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A Meta of taste
1 Keong Saik Road
Open for dinner Mon to Sat: 6pm to 11pm. Lunch on Wed to Fri. Closed on Sun
HOW important is a chef's nationality to his cuisine? After all, you can be Asian and cook brilliant French food; some non-Italians can cook pasta to die for; and just about anyone with a very sharp knife and a sales slip with the word "Tsukiji" on it can open a Japanese restaurant.
We're pondering this at Meta - which recently moved from its original location on Keong Saik Road to a much bigger space a few doors down. The new place looks cool and grown up in an I-have-a-star manner, with a plush foyer proudly displaying its hard-earned Michelin plaque, altar-style.
Its chef-owner is Sun Kim, a South Korean alumnus of Waku Ghin and Tetsuya's who struck out on his own three years ago and worked his way up from a shaky start to star status by the second year of the Michelin Guide.
With no other Korean chef we can think of in Singapore in a fine dining setting, there's so much scope for chef Kim to carve his own modern Korean niche a la Jungsik or Mingles, but that doesn't seem to be his raison d'etre.
There's a dab of gochujang here and a spot of ssamjang there, but chef Kim generally plays it safe with modern-European/Japanese fare.
The new Meta features just one menu - a newly launched Autumn omakase served in five courses (S$138) or seven courses (S$178).
It kicks off with a pleasant trio of canapés: a wispy puffed rice cracker topped with octopus, crunchy fresh seaweed and ikura; hamachi tartare and caviar on crisp pastry covered with a wispy sheet of dried seaweed; and a savoury tart buried under a shower of Parmesan shavings. It's sort of Korean with the octopus and seaweed, but they're gone in a flash before we discern any particular theme from them.
A strong, nearly pungent mixture of dried shrimp oil and shio kombu permeate, if not overpower, the next amuse bouche of crab chawanmushi. The egg custard is light, delicate and flecked with crab meat, and the briny oil is a little too brash in comparison.
Shima aji aged four days has a smooth developed flavour and texture but salty-sour preserved shiso leaves (similar to Korean banchan) have the effect of someone butting into your conversation. You keep wanting to go back to the fish but the shiso and capers just want to tell you their life stories.
Thank goodness for the arrival of beautifully grilled squid, springy yet tender, on a bed of sunchoke purée darkened with squid ink and draped with leaves of raw kangkong - which is apparently a mild mannered relative of assertive watercress. The purée is whipped light and luscious, and the kangkong a surprisingly good match.
By this time, a heavenly smell of browning butter is wafting from the hot kitchen, which ends with a piping hot crisp-skinned fillet of pomfret landing in front of us. The minimalist display of fish, onion purée and hidden roasted baby potatoes means that technique and flavour have to shine - and they do. Chef Kim is an ace with purées. Whether it's this mild onion or the earlier sunchoke version, he gets the perfect texture that's whipped light, but with texture and substance. The fish is also technically perfect with golden brown skin that crackles through to the firm white flesh beneath.
Grilled A5 Omi wagyu sirloin is sliced and draped over enoki mushrooms sautéed with Korean soya bean sauce and decorated with paper thin slices of raw mushroom. It's rich, and finished off with clear beef broth that's too oily to clean your palate but we like its robust beefiness anyway.
Aged pigeon is just slightly too funky for us, grilled and glazed with a shiny reduction, whipped carrot purée and confit baby carrot, the sweetness countered by bitter radicchio.
For dessert, we learn that beetroot can be your friend when it's cooked and diced into little cubes, mixed with dark sweet pickled cherries, piled into a hollowed out beetroot and covered in raspberry-shiso sorbet, rhubarb bits and cookie crumbs. Sour, earthy, sweet, with a herbal twist to the raspberry sorbet - it shouldn't work but it does.
If you're not convinced, it's followed up by conventional dark chocolate ice cream with pistachio sponge and crispy tuiles, but chef Kim throws in a twist in the form of puffed rice shaped into chewy balls with spicy sweet gochujang jam. You either like it or you don't.
Chef Kim's food has matured from Meta's early days, and he's got a confident operation that runs seamlessly with a crew that works in clockwork fashion. But it doesn't stop us from yearning for something deeper from chef Kim - a personal story we think he has yet to tell.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.