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Atout rules the roost with rustic French bistro fare
40C Harding Road
Tel: 6679 1800
Open Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 10pm
THERE were times, as we watched Patrick Heuberger lovingly snip off a section of coiled Toulouse sausage behind the deli counter of Huber's Butchery, that we had to restrain from blurting out: "What's a chef like you doing in a place like this?"
Nothing against the fancy meat shop nor his simple desire to have a real life with his family. We're just selfish diners and since he left Bistro du Sommelier and closed Casse Croute in a Clementi condo, there's been a gap in the market for the kind of rustic, homestyle French cooking that he's known for.
In a twist of fate that has led him back to where he started in Singapore - the former Au Petit Salut premises where he cooked when he first arrived in Singapore in 2001 - he's back in the bistro saddle again with Atout, which reprises the spirit of his previous eateries in a lush green space in Dempsey.
Atout is French for "asset" and it's certainly been a boon for French expats who can't seem to get enough of chef Heuberger's intestine-laden Andouillette sausage or black pudding (and they say the Chinese eat strange things) as well as eager but less stout-hearted folk who literally pig out on rillettes, pate en croute, (pate baked in a pastry crust) saucisson (large, thick French sausage, typically firm in texture and flavoured with herbs) and other choices from a comprehensive menu.
The big old house that Atout sits in offers tranquil, leafy green surroundings and is conducive for more than just rigid lunch or dinner. Hence the place is open all day for you to nibble from the charcuterie bar with a glass of house red, or just wait for regular meal times when more substantial dishes come out of the kitchen helmed by executive chef Nelson Chua.
The charcuterie is everything we remember - spreadable meaty rillettes, tender ox tongue, nitrate-free ham. If you're against foie gras's price or production ethics, chef Heuberger takes cod liver (S$20) and turns it into a delicate pate that is a universe away from your youth, dominated by spoonfuls of Scott's Emulsion cod liver oil in a traumatic morning ritual. A slight fishiness may not sit well with those still in therapy for their childhood traumas, but otherwise it has an appealing smokiness, the richness and texture of foie gras that is really quite nice.
The lobster bisque (S$14) doesn't get much play in the server's list of recommendations, but it deserves an honourable mention for being piping hot, just creamy enough, just briny seafood-y enough without stepping into overly-fishy territory as many versions tend to do.
A chunky beef tartare (S$38) is also satisfying, seared before being handchopped into chunks and moistened with egg yolk and gherkins. Otherwise, a good-sized meaty squid is grilled to retain resilience and a smoky char (S$20) and outshines the yoghurt dressing-drenched cabbage salad it's served with.
As mentioned, the andouillete (S$28) is not the French version of kueh chap stuffed into a sausage shape as we unrealistically hope. It is a sausage that literally spills its guts when you cut into it, unleashing reams of floppy intestines massaged with spices and a pungency that will have you exclaming something a little more explicit than "OMG, stinky doodles".
Mind you, this is how it's supposed to smell and taste and the fact that it's got 'AAAAA' attached to the name in the menu means chef Heuberger's version meets the rigid standards of the stinky doodle sausage association in France.
Okay, it has a much more important-sounding name but it is very long. Suffice it to say, it is an acquired taste and those who have it say this is fantastic. We'll take their word for it. We douse bites of it in sweet mustard which helps deflect the smell, but in the end our favourite Toulouse (S$26) comes to the rescue, offering chunky, meaty and evenly seasoned comfort. You can also plunge into the 40 Garlic Chicken (S$36), for an infusion of buttery, garlicky fat straight into your arteries. The slow-cooked half chicken in a cast iron pot releases its flavour into the surrounding gravy, so while the meat itself is tender but dry by Asian standards, you want to mop up as much of the politically incorrect greasy goodness as you can. For dessert, large airy profiteroles stuffed with great balls of ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce (S$20) are pretty but average. A better bet is the boozy stewed prunes in armagnac cognac (S$18)that are plump, engorged morsels in an alcoholic syrup that gives the plain vanilla ice cream a buzz. A pleasant surprise is the Black Forest Cake (S$24 for 300gm) which is pricey but when you're hard up for an old school classic with actual cake in it, it's a worthy indulgence.
While the pricing appears high on first impressions, the portions are large enough for two to three. And yes, Atout does contribute to the stereotype of French bistro fare being rich and heavy, especially when you succumb to the sheer choice on the menu. But that's another reason why it opens all day - there's more time to digest the food and savour the return of this prodigal chef who's back where he belongs.
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.