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A new direction for Corner House
1 Cluny Road
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 3pm; 6.30pm to 11pm.
WELCOME to Singapore. We may as well be tourists here, having spent the better part of the last three months living and working in a place called Home - a modern, self-contained mini city comprising four walls and one doorbell.
But it's about time to venture out before we forget what the city looks like, which is how we end up in Botanic Gardens. Not because it's open air and deemed Covid-neutral, but because we're headed to Corner House - where we warily look forward to our first restaurant meal that doesn't come out of a box. It is as we remember - an elegant, colonial dwelling in a manicured jungle whose very setting is already half of the dining experience. Not that it gives the chef room to slack off - it has a Michelin star to maintain after all.
Tasked with keeping that star shining is Corner House's new head chef - the French-Asian David Thien who takes over the mantle from Singapore boy Jason Tan, who steered it into the guide in the first place.
Naturally, comparisons will be made and they can be summed up thus: During his tenure, chef Tan delivered French food with a unique Singapore spin; chef Thien takes you on a tour of local/Asian ingredients through the eyes of the expat he is.
His understanding is superficial - the kind you glean from cookbooks and occasional hawker meals - but at least his menu isn't so contrived that your eyeballs just want to shoot up and attack your eyebrows. Instead, he's well-meaning and earnest, serving each course with whimsical personal notes that explain the thinking behind what's on your plate.
Chef Thien is of mixed heritage but his food is fundamentally French and tasty - from the occasional times we've come across him in the restaurants he's worked at in Singapore. That sense of reliability is what comes through this new gig of his, rather than anything you can put down your fork and go "wow" at.
We're certainly partial to his bread basket - literally fresh out of the oven - particularly the squid ink-streaked youtiao among the fluffy flaky brioche swirls and crusty loaf, served with regular and sambal belacan butter. Do not restrain yourself from demolishing the entire basket while it's still hot. Once you let them get cold, they're only good as a snack for a passing peacock.
Menus are omakase only, whether lunch or dinner. You can choose from three to seven courses for lunch - we take the middle road and pick five (S$148) and the kitchen kindly agrees to do a different combination of dishes for each diner.
The snacks are textbook Asian bites - little papadums topped with a dollop of crabmeat liberally seasoned with Indian spices; Thai beef tartare scooped onto lettuce boats; and Singaporean otah on toasted brioche with a bit of comte cheese - just because. Achards is his personal take on the achar we know, and it's a perky tongue tingler of marinated hamachi, assorted sweet pickled vegetables and a refreshing granita made of pickling liquid that unfortunately melts into a puddle of brine before you can finish it. Blobs of burrata work very well to even out the acidic edge.
Century egg is something we polish off without a second thought because you know, we're Asian, but chef Thien comes at it with a tourist's morbid fascination, penning a flowery ode to its unfortunate appearance and the delicacy beneath it. He gets some points for originality though, in the unlikely pairing of century egg and slivers of cured Spanish jamon (like pitting funk against funk to cancel each other out), drizzled with meat jus, mushrooms and romanesco florets.
It's not a harmonious match, but good try. Same with the lightly sauteed rice noodles (a stronger char would be better) with scallops in a creamy sauce of Chinese chives that is too reticent to make an impression.
There's more oomph in his French twist on sambal stingray, although no rempah was embarrassed in the making of this slightly spicy tomato sauce that surrounds a pan fried fillet of Japanese flounder. A circle of meuniere sauce finishes it off. His pork satay shines not for its authenticity (of which there is none) but the satisfying texture of seared meaty iberico pork collar and the light peanut sauce that dresses it.
Wagyu done 2 ways, too, hits the spot but is a no-brainer sukiyaki of grilled Toriyama wagyu, tofu and confit egg yolk, finished off with a bowl of tartare on rice with furikake, and hot dashi poured over the lot.
Sweets-wise, the pre-dessert of pineapple tart with its crumbly cookie chunks, chewy pineapple jam and sorbet with coconut cream outshines the main puddings of so-so pavlova with pineapple and mango bits, and an updated mont blanc made with red beans instead of chestnuts.
All-in it's an easy-going, safe and satisfying meal that skims the surface of Asian food like a vignette on Singapore for transit visitors. Since we already know the story, we would look for something deeper but since we're just fresh out of confinement, this little botanic tale is the breath of fresh air we need now.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
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