Esquina rolls out the crowdpleasers

Chef Robert Daniels's straightforward and confident cooking is right on cue.



16 Jiak Chuan Road

Tel: 6222 1616

Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm. Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm

DISCLAIMER: I dislike no-reservations policies and counter-seating in non-Japanese restaurants. Never could understand the concept of queueing to be cool, no more than I can understand the need to queue for a queue number to ask a question at a telco shop. Nor do I fathom how one restaurant manages to squeeze different sizes of human backsides into one petite-size-fits-all metal bar stools.

The lines to get into Esquina are now a thing of the past (you can actually make online reservations now) even if the bar stools are still the same. While head chef Andrew Walsh has gone on to spearhead other business ventures, owner Loh Lik Peng has lost no time installing Robert Daniels behind the counter - Chef Daniels will be cooking here until he's called back to Sydney where he's slated to head the upcoming Kensington Street Social in Loh's newest hotel venture.

Until then, it looks like Esquina is in pretty safe hands, as Chef Daniels delivers a short and sweet menu, albeit in some of the most uncomfortable dining surroundings ever. Despite asking to sit at a proper table upstairs, we're stuffed into a corner by the ground floor counter, perched on high chairs and trying to eat off a table the size of a serving tray. Maybe none of the servers feels like climbing the stairs so early in their shift.

Still, we're appeased by a steady flow of straightforward but confident cooking, starting with the fluffy and flaky thyme scented bread ($10) - shaped like an upright croissant with layers that peel off easily to spread with bone marrow butter and sweet caramelised onions.

The truffled ham and cheese toastie (S$12) is gooey crisp jamon and cheese between crisp bread and topped with fried quail's eggs. Off-the-menu special octopus is tender and not mushy, given a good shake in the pan with olive oil, chilli and leeks for a pan-Asian twist. Roasted Coral trout (S$20) is moist, the flesh yielding tender flakes and crisp skin, in a mild caper and anchovy sauce, with grilled fennel wedges.

The suckling pig takes the longest to come and is the priciest dish at S$65, but the meat is fall-apart tender, licked with a sweet sherry vinegar glaze. The skin doesn't crisp up the way we prefer and it's pretty cloying overall, but still nicely done.

There's still nothing Spanish about Esquina - if anything the food feels more Australian - and it feels a little worn around the edges now that its cool factor has been mitigated by Loh's other new concepts. But the food has gotten more down-to-earth - which may run counter to its hipster leanings, but we don't think that's such a bad thing.

Rating: 7

Cooking up a 'raw bar' concept


The Pelican Seafood Bar & Grill

#01-01 One Fullerton, 1 Fullerton Road

Tel: 6438 0400

Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm (until 6pm on Sat); 6pm to 11pm

DISCLAIMER: I dislike raw bars. I've never understood the concept of them in Singapore, no more than I understand why nudists need to be naked outside their own homes. Unless you have something impeccable to show, some things are best kept in water tanks or loose-fitting clothes.

The Pelican Seafood Bar & Grill has just launched its "raw" bar as a means of refreshing the eatery which first opened in 2012 after 12 years as the Pierside Kitchen - both under the umbrella of the Big Idea group. Incidentally, Big Idea - a merger of the F&B operators which run the likes of Marmalade Pantry, Fat Cow and Bedrock Bar & Grill - recently sold a majority stake to Far East Organisation and is gearing up to open more restaurants under its new setup.

We say "raw" because most of the stuff on the menu - crab, lobster, shrimp - are already cooked and simply displayed on ice. Oysters, some scallops and a selection of trout and salmon roe are raw but weirdly, not displayed. Maybe "cold" bar might be more accurate. Even so, while you can understand the allure of abundant seafoood on ice at all-you-can-eat buffets, it's a little harder to accept them priced on an a la carte basis.

When it comes to change, there's merit in going all the way, rather than in half measures. It's something Pelican could keep in mind given its very limited range on offer. Maybe there's more on weekends, but it doesn't seem fair to discriminate between weekday and weekend diners. It goes back to the question of why pre-cook seafood in the first place, when you can keep your stuff fresh and prepare it only when someone orders it.

Suffice to say then, rubbery steamed clams with "Mary Rose" (according to our server) sauce on the side (S$18) doesn't please, especially when chewing isn't enough to break down these ornery critters dipped in a thousand-island-meets-garlic-aioli Marie Rose sauce.

Neither does the chilled poached lobster (S$18), even if the dry claw meat looks pretty surrounded by dots of Marie Rose and Bland Jane (tastes like pureed avocado and olive) sauces. Scallops in "shaken rice dressing" (S$18) fare slightly better in a mildly citrusy/sake dressing.

When the food comes hot, it's more palatable, if you discount the watery cream of potato soup with a stodgy cake of polenta topped with (cold) mussels (S$18). It must cost more to fire up the stove though - we have to cough up S$45 for an exotic Patagonian toothfish, which tastes rather like cod and comes with a homey breadcrumb crust and a sweet creamy corn sauce. And S$35 for a basic burger - a juicy hand-chopped beef patty between a plain bun. Still, it helps to provide a much needed warmth to the stomach.

We know it's not easy to keep coming up with fresh concepts to stay ahead of the competition, but Pelican could really use a rethink (or at least reupholster its stained banquette seats) of its tired, touristy visage. There was a time when One Fullerton was one of the hottest spots in town. It could use a good, if not better, idea to get its groove back.

Rating: 5.5


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