Upper Wilkie Road

Tel: 6339 9448

Open for lunch and dinner

Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 10.30pm Closed on Sun

HE'S back. Not so much like a bad penny but a less grating, non-cartoon version of Singa the courtesy lion waving the national flag and imploring you to pledge solidarity with local cuisine, if not kindness.

Willin Low is the poster boy of modern Singapore cuisine - the go-to guy whenever the tourism board needs someone to bridge the cultural gap between bak chor mee and the Western world. He's the one who turns exotica such as laksa leaves into Caucasian-familiar pesto, and uses his lawyer-enhanced vocabulary to extol the virtues of heritage cooking more eloquently than a Wee Nam Kee chicken rice representative.

Even if you never bought into the concept of kueh bolu tiramisu made by replacing sponge fingers with the local snack (sponge cake is sponge cake by any other language), props have to go to Low for pioneering the mod-Sin movement. Thanks to him and the likes of Malcolm Lee and Damian D'Silva, a new breed of young chefs can find inspiration in their own backyard rather than a Ferran Adria cookbook.

Now, after a brief hiatus and a bespoke overhaul of Wild Rocket's premises at the newly spruced-up boutique-budget hotel Hangout@mt.

emily, Low is back with renewed vigour and a tighter, more confident menu.

Previously, you could argue that Wild Rocket's cuisine walked the fine line between contrivance and genuine idea. Where is the value in reworking a simple seafood porridge by compacting soft rice grains into a ball that sits in a clear broth, topped with an egg emulsion and fried shallots and charging $18 for the conceit? Low is still prone to such literal translations, but less so now. Most of the dishes reflect a maturity of thought and a clearer narrative - there's less of a slavish need to mimic original ingredients without actually asking why. The result is food that tastes good and stands on its own, even without referencing the original inspiration.

Still, a first glance of the new menu might make you think Low has moved beyond mod-Sin towards broader spectrum mod-Asian, given the Thai, Cambodian and even Japanese influences in the limited range of dishes on offer. One of them, pomelo salad with tiger prawns and frozen coconut dressing ($17) is not new but is nonethless an inspired creation that turns the Thai staple on its head with the ingenious idea of churning the savoury coconut milk-based dressing into an icecream. The frozen dressing keeps the salad components chilled while melting to bond with the sweet and spicy melange of pomelo segments, mint, green beans, crispy garlic and dried cranberries. It's a circus of activity in the mouth, and totally enjoyable.

Of less interest is the garden variety chilli crab pasta ($32) - which packs both familiarity and blaseness in the same tomato-ey bite - and the aforementioned existentialist seafood congee ($18) where a bite-sized rice ball ponders its reason for sitting in a tepid broth prematurely cooled by the amped-up air-conditioning, with skinny slivers of swimmer crab meat and shrimp.

Meanwhile, the salmon red rice and baby octopus donburi ($18) is a head-scratcher - chewy unpolished rice cooked in overly sweet teriyaki-like sauce, topped with pale thin slices of salmon sashimi, crunchy tobiko roe and fish crumbs that's a victim of overthinking. You're better off with the more restrained snapper in a fragrant kaffir leaf-infused curry-like Cambodian amok sauce. The only setback is the fish, which is cooked sous-vide and briefly pan-seared for a silky texture and a crisp skin, but is compromised on flavour.

Where Low shines is with his omakase ($118) - a chef's menu served at the counter by Low himself, adding personableness and homespun story-telling to a roll call of mod-Sin creations. A star of the show would be Low's interpretation of salted egg yolk crab - a very well-executed panko-crusted crab cake with 100 per cent pure swimmer crab meat and no fillers, sitting on a bed of salted egg crumble that mimics the granular texture of cooked crab roe. It's a shining example of clever re-interpretation, as opposed to gimmicky re-arranging.

While his version of the takeaway classic Singaporean fried noodles is really sakura ebi pasta - the umami-rich al dente noodles tossed in a failsafe triumvirate of toasty shrimp oil, dried Japanese shrimp and minced konbu is still a winner. On the other hand, the jury is still out on the laksa risotto - an agreeable if heavy-going spice odyssey that gets a surprising garnish in the form of a lobe of sea urchin. On the plus side, the risotto gets a jolt of rich creamy brininess but at the same time, it also amplifies the uni's less-than-stellar quality. But we had no problem agreeing that Low's dessert of pineapple sorbet and vacuum-cooked pineapple chunks dusted with sugar, chilli powder and soya sauce crystals - an update of his father's favourite snack of pineapples with chilli and soya sauce - is one heck of an idea.

The path of re-invention isn't smooth, but it sure beats sticking to the tried and true. If Low stays the course, and matches that with his endearing sense of patriotism - a Singapore culinary brand is definitely in the making.

Rating: 7


WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

    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