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Raising the stakes at Bacchanalia
Bacchanalia by Vianney Massot
39 Hong Kong Street
Tel: 6909 6360
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sat: 12pmto 2.30pm; 6.30pm to 10pm
A GOOD restaurant is kind of like a well-thought-out argument. It's one that holds up under scrutiny, even as naysayers try to pick apart its logic - not unlike the spouse who disses the theory that a life-sized lighted reindeer (with optional Santa) on your balcony would bring joy and goodwill to all men and women who pass by below.
It's one that starts with a strong premise, and branches out into components to support it. When they all sync together, you have a pretty sound plan. But if it starts to fray when you stab at it with the pitchfork of a devil's advocate, that's when a little more thought is in order.
This is the sense we get at Bacchanalia by Vianney Massot - the newly refurbished Hong Kong Street restaurant that's now into its third incarnation after its two predecessor chefs Ivan Brehm and Luke Armstrong came and went on to other things.
The fundamental premise is as clear as the black-and-white tiles that cover the show kitchen of its monochrome-themed dining room: to take Bacchanalia into two Michelin-starred territory and beyond, on the strength of this young Robuchon protege who last helmed the now-defunct L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Sentosa.
Well, the 27-year-old chef Massot is certainly its trump card. The late great Joel Robuchon has taught him well, and anyone with the patience to pipe tiny little dots of corn puree on a still life of foie gras cream topped with duck jelly and shavings of white truffle - as a complimentary amuse bouche, mind you - for every single diner, must have determination at least.
But when you look at the restaurant in total, that's where you need more convincing. Take its positioning, which appears fine-dining, but has a tendency to slip into bistro mode - intentionally or not. It boasts an open kitchen, for one. Which is all well and trendy - after all L'Atelier built itself around one.
But at least, it was tucked comfortably within the restaurant, rather than right at the entrance itself. Call us old-fashioned but when we step into a restaurant for the first time, we want to be greeted by pretty decor and a warm gracious hostess, not be startled by a chef in the middle of mise en place.
To be fair, we were early, but still, putting all the food preparation upfront (while the main show kitchen takes centre stage further inside) feels rather awkward no matter how friendly the chefs are or how clean the work space is. It's like walking in on someone in mid-dress, or unwittingly barging into a Tokyo sushi restaurant before they turn on their little lantern outside. (Never do that. They don't like it).
It's only when you manoeuvre past all the salad plucking, that you are able to enjoy the sumptuous interiors complete with thick table linen, Christofle flatware and the like.
We hate it when restaurants save their best creations for dinner (at a higher price) while going through the motions at lunch.
They don't do that here. You get to taste almost the full dinner repertoire created by chef Massot in smaller portions and at a lower price. Two courses clock in at S$98, three courses at S$118 and S$158 for four. Compare this to dinner, where a seven course degustation is priced at S$298 while the a la carte menu ranges from S$68 for an appetiser, to S$178 for a main course.
This puts it in the same pricing category as the two-starred Les Amis, which is pretty ambitious considering Bacchanalia's one star is inherited, as was L'Atelier's two stars. In fact, Les Amis's three course set lunch comes in lower in fact, at S$108 for three courses compared to Bacchanalia's S$118, while a set dinner starts off at S$238.
For all its ambitions, there is no contest between the two. You're looking at night and day, given that one is an upstart yet to prove himself as an independent operator, and the other a well-oiled operation with unbeatable produce and a chef who is there every day for lunch and dinner.
Chef Massot is not there on the day we visit - perhaps it's just our luck to show up on the one rare day he's off - but he's at least put in place a protocol where the food served is technically en pointe.
It kicks off with a snack of feather-light balls of delicate, truffle-topped pastry that melt into the savoury cheesy cream within as they settle on your tongue. Bread fresh out of the oven always makes us happy, and this time it's the puffy pull-apart Comte cheese balls that endear themselves to us.
It may be meant as an amuse bouche, but the Robuchon classic is the clear winner of the meal thanks to the precise execution, effortless fusion of foie gras and jelly, sweetness from the corn cream and earthiness from the truffle.
Le Cepe is again a classic that you see executed with varying levels of success by many a Robuchon alumnus. Shiitake-like mushrooms are painstakingly fanned out over the slimmest disc of pastry - it's a little salty, with top notes of umami and Marmite. There is supposed to be spicy eggplant caviar which we don't notice, and a cup of piping hot mushroom consomme with a tongue-tingling whack of Sarawak pepper. It's not top-of-the-class, but it's a strong pass.
Incidentally, what you read isn't always what you get. We order an a la carte starter to try - described as roasted cauliflower with lobster roe on sea urchin and imperial caviar (S$78). So imagine our concern when our attractive golden head of cauliflower arrives on a bed of puree decorated with a creamy bisque-like sauce, three puny lobes of uni... and no caviar.
For S$78? We ask about the caviar, and our server returns to say that the chef decided to omit the caviar because it did not enhance the dish, and to add more uni instead. Oh. We count our tiny lobes of uni again. There are still three. How many were there before?
But back to our set lunch, and the perfectly cooked homemade tagliatelle tossed in a creamy sauce made of hairy crab that is the last of the season, announces the chef on duty. He showers it with white truffle, which we appreciate, even if the sauce somewhat resembles that from the cauliflower and our taste buds aren't sharp enough to pick out the crab. Crab, lobster - when you can't see 'em, you just believe what you're told. The truffle dominates everything anyway.
Butter and cream maintain a constant presence, as in the main course of poulette bresse in an "ivory" sauce of beurre blanc and mixed vegetables that is straightforward and satisfying.
A diamond-shaped Omi beef steak (S$48 supplement) is a lean but tender cut, deliciously charred on the outside, and tasty without being weighed down by heavy marbling. A lovely waxy fingerling potato cuts like butter, tastes like a dream and puts other tubers to shame. Dessert is pretty, citrusy and refreshing if not superlative-inducing. Diced pineapple, passionfruit and an alcohol-spiked granita are balanced out with coconut foam; tea jelly, orange segments and bracing bergamot sorbet jolt you awake. We are more excited about the freshly baked madeleines and chocolate truffle petit fours.
Would our dining experience at Bacchanalia have been more two-star worthy had chef Massot been cooking for us? Maybe, but then he'd have to put his leave schedule on Chope as well so that we know when to make our booking.
Besides, it isn't so much about how well he cooks - it may not be original but it is well-executed and tasty. Rather, it's about how good a restaurateur he is, and how well he can align the various elements to achieve what he wants.
The price is high, but the value perception isn't, and the ingredients don't quite wow you. Service is erratic - you have servers who can lift glass domes off your food in synchronised fashion, but know little about what they're serving.
We can see where Bacchanalia wants to go, and it's still got a long runway to achieve it. He still has some convincing to do, but eventually he may just win us over.
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.