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No drama, but no high fives either
Level 1, Intercontinental Singapore Robertson Quay
1 Nanson Road
Open Mon to Sat for dinner only: 6pm to 11pm (12am on Fri and Sat). Sun: 1pm to 11pm.
IF Cinderella's fairy godmother moonlighted as a landscape artist, Publico would be a version of the pumpkin she turned into a shiny gold carriage. There's something fairy tale-like about this breezy new Italian restaurant, which looks as if a piece of concrete jungle was suddenly magicked into a leafy piazza off the Amalfi coast.
Of course, fairy dust didn't make Publico. The New York-based design firm AvroKO did, probably with a pot of gold from the owners of the Intercontinental at Robertson Quay, where the triple concept deli-bar-restaurant stands. How else could it afford to create a rustic look with an East Coast accent, with full-length glass windows, dramatic wooden rafters and not one but two fancy wood-burning pizza ovens? And look at the amount of space it has, from the way each table has its own privacy to the roominess which allows you to roam around without rubbing elbows with other diners, unless you really wanted to.
With so much attention to the way the place looks, we can't quite understand why they don't have the same quality control when it comes to the food, which adheres very closely to the cooking manual we're convinced that hotel banquet chefs follow. Which is: make it look Italian, taste kind of Italian but hey, no pressure to make it actually delicious, you know? Because they assume that the only people eating it will be hotel guests who are too lazy to explore more exciting dining options outside, and will be gone before they can articulate an actual opinion about the food.
But we live here, and Singaporeans are known for their opinions. So from our standpoint, there is way too much variety outside to make Publico a go-to staple for Italian food. We do, however, expect people to come for the really nice ambience and the chi-chi factor of this new lifestyle destination in Robertson Quay. This crowd will not have terribly high expectations and the food is edible enough that no one is going to send his pasta back while fuming: "What passing squirrels did the fairy godmother hijack and turn into line cooks?!". So no, there will be no such drama. But there will be no high fives either.
Firstly, it fails the Margherita pizza (S$20) test. With just tomatoes and cheese on crust, there's nowhere for shortcomings to hide. The dough is flat, thanks to an unmotivated yeast that probably hasn't had a raise in a long time. So any hopes of well-risen, chewy, yielding dough are dashed by this garden variety pizza perfected by your neighbourhood delivery joint. The tomato base dominates the mozzarella cheese which only makes a cameo appearance.
Thick slices of octopus with a light, smoky char appear in a cold salad (S$18) with baby potatoes, dressed simply in an olive oil and lemon dressing with a hint of chilli. There isn't much going on here, plus the cold temperature sucks any kind of character it might have. You get fairly tender octopus and blah potatoes - end of story.
The calamari and cauliflower fritti (S$13) in turn, has a nice crunch if a too-salty crumb coating but at least it's got a bit more depth to it.
Our server recommends the penne carbonara (S$24) which by definition is a heart attack on the plate, at least in the days when cholesterol, not sugar, was considered the devil. It's basically egg yolks, cheese and bacon and what we get is terribly salty bacon and too-soft pasta that tastes pretty much like macaroni and cheese. Which is good or not-so-good depending on your definition.
We also experience first-hand what clams do when you put them in a tub of salt water. We're spitting out sand throughout our plate of linguine vongole (S$25), again over-cooked pasta swirled around with some oil and lots of herbs but barely any taste of clam stock, as if the clams were cooked separately and combined with the pasta at the last minute. We're not sure why all that chewing isn't yielding anything tasty, so we stop.
The lamb cutlets (S$34) are our final hope and apart from being left on the grill for too long, offer some consolation, although the string beans they come with explain why it was always hard to finish them when we were young and still had to meet our mothers' vegetable quota.
Would we have better luck with dessert? Yes and no. No for the bombolini (S$14) doughnuts - the illegitimate offspring of a heartland bakery bun and Chinese ham chin peng that inherited the bad sides of both. This textural pariah at least comes with decent vanilla ice cream. An emphatic "yes" for the tiramisu pot (S$14) - a true cake and mascarpone duet after our own heart. Bitter coffee-soaked sponge that's dark as night is layered with thick creamy mascarpone, and a bonus hint of dark chocolate. We sigh happily, and are almost on the verge of saying all is forgiven.
Publico, on the whole, is a seriously well-designed space that is worth visiting for an enjoyable evening out. If you've got good company, the food won't matter as much.
But we're told they're tweaking the menu and making some changes here and there. So give it a bit more time. Let's just hope they can catch the fairy godmother before she heads off to her next fairy tale.
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.