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Avenue 87 takes the mod-Asian route
47 Amoy Street
Tel: 9838 8401
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10pm. Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun.
IF you've watched extreme makeover videos, then you're familiar with the format:a scruffy or frumpy human - and occasionally a badly-matted poodle - is whisked away to be buffed, puffed and shaved (where applicable) and turned into immaculate beauties that family members and fellow pets can't recognise.
Take that concept and apply that to local food. Kueh pie tee, fish soup, sambal stingray, goreng pisang - hawker fare that at best can aim for hotel buffet status in their original form. But after some major nip and tuck by chefs Alex Phan and Glen Tay, they're ready to strut down Avenue 87 - the latest new eatery to take the mod-Asian route.
Chefs Phan and Tay are brothers in arms - ex-Shatec buddies both born in 1987 and raised in Hougang avenues 7 and 8 respectively. Career-wise, they both have a diverse resume: Tippling Club for both, followed by Spa Esprit and Sorrel/Restaurant Ember for Chef Phan; and Chef Tay at Ultraviolet in Shanghai where he's still based for another few months.
It means the duo have chalked up enough hours in progressive restaurants to apply creative know-how to the food they - and most of us - grew up with. It's not a new thing. For a few years now, Singaporean chefs have been mining hawker food for inspiration in their quest for a unique identity, but the results have been largely patchy. To the point that after enough permutations of chilli crab sauce or buah keluak-chocolate combinations, you wonder where reinterpretation ends and true innovation begins. Or does that even matter?
In this context, Avenue 87 is trying to figure out where it stands, but it at least keeps things looking and tasting good in the process.
It sets out its Asian intentions early on, starting (and ending) the meal with homemade eight treasure and lotus root tea. The restaurant - which used to be the mod-Korean Kimme - is simply decked out in neutral tones and plastic greenery sprouting from the ceiling. A good sized chunk of the dining room is taken up by the open kitchen, where Chef Phan huddles in action with his team.
Lunch is a very affordable two- and three-course option at S$29 and S$38. But if you let them know beforehand, they can prepare the four (S$76) or six (S$98) course dinner menu as well.
For a start, Chef Phan sends out some crispy deep-fried yam squares that are nice and hot with a crunch on first bite, followed by soft, creamy interior and a dab of sour cream on top.
Next, while there are plenty of things we would like to have in our kueh pie tee, curried foam isn't one of them. The spicy, tart curry espuma is an apparent riff on fish head curry without the fish, and a garnish of flash-fried curry leaves and slivers of okra. Nice idea in theory, but a mismatch with the hard, crunchy shell.
On the other hand, all the elements in the salmon sashimi starter are like a happy fish family as pear cubes, wasabi cream, pickled seaweed, rice crackers come together in harmony, helped by a sweetish-savoury soy sauce granita that melts too fast but gets the meal off to a refreshing start. That it's nothing inherently local is a pleasant distraction.
The stars of both the four and six course menu are the soups - meticulous and elaborate makeovers of black chicken broth and the perennial favourite, fish soup. For the former, strips of black chicken, sautéed king oyster and enoki mushrooms hide underneath a soft cooked egg as piping hot, clear chicken broth is poured over. When you're used to murky black blobs floating in functional crockery in a Chinese restaurant, this is a visual and taste treat, especially when you break the egg yolk into the delicate broth for extra heft.
The glorified fish soup - labelled AHK Seabass for Ah Hua Kelong - is presented in a bowl with a fillet of fish, compressed bitter gourd and cherry tomatoes. A wooden spoon is carefully balanced in the bowl itself so it doesn't dislodge when laboriously made fish stock is poured directly on it to dissolve the creamy anchovy butter sauce mixed with evaporated milk. The mixture emulsifies into the stock for a rich umami that totally outshines the fish which is pretty average. Whether such theatrics are really necessary for what is already an excellent fish soup is debatable, but it's fun and it's tasty.
The magic makeovers continue with sambal octopus aka sambal stingray redux - where Spain meets zichar with a malleable grilled tentacle smothered in sambal sauce wrapped in banana leaf with a confit egg yolk and a grilled calamansi lime to squeeze over. It's the house signature dish which gives a twist on the familiar but doesn't stray far off course.
For the mains, a single lamb chop is decent but hardly exciting, simply grilled with a mellow-sweet stingless bee honey sauce. There's more character to be found in the melting soft beef cheek rendang - no makeover attempts here - served with smashed curried potatoes.
To end, special mention goes to Pisang No Goreng - which we would argue should be renamed Goreng No Pisang, because there is no fried banana fritter here. Instead, a cleverly disguised deep fried milk mixture is crunchy creamy and paired with banana ice cream for possibly the most novel creation on the menu.
Taken at face value, Avenue 87 offers good pricing and a satisfying meal with few hiccups. Although it's touted as a personal journey of the two chef pals, they've barely scratched the surface of what the restaurant can be. It's a long road ahead, but they've made a promising start.
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.