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Latest version of La Strada looks sharper, tastes better
La Strada Ristorante
#01-11 Shaw Centre
1 Scotts Road
Open daily: Noon to 3pm and 6.30pm to 11pm
A RECENT trip to Milan - and trips before that - have convinced us that just being in the motherland of pasta doesn't guarantee you a good meal.
It doesn't matter that the restaurant is rustic, full of locals and offers authentic food served by genuinely unfriendly Italian waiters. Pasta that's too al dente and thin crust pizza that's soggy in the middle simply aren't quite our taste.
In Singapore, where Italian chefs have also convinced us that we need them if we want food that tastes remotely the way we think their grandmothers cook, we've also come to the conclusion that - apart from a few exceptions - maybe their nonnas weren't such good cooks after all.
Hence, our conclusion that a person's authenticity is another person's wasted meal.
Now we just head to the newly renovated La Strada, where chef Dalton Fong - with no grandmother to influence him - cooks the kind of Italian food we want to eat.
It's not haute cooking. Nor is it Singaporean-ised Italian food like pasta with nduja and minced pork which tastes deliciously like bak chor mee (which Chef Fong used to make and we liked it very much but he doesn't do that anymore).
We're talking classics - pasta carbonara, tomato-based seafood spaghetti, raviolo, basic burrata and the like - prepared with good quality ingredients and a strong cooking confidence that the chef has honed over the years he's helmed La Strada.
Since it first opened as a casual pizza-trattoria around 2007, La Strada has opened and re-opened in various guises. It even had Italian chefs cooking in the early days.
Installing a non-native chef in charge meant that La Strada risked not being taken very seriously as a bona fide restaurant although it's earned its own fan base over time. Rather than put an Italian in charge, the Les Amis group (which owns La Strada) stuck to its guns to invest in its home-grown talent, sending Chef Fong on immersion trips in Italy.
It must have worked, because the new La Strada is looking sharper than before, and its cooking more Italian than it's ever been.
Its S$42 three-course set lunch is an affordable introduction to the menu, especially when you ask for the ala carte menu and see the real prices of each dish.
While Super Sprouts, with its healthy greens, seeds and nuts, turns out to be too clean and acidic to be enjoyable or Italian, a crostini of organic beef tartare on two smallish pieces of crunchy toast sweeps in to save the first course.
Pasta is the chef's strongest suit, as both the squid ink tagliolini and pasta carbonara are the highlights of our lunch. The dark-as-night thin pasta is coated in an intense, slightly spicy tomato-based sauce with generous nuggets of octopus, spanner crab and salty bacon that add to the diversity of seasoning. The carbonara is as it should be - rich with egg yolk, cream and bacon, but stops just short of weighing you down.
While the cannoli reminds us too much of a fried Chinese pastry shaped into a roll and stuffed with a pistachio cream studded with candied peel, it's fun to eat.
But the real star is the light, dreamy tiramisu that you don't so much as scoop up but inhale.
Dinner is a more elaborate production and a much better showcase of what the kitchen is capable of.
While we normally hesitate to order uni in a non-Japanese restaurant, we're convinced to try what turns out to be an ingenious bruschetta of flattened portobello mushroom fried into a crunchy tempura 'toast', topped with creamy fleshy uni that's wrapped in a skin of lardo-like guanciale that lends a perfect salty and fatty finish to this immensely satisfying first bite.
Even if you resent paying for bread, shell out the S$8 for the oven-fresh, home-made focaccia that you could hug like a pillow if you weren't busy pulling apart its steaming, olive oil-streaked, resilient insides.
A grilled octopus leg (S$36) is so perfectly textured that you could almost swear on oath that it went nowhere near a sous vide bath. If it did, we're even more impressed. Only the red pepper purée and herb crumble it's paired with tend to distract us from enjoying the succulent flesh.
The raviolo (S$28) is literally a force-fed ravioli - stuffed with a rich mushroom mixture, topped with an even richer ball of ricotta cheese, egg yolk and surrounded with an unctuous brown sauce. One bite and we're drowning in excess.
The lobster pasta, in contrast, we can't get enough of. For S$48, you get half of a sizeable Maine lobster, fleshy and very fresh, on comforting, crowd-pleasing tomato pasta.
The main disappointment is the Josper-grilled pork chop (S$44), which we pick over the more popular USDA prime ribeye. The fatty parts are tender but the rest of it is a drudgery to get through.
We can't wait for the limoncello version of tiramisu, which is an equally enjoyable cloud of refreshing, citrusy sponge and cream spiked with alcohol.
Whether a true-blue Italian approves of La Strada, it doesn't really matter. Our stomach wants what our stomach wants, and for now, it knows just where it wants to be.
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.