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Hawker fare meets fine dining at Subrosa
Subrosa Private Dining
369 Jalan Besar
Open daily: 11am to 12am
THERE'S a funny story behind Subrosa. Not funny haha but it's one that involves its expat chef, his local mentor, a Jalan Besar shophouse and how they pull everything together.
It's a tale about a young British chef tasked to head a restaurant in Singapore, a city he knows little about, and a veteran chef who does. Together, they try to execute the vision of the restaurant's owners - a private dining only space just like they've seen in Hong Kong and mainland China's upscale eateries, where your social status is measured by the kind of VIP room they give you.
Even the name Subrosa was chosen for its semi-covert, rich-people-only-aspirations - pronounce it "sub rosa" or Latin for "under the rose", harking back to an ancient practice of using roses to warn people that they were not to Instagram their whereabouts after dinner.
It's a euphemism for secrecy, but we think it's just an excuse to top each table with a bizarre, glass-domed, gilded blue rose that looks straight out of a "Cursed Blooms for Evil Witches and Stepmothers" catalogue. We know how this works. We've watched Beauty and the Beast. No way we're touching this rose for fear of being turned into a teapot.
The petals match the plush velvet chairs in this spartan-with-a-touch-of-gaudy dining room of Subrosa, which sits incongruously in its working-class Jalan Besar neighbourhood, just a couple of doors away from a giant Punggol Nasi Lemak shop. But why are we here in the first place? Because they've since conceded that rich Singaporeans don't dine furtively every day, so the hoi polloi are needed to make up the numbers.
Once you're settled in, you're in the good hands of the amiable and earnest head chef Steven Snowdon, who brings with him a restrained, elegant style and an eagerness to learn more about our Asian dining culture. An advocate of farm-to-table dining, he takes pains to source as much local produce as possible, including lobsters from a farm owned by one of Subrosa's partners.
We sit downstairs, where you can get a five-course set lunch for S$108 (S$128 for dinner) or seven courses for S$148 (S$168). If you have at least S$1,000 to spare, you can book the dining room upstairs which fits anywhere from two to 24 people.
When we visit, they're only serving a Chinese New Year menu, which ends this week and includes one-off dishes which may make it to the regular menu if the response is good enough.
It's a bit of a schizoid affair, albeit not an unpleasant one. In the same meal, you can swing from conventional mod-European to calculated fusion to full-on hawker fare, with varying levels of success.
A basket of freshly baked rolls - everything is made in-house - arrives literally like a bread course, paired with an almost melting swirl of savoury truffle butter. The rolls aren't the best - the Parmigiano cheese bun is good but the overly dense wholemeal one can't quite cut it.
The meal kicks off proper with an attractive cold starter composed of marinated scallop and assorted pickles and flowers to get the palate going. The scallop itself has been soaked in milk and has the winning succulence of a good fishball but sadly, no taste. Fermented melon, pickled turnip slices, cucumber and a lemony dressing overcompensate, while smoked trout roe tries to pull the two together. It helps, but just barely.
Chef Snowdon knows well the perils of a foreign chef attempting to interpret "sacred cows" such as chilli crab, and is himself averse to gratuitous fusion. He manages to put together a version that falls just short of being trite.
Softshell crab is deep-fried in breadcrumbs and stuck into an espuma of chilli crab sauce with accents of Thai curry. It's paired with a chilli crab bun - fresh crabmeat painstakingly peeled and stuffed into a pastry that's a cross between a choux puff and bo lo bun. It's not a bad effort, with the only misstep being that the crabmeat is cold and the curry sauce is tepid. Serve them hot and this dish might just have claws, er, legs. But he does trip up with Oh 'Dang! - a quirkily named mistake of pairing a cube of fork-tender but super-salty beef cheek rendang (made by one of his local chefs) with a plain grilled sous vide steak that's an irrelevant Western touch. Add a leaden-textured mini-Indian puri and this multinational venture goes too far.
After a kakigori-worthy palate cleanser of passion fruit sherbet, we're served the piece de resistance - an unexpectedly impressive Hokkien char which uses lobster broth instead of prawn stock. Chef Francis Lee gets credit for frying up the noodles with a good whiff of wok hei, squid rings and pieces of fresh but not excellent local lobster meat. Music to our ears are the words "tell me when to stop", as the server pours more of that broth over your noodles.
Style gets in the way of substance in dessert - a glittery burnished "pear" made of a coloured white chocolate shell filled with nondescript mousse and a core of stewed fruit that sounds good on paper but is blah to eat. Sour red berry sauce is jarring, while sweetened crunchy oats might have been hijacked on their way to a granola party because they're out of place here.
We all like a good story, whether it's in a book or something a restaurant wants to tell with its food. We're sure there's a plot somewhere under the rose at Subrosa, but it'll take a while to peel off the petals to find it.
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.