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A taste of the good life at Culina
Culina Bistro & Wine Bar
Blk 15 Dempsey Road
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11am to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm
WE love fresh food markets. We love the idea of picking out raw oysters, crabs, shrimp, cuts of meat and having them cooked for you right then and there. Then again, our past experiences have included haggling with stall holders in languages we don't speak (ie in Seoul, Bangkok and to a certain extent Turf City) and being led to dodgy-looking "restaurants" flanking the markets where we don't know if we will get to leave with our wallets intact.
The picture is completely different at Culina Bistro which is seamlessly attached to the achingly stylish new Culina Market at COMO Dempsey. It's a food lover's veritable wet dream, being surrounded by gourmet produce from around the world as you imagine being the star of your own Chef's Table episode. Feel the imaginary camera panning across the variety of gleaming shellfish, the smiling "stallholder" waxing lyrical about his grain-fed prime USDA beef, and the array of rainbow-hued vegetables and fruits that you gather an armful of to bring to your imaginary kitchen.
Culina at COMO Dempsey doesn't so much as sell produce - you can't complain about the range and quality, even if you do mutter darkly about some of the pricing - as it does a lifestyle that a certain demographic is used to and others aspire to be a part of.
Take this carefully manicured image and sprinkle a bit of Singapore-style reality and you'll have a rough idea about the dining experience at the bistro. The caveat is that we visit during its soft-opening days so there is still plenty of room for it to get things running smoothly. They're still ironing out a few kinks in service and food preparation, so do extend a bit of leeway.
The highlight of the bistro is of course the option to pick out your choice of meat and seafood from the market and having it cooked for you for a fee of S$15 to $25. We're not sure if it extends to the vegetable section but if not, they should include it.
You get a little token with your table number that you show to the butcher or fishmonger. We pick out a bunch of French oysters (there aren't any other kind)- classic Gillardeau (S$5.50) and Royal (S$6.50) from Marennes; wild specimens from Brittany ($$5.50); and the largest of the lot - Perle Blanche (S$8). They vary in size and width with the fleshiest being the Perle Blanche while the Gillardeau still seems to have the best combination of minerality, salt and slurpiness. Next time we'll check out the clams, which the kitchen will prepare in a wine parsley broth for an extra S$15.
From the menu, the crab cakes (S$26) are three little crunchy-crusted patties of meaty crab meat marred slightly by too much of a mustardy bread crumb mixture mixed into it. You can't enjoy the crab for itself without the mashy texture of filler getting in your way. It could have been a miscalculation because it was much better at an event we attended after our visit. But inconsistency is likely to be an issue in the kitchen. The cocktail sauce and sharp coleslaw make no impression.
Neither does the fish in the fish and chips (S$30) which has a mealy texture under its puffy, crackling crisp batter that a banana would be honoured to be fried in. Instead, the fish must feel slighted at not being centrestage and retaliates with a withering dry demeanour. You can barely see the fish for the fries, but there are three fillets nestled amidst tender, fluffy chunky chips.
The steak we select from the meat section turns out to be our best choice that evening. It's described on our bill as Westholme wagyu cube roll (S$59 for 370 gm) with a marbling of 3 to 5 that's quite low on the Australian wagyu scale. Yet it's juicy with a bit of bounce, easily sliced and tender. It starts to dry and firm up as it gets cold but the first half wins you over with its beefiness and resilient bite.
To end off, the tarte tatin (S$15) is a loving partnership between oozy soft stewed apples and butter-infused flaky crust that disintegrates with just a slight crunch. That crunch is lacking in the pastry base of the prune Armagnac custard tart (S$15) but the rich, homey, smooth filling is laced with a hint of alcohol and integrity.
We can't all be stars of Chef's Table nor afford every single thing that Culina sells, but for a transient taste of a well-curated lifestyle, you've come to the right place.
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.