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Flexi-Mediterranean cooking appeals at Pistachio Grill
#02-04/05 Wheelock Place
501 Orchard Rd
Tel: 6262 6400
Open daily: 11.30am to 10pm
WE'RE a little late in the game with Pistachio - a popular Middle Eastern eatery in the distinctly un-Arabic Zongshan Mall that we had never been to. Until now, after its move to the more cosmopolitan surroundings of Wheelock Place. While officially in the "grown-up" Orchard Road belt, it remains very neighbourhood-like - partly due to its faithful clientele of mostly Singaporean, unpretentious families and groups of friends tucking into kebabs, tagines and copious amounts of hummus and pita bread as naturally as they would a zichar dinner.
A glass exterior with brass trimmings gives Pistachio a bit of gravitas when you walk in for the first time, although it gives way to a rather basic interior and an almost cheesy mural of pharoahs covering one wall. It's a reminder of the restaurant's origins but it perhaps succeeds because of what it's become - flexi-Mediterranean food cooked by a bona fide Egyptian chef who's been here long enough to know what Singaporeans like.
That means food that's a little sweeter, less acidic and with lots of variety even if it doesn't follow the original playbook. So pizza, pasta and even a sprinkling of French get thrown into this crowd-pleasing mix.
To start, we're not sure what possesses us to order something like lobster bisque (S$28) and mussels in a creamy garlic sauce (S$18) from a sea of falafel, kibbeh and couscous.
Like being in a steakhouse and ordering fish and chips, we know we're on the wrong track. Even so, we're happy with the mussels only for the addictive bechamel-like sauce with a rich garlic kick that coats the otherwise blah shellfish. The dreamy, fluffy buttered toast that you mop up the sauce with is a bonus. As for the lobster and crab bisque, we won't go near this powdery, thick and artificially enhanced gravy - with a large prawn (was it the lobster's day off?) and part of a crab's body - again.
We're drawn to the chef's specials, except that they have no prices. That usually means market-price, and invariably they never go to the same market as you; ergo, it will cost a fair bit. How much, we do not venture to ask, although quite a few opt for a large tomahawk steak flown in from Nebraska and served with flourish by the chef who flames it at the table and slices the monster into quivering, thick slices of dark red flesh. It looks delicious, and if we ever return as a party of carnivores and a vegetarian we want to intimidate, we shall order that, or even the whole lamb shoulder.
Still, we think a vegetarian will have the last laugh here because the non-meat dishes ring truer on the palate, are lighter on the stomach and no one ever complains about being served a not-so-fresh carrot.
The star of the show has got to be the pita bread - a billowy, torpedo-shaped, naan-like stunner - from the way everybody ogles it as it floats out of the kitchen, you would think that Keanu Reeves just walked by to order a schwarma. Tear into it (the pita, not Keanu) and scoop up the rich creaminess of hummus (S$8) streaked with olive oil, or Mohamarra (S$12) - a sweet-spicy red pepper mixture mixed with finely ground walnuts.
Chef Khaled Elelimi does his breads very well, and his version of pizza - or rather Turkish pide (a kind of flatbread) - gets an Italian twist with a Margherita topping (S$22) of oozing melted cheese and tomatoes. The pide itself is satisfyingly resilient with a built in flakiness, although the ingredients are bland.
Garlic cheese pita bread (S$8) is a hybrid of pide and pita - crisp and flaky and cheesy, all the wonderful virtues of carbo in one bite. And if you want some greens, check out spinach borek (S$16) - a quartet of crispy filo pastry rolled cigars stuffed with creamy greens.
Bryiani rice may be a side dish but it's crucial to the Pistachio Mixed Grill (S$48). The simplicity of airy-light basmati rice studded with cashews and raisins makes it the star of this barbecued trio of beef and chicken kebab and lamb chops. Heed your server's advice to eat the beef and lamb chops fast before they dry out. A second lost replying to a WhatsApp text means a punishment of dehydrated lamb and almost papery beef - which can be saved by dousing it in the tangy dressing that comes with it. The grilled marinated chicken thigh meat withstands the wait and stays suitably juicy.
Another option is the Sultan's Delight (S$42), touted as an Ottoman speciality of braised lamb in a rich tomato-based gravy, although we like it best combined with the grits-like eggplant and cheese mixture that surrounds it.
Again, going back to our reckoning that vegetarians have it better here. But, we're quite partial to the Moroccan chicken tagine (S$28) for its sweetish, lemony gravy and the couscous you can scoop up with it.
To end off, Uma Ali (S$16) is an Egyptian version of bread and butter pudding, but substituting shredded filo pastry so you get very soft "noodles" of pastry in a comforting rich milky bath sweetened with raisins and padded up with mixed nuts and cinnamon. In a way it's comforting and yet an acquired taste.
Pistachio scores for having its heart in the right place. Chef Elelimi cooks for the crowd so the food is gutsy, wholesome and generous. It's not about finesse or being a slave to authenticity. You can walk like an Egyptian, but taking a detour along the way can widen the experience while staying true to yourself. And Pistachio seems to be doing just that.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
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