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Indie chef makes his mark at IL Den
#04-21 Orchard Plaza
150 Orchard Road
Open for dinner only Tues to Sat: 6pm to 11pm
HE had us at "Javier".
We are at IL Den - a tiny pocket of respectability in the seedy-bar-and-nocturnal-creature-infested Orchard Plaza - run by a shy but determined young Singaporean chef. When we ask his name, he uncertainly makes a mental assessment of our linguistic range before replying, "Uh, 'Jay-veer'? . . . Or 'Ha-veah' . . ."
Javier Bardem might object, but we're immediately sold on a boy so used to having his name mispronounced that instead of correcting people, he just lets you pick whatever version you want.
Javier Low is perhaps the second chef we've come across in Singapore to make the daring - some say foolhardy - leap into starting his own restaurant. And when we say "own restaurant", we mean it. Chef Javier is a one-man-show - he cooks, serves, washes dishes and just about everything else in this thumbnail of an eatery that barely fits eight people around a beat-up wooden dining table, along with his glassware and assorted kitchen supplies. His female counterpart would be the sushi chef Aeron Choo, who runs her solo gig at Kappou Sushi Tapas Bar in the even more squalid Fortune Centre.
Their cash flow may be low but the two are high in gumption. And chef Javier seems more than willing to pay his dues doing his own thing than don pressed chef's whites in a Michelin-starred restaurant like Iggy's, which is where he worked before.
Armed with that resume and a brief stay in Kyoto - from what we overhear - he's created a simple but elegant menu at the dinner-only IL Den, which is regularly overbooked because of its size. In fact, it takes two weeks before we snag our seats on a Tuesday night.
There are two menus - S$75 and an omakase of S$120. Prices are nett, and it's cash only. You eat with strangers but there's no obligation to be friendly, and the impeccably polite T-shirt and jeans-clad chef is happy to chat only if you want to.
We pick the omakase. The food is unfussy - sort of Italian, kind of Japanese, a little neither here nor there but not in bad way. There's clarity of thought and proficient execution, but it's also clear that the menu has been designed for ease of preparation. There's a la minute cooking such as searing, deep-frying and boiling, but mostly it's about assembly and pre-cooking. He takes no shortcuts, though, and takes pain to source the best Japanese quality that he can get for your money.
We pick the S$120 omakase, and the first starter sets an impressive tone with the chef's revisionist take on uni pasta. Cold somen is swirled into a creamy mix of uni and tako wasabi - raw octopus nuggets preserved in a wasabi "cream" similar to the cold appetisers like salted sea cucumber entrails sold in Japanese supermarkets. There's enough kick in the wasabi to work your nostrils into a sweat, but you're rewarded with a luxurious blob of sweet Murusaki uni that you can savour or mash into the refreshing cold, slippery noodles. Simple, refreshing bliss.
The chef's European repertoire kicks in with a slab of perfect homemade country pate - ground pork studded with pistachios and a hint of liver and cognac. We like his restraint on the salt, and the chunky texture. Slices of Serrano ham and crunchy toast are the supporting cast.
Agedashi tofu is re-invented as homemade egg tofu deep fried in crunchy batter, topped with avruga caviar for seasoning. A single plump Hokkaido scallop comes onstage next, bland but seared a lovely golden brown. We're not totally convinced that its sidekick of pickled radish slices and seaweed salad is the best fit. The blandness needs a little more than just acidity and crunch to score any points.
"A" for effort goes to the homemade tagliolini pasta, fine yellow noodles more tender than al dente, tossed in a rich, reduced meat jus and olive oil, fragrant with the heady, mushroom tones of finely shaved truffle. It's just slightly too understated for us.
The main course is textbook perfect braised veal cheek - meltingly-soft but given a good crusty sear, the meat relaxed and releasing a satisfying satiny mouthfeel, sinews fully broken down into gelatinous goodness. A cloud of potato purée sits beneath - not too chunky, not too smooth. Just right.
We overhear again that the chef's chiller has broken down, so the pudding that he meant to serve had to go to dessert hell. Instead, he says to the diners nearest his cooking station, he has to shell out more money for expensive Japanese peaches and Kyoho grapes. In empathy, we savour our ration with gusto.
The food is currently more satisfying than impressive, but we think that chef Javier is capable of taking things up a notch or two higher. He's got the cult appeal going for him now, so he needs to push himself to break some new ground.
In the meantime, learn how to pronounce his name right - this is one chef you want to remember.
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.