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Chef plays it safe, but hints of brilliance are there
Basque Kitchen by Aitor
97 Amoy Street
Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 2.30pm;
6.30pm to 11pm
Sat: 6.30pm to 11.30pm
Closed on Sun
COMPETITION is always good, but what happens when your main rival is yourself? Especially when you've steered a restaurant to its first Michelin star in 2017, how do you top yourself when you leave to strike it out on your own?
That's the challenge for Aitor Jeronimo Orive, who recently left Iggy's and now stars in his first solo gig in Amoy Street, thanks to his benefactor Loh Lik Peng of the Unlisted Collection.
There's no silver platter under this gift, though. Basque Kitchen by Aitor takes up the space vacated by Loh's short-lived Aussie import Blackwattle, which opened to great fanfare but fizzled out within 10 months when it was clear its high-concept progressive cuisine had no staying power in the Singapore context.
If there was any writing on the wall of chef Orive's minimally redecorated restaurant, it would be "Succeed where Blackwattle didn't, but, you know, no pressure".
Perhaps seeing where the kind of stylised, technique-driven cuisine he was trained to do at Mugaritz and the Fat Duck may have limited appeal, he has gone to the other extreme and returned to his Spanish Basque roots - the land of pintxos, grills and stews and just about everything that you can put red peppers in.
Basque Kitchen by Aitor is literally that - traditional cuisine with his personal twist. If he were a tour guide of Basque country, we would describe him as the kind who takes you to a couple of really nice insider places but drops you off at a few tourist traps as well.
We start off with a trio of snacks that kick up our expectations sky high. A raw oyster in its shell is camouflaged under wobbly blobs of jelly that have been infused with its essence, so you get different slippery textures of cold briny flavour in every mouthful.
A skinny sliver of perfect crisp bread fits an entire salted anchovy perfectly, with a thin layer of crushed tomato in between. If anchovies are your thing, you will want a bucket of this, but we would like a bagful of the tiny piping hot fried jamon croquettes decorated with a dot of red pepper aioli.
The most impressive dish of the evening has to be his ode to the celebrated chef Dani Garcia - a rich, vibrant gazpacho that is given a boost of sweetness with fresh cherries, and a shower of cottage cheese snow to soften the tanginess of the cold blended soup.
Marmitako is a Basque tuna and potato stew and while in the old country, you might get a bowlful of it to warm your hearts, chef Orive gives you a scant couple of spoonfuls of a robust gravy with tender baby potatoes and cubes of tuna sashimi instead of the original cooked version.
The sashimi is a nice touch, although the lines between Basque and Japanese cuisine start to blur with the next course of oxtail "bomba" rice which is styled after the Japanese gyudon. All we can think is "Why?", even as we savour the unctuous mouth feel of the gelatinous oxtail stew-infused bomba rice, complete with confit quail egg yolk.
We're just starting to enjoy our Basque journey, why drop us off in little Japan?
A deep-fried fritter of bland grouper and a pepper espuma leaves little impression, and is followed by a comforting, dashi-like broth with smoked leeks and slivers of carrot. But meat-lovers will get a kick out of the txuleta or bone-in chargrilled rib-eye - so charred that the exterior bits are almost bitter, while the meat inside stays rare and pretty juicy.
Dessert is simple - vanilla ice milk and strawberries in a silky syrup, but by then, we can't wait to finish our meal and leave to get away from the family of boors seated beside us, jabbering loudly even as their pubescent boor who is too heavy for his age insists on bouncing on the long banquette, sending reverberations that lift us off our seat with each bounce. If you've ever had to suffer being on a plane and having your seat kicked by the passenger behind you, you'll know the feeling.
It's an issue restaurants need to think about: How to handle customers who want their own space, and those who insist on infringing on it.
But in the case of the food at Basque Kitchen, chef Orive plays it too safe, almost generic, in some of his dishes. Maybe it's a function of the relatively low price of S$115 for the tasting menu (so you're not getting any fancy ingredients) or a need to cater to a wider spectrum of tastes, but you expect more from someone who clearly is capable of it.
There are flashes of understated brilliance, but if he really wants to top himself, he's going to need to dig deeper. We are confident he will get there pretty soon.
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.