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Finding the right balance
50 Keong Saik Road
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 2pm; 6pm to 10pm. Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sunday.
BY local F&B standards, Restaurant Ember is practically a grandaddy at the ripe old age of 14. In dog years, that's 98. Old enough to be allowed to lounge on the sofa and snap at whoever it wants to, or pee where you would rather it didn't. As a restaurant, it should be entrenched as a stalwart in our dining scene with the right to say, "you should be happy to eat what I've been cooking all these years; at my age I shouldn't be trying to keep up with your ever-changing whims and fancies."
But that's not always the case in a Singapore where people prefer puppies and cool food. Or do we? Since original chef Sebastian Ng called it quits in 2014, his successor Sufian Zain seemed to be at a Hamlet-like crossroads of his own - clutching a plate of the sakura ebi pasta going, "to keep, or not to keep?"
After almost two years of juggling the hearty, gutsy cooking that Ember was known for with his own measured style, chef Sufian has now passed the baton into the hands of newly-installed chef Alex Phan, whose last gig was at the short-lived progressive-minded restaurant, Sorrel.
Soft-spoken and genial in manner, chef Phan is an able hand with a big task at hand - to keep old customers while drawing in new ones. It's easier to make an impression in a new restaurant - nobody knows what to expect and takes what you cook at face value. At Ember, you never know if someone's going to quibble if you do away with any of the old classics, or grumble that you can't do anything else.
So what chef Phan has done is keep a few dishes from the old menu while ramping it up with some of his own local-infused creations that he parks under the umbrella label of "market-to-table" cuisine.
The classics turn out to be the more grounded dishes, while the new ones are interesting ideas which are a little shaky in execution. The signature sakura ebi pasta (S$32) is still the familiar angel hair pasta streaked with briny shellfish oil and the umami of minced shio kombu, but frying the tiny shrimp in a crispy tempura batter elevates it to a more enjoyable level. Local duck leg (S$36) is turned into a reasonably meaty and tender confit with a crisp skin and placed on top of braised mushrooms and lentils.
On the other hand, the pumpkin soup from the S$38 set lunch menu has a distracting bitter edge from the addition of galangal, which interferes with the natural sweetness of the vegetable. The soup itself is perfectly adequate on its own, but the galangal has the effect of someone tapping you on the shoulder while you're trying to listen to your favourite song.
We pick the seabass for the garlic broth and meesua the menu says it comes with. Or rather, you say "broth" but I say "gravy" and even then, not a lot of it. A very nicely fried piece of locally farmed seabass - meaty with crisp skin - is flanked by a few sticks of deep fried crispy noodles and sits on a smidgen of thick white sauce that is a pale re-enactment of Chinese restaurant style crispy seafood noodles with gravy. We can imagine a better reaction if the gravy had been replaced by piping hot stock poured over the fish at the table.
A composition of carrots (S$14) is the most original and successful dish we try - warm, skinny and tender heirloom baby carrots tossed in a caramelly carrot sauce and candied peanuts. If there are any links at all to rojak, we ignore them and simply enjoy this ode to unpretentiousness.
It gives us free reign to complain bitterly about our dessert - an awkward Chinese New Year inspired medley of Tiger beer sorbet, bak-kwa studded cake and thin dehydrated pineapple crisps (S$14). It's one of those love-it-or-hate-it compositions and we find as little joy in the savoury dry cake and icy beer as we do in giving ang pows to unmarried gainfully-employed relatives over 30. The creme brulee that comes with the set lunch is slightly better and we are quite impressed when we're told that the slightly curdled dessert is actually egg-free. Although deep down we're asking - if there's no egg shortage, what's wrong with using real eggs?
Chef Phan isn't short of ideas and we wouldn't discourage him from having them. But a better understanding of ingredients and how they work together is going to be needed to pull them off. That said, he's just three months into the job, so the new menu is still a work-in-progress. He's got a tough job that requires him to keep some semblance of the old Ember, and two, establish himself as part of the restaurant's DNA. If he can manage that, then we look forward to seeing him teach this old dog some new tricks.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT 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.