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Old-school reliability from Mag's Wine Kitchen
Mag's Wine Kitchen
55 Keong Saik Road, #01-06
Tel: 6438 3836
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2pm; 5.30pm to 10pm. Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun.
EATING in a restaurant that forces you to listen to covers of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads makes you: a) depressed at your own vintage; b) relieved that it's not Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You; c) even more depressed when they start playing Andy Williams' Moon River.
If none of these ring a bell, then go eat in a restaurant that plays 1980's hits in a dining room of chefs who grew up in the 1990s and think no one can possibly be older than the Pet Shop Boys.
Those with a longer memory may remember Mag's Wine Kitchen, a cosy bistro in Circular Road that was a mainstay for wine lovers and banker types who patronised it for ex-banker Magdalene Tang's robust French fare, at a time when such eateries were few and far between.
That was way back in 1996 (Les Amis had opened just two years before) when the independent restaurant scene was nascent and freshly baked (from frozen) Delifrance-type baguettes (which were rather nice actually) that you might vilify now, and were a step up from local bakery buns.
After 23 years of staying the course, Mag's has moved right smack into hipsterville Keong Saik Road, where its neighbours are the likes of Olivia the Spanish restaurant and Pasta Bar, in the mod accommodation space KeSa House.
How does a fixture of the past fit into the concept-heavy dining scene of today? Well, the Delifrance-like buns are oddly still there, but the new Mag's seems spruced up for the current era - with a very "now" dining counter that is the first thing you see when you step in. This is where regulars will likely gather as Mag's chefs (and occasionally Mag herself) pull together a reliable line-up of standard bistro options and some token Japanese-style creations.
If you have no history with Mag's, then it comes across as an unpretentious, somewhat generic eatery with a European-leaning menu comprising carpaccio, foie gras, charcuterie, tartare and so on. Prod the staff a little and they might offer to bring you an off-menu starter of cold soba and king crab (S$26).
While we wait, we nibble on the blah bread, listen to the soporific music and try not to notice people going to the bathroom that's right in front of our table, albeit behind a tastefully designed opaque glass door (and an equally nice bathroom within).
Chalk it up to an oddly shaped space that even forces them to wash dishes in front, in full view of counter diners.
We're soon distracted by the soba, refreshingly cold and chewy, tossed in a mild yuzu-soy-dashi dressing that's topped with a fleshy Alaskan crab leg of very decent quality. There's no great thought involved - just common sense and a knack for easy-to-please combinations.
Wagyu carpaccio (S$26) is straight out of Italian 101 - a layer of thin wagyu squares overlap each other to form a rectangle that's pretty but a pain to separate, so you get unwieldy wads of meat dressed in a bland olive oil-shoyu mix, showered with parmesan shavings, grated truffle and rocket leaves. There's a fine line between melt-in-the-mouth beef and eating raw shabu shabu - but we are a sucker for quantity and scarf it up anyway.
The winner of the evening is the Kagoshima beef (S$50) which must have been prepared by one with the skills of a teppanyaki chef and the DNA of a siobak lover. The marbled meat is tender as its Japanese genes dictate it to be, but here the fatty bits are crisped so well it tastes almost like crackling pork belly skin.
Garlic chips add to the joy, and you can have your pick of miso, salt or espelette pepper to dip the meat into.
The lobster risotto (S$44) is not the most exciting, akin to the pleasure of meeting an old aquaintance rather than a long-lost friend. It's familiar in an old-fashioned way - not too creamy but without enough depth in the stock used to cook the al dente rice. The whole lobster tail on the side is the real star - barely cooked to be just a tiny shade raw but quite succulent.
This is the kind of place that you would expect to find chocolate fondant for dessert without even looking at the menu - and there it is.
Well-executed (S$14) oozy chocolate sauce flowing from its cakey mountain, and vanilla ice cream on the side - safe, predictable comforting. Think of it as your pillow with a higher calorie count. If you feel like living dangerously, try the yuzu curd (S$12) for a citrusy zing topped with blobs of broiled meringue and tart berries to keep your toes curled.
You ask the question: So why does eating out have to be a mental challenge all the time? What's wrong with perfectly acceptable, predictable food, with music from a long time ago, enjoyed among friends who might have enough wine by the end of the night to warble "Take me home" in unsynchronised karaoke? Absolutely nothing. And for those who feel that way, Mag's Wine Kitchen is the answer.
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.