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Every bite hits the spot
AND so, it's over. By the end of Valentine's Day, Singapore's chef royal-designate Andre Chiang's reign finally came to an end as he abdicated his throne for a life beyond Restaurant Andre. We won't see the last of him, since the restaurant will be resurrected at the end of this year in a concept he won't tell us about yet. But as far as we know, his days behind a stove are over as he embarks on his next phase as culinary entrepreneur and all-round famous person.
On Feb 13, we were invited for a last taste of Chef Andre's Octaphilosophy (interestingly, it's now a trademarked term) - a mantra that has guided his menu from Day 1 and befuddled us for just as long as we grappled with terms such as pure, texture, artisan, salt, unique, south, memory and terroir. Aren't they all just fancy words that, with a tweak here or there, can all apply to the same thing, we once grumbled, as we fumbled with both dictionary and treatises on "theories of existentialism" and "is it art or is it just pretentiousness".
But perhaps it was just us. Eight years is a long time, and since then, the chef and his Octaphilosophy have earned two Michelin stars and the No 2 spot in the Asia's 50 Best list (which he was on track to top if not for his bombshell dropped in October last year that he was calling it a day). In the process, he's built up a near-mythical status which keeps his fans enthralled and contrarians in check. Indeed, the day after his announcement of retirement, he said they received 7,000 email requests for reservations. With a 30-seater restaurant, open for dinner five nights a week and lunch for two days, not everybody was going to get a space, even if they could afford the whopping S$800 per person, inclusive of wine or artisanal juices.
For us, it would be a moment of truth after so many years of avoiding this Octaphilosophy. And we're happy to say that, high-mindedness aside, it was a meal that felt real, with no airy-fairy delusions and strong execution. It was overly fussy at times with no standout moments, but still delivered at the level you expect from a two Michelin-starred restaurant.
With his wife Sudarampai Chiang directing the flow of the food - tearing occasionally at the thought of their impending departure - there was a steady flow of snacks that hit the spot with each bite. There were liquid cherry balls that exploded like fruity water bombs in your mouth, perfectly-shaped onion petals filled with tender sushi and uni, sliced abalone on a crispy seaweed cracker, deep-fried potato-encased cones representing fish and chips, and puffy potato blinis stuffed with minced wagyu with a hit of horseradish and caviar.
A dried reindeer heart came out at one moment - a shrivelled, ancient-looking organ that is a Scandinavian delicacy, priced like black truffles and shaved at the table like truffles. In this case, it's a 'black gold' tart of escargot and blood - a gamey dark mousse swirled on a tart crust, with shavings of heart on top - it is not as scary as it sounds but it's not something we'd want an encore of.
Your imagination is tested with 'sweet beef' - dark red, meaty-looking sheets which turn out to be dehydrated watermelon; while real charcoal briquettes are mixed with delicious doppelgängers made of crisp, chewy dough that you dunk into a dip of mild piquillo cream and raw chopped shrimp. And there's an air baguette - a whispery skinny loaf filled with hummus.
The side effect of such heavy-hitter snacks is that the 'real' food that comes after is a more sedate affair. There is an intriguing layer of transparent seaweed covering a perfect row of paper-thin mushroom slices in an execution of 'pure' flavour; an elegant combination of 17 different vegetables seasoned with smoky toro vinaigrette chased down with a fermented broth; an overly rich squid 'pasta' in a creamy potato base garnished with a furikake of puffed grains; and very tasty dry-aged scallop covered in charred julienned mushrooms and refreshing icy kombucha vinaigrette.
Among the desserts, the peche de vigne is a grown up version of peaches and jelly; while the 'ice cream uncle' is a whimsical interpretation of the old-school wafer- or rainbow bread-wrapped ice-cream. In this case, a server with black gloves wraps coloured brioche bread around a slab of snickers ice cream for an upscale nostalgic bite.
While it wasn't a 'greatest hits' list of Chef Andre's career since he's always insisted on not repeating himself, we couldn't help detecting the 'greatest hits' of other restaurants around the world in the meal. There are flashes of el Cellar de Can Roca in the cherry bombs, while reindeer heart has been used by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi. The charcoal briquettes are vintage Mugaritz, and dehydrated watermelon an old trick. The air baguette is a direct influence of Tickets and elBulli, with hints of Narisawa in the abalone and seaweed cracker. And the much-loved foie gras royale - while a lovely interpretation in Restaurant Andre, is an interpretation nonetheless.
In a world where there is no such thing as an original idea, Chef Andre has taken such hints and flashes and created a whole identity out of it. Whether right or wrong, and if his wunderkind status is well-deserved or not, it doesn't really matter anymore. He had a good run, and it's time for him - and us - to move on.