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Revamped restaurant worthy of its Michelin star
333 Orchard Road
#02-37, Mandarin Gallery
Tel: 9159 3177
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 7pm to 10pm
THE curtains have parted at béni. Once dark, foreboding and mysterious, the newly-revamped and newly-minted one-Michelin star restaurant has since discovered the light. And it can't seem to get enough of it.
Nothing is left to the imagination at béni's new home on the second floor of the Mandarin Gallery, where sister restaurant Hashida used to be. You can't miss it because the big sign and bigger glass panels give you - and every random person walking by - an unfettered view of the counter-style Japanese-French restaurant.
The heavy black drapes we used to fight against to get into its dim, black box theatre-like stage on the fourth floor are all gone. In their place is a large, bright open kitchen where everything from mise en place to final plating is done on the large cool marble counter top. It's as if a magician has opened the back door to reveal the secrets behind his tricks - and they're not so magical after all.
Since we are not there for any sleight-of-hand action, this suits us fine as we get a full view of chef Kenji Yamanaka and his two assistants, working so quietly and efficiently that we're barely aware of what's happening until our food arrives.
Blame it partly on our seats at one end of the counter where the curtains - yes, the restaurant does have a predilection for heavy fabrics - are parted to reveal an intriguing "Deep-Fried Oyster Fair" sign at the tonkatsu joint outside.
We are slightly distracted trying to make out the prices when our bread "bag" arrives, thoughtfully filled with hot stones to keep the collection of baguette, wholemeal and seaweed bread nice and toasty warm. In line with its Michelin star and aspirations for more, the butter has "béni" stamped on it and is unsalted so you can add your choice of sea salt, sansho pepper salt or very fine soya sauce crystals to it. The bread is ok - not the kind we want to wrap in a tissue and hide in our bag.
Lunch offers three choices: A very friendly S$68 set that adds to the unchanged S$128 and S$228 menus. The bread will help pad up the S$68 menu with its four dainty courses including an amuse bouche of chopped smoked salmon under a squirt of whipped leek cream and a few grains of oscietra caviar. Nothing intellectually demanding, just an easy-peasy match of slippery salmon and oniony cream.
béni's cuisine leans largely in this direction - straightforward, light French contemporary with a familiar Japanese lightness and precision. Nothing to make a chef stay awake at night with pen and paper to jot down lightbulb moments.
From the S$68 menu, the amuse bouche is followed by a light mushroom tart - a passable thin flaky crust smeared with mushroom pate and pan-fried mushrooms, with a simple salad by the side. A fleeting presence of cheese suggests a flavour hit-and-run by a piece of Parmesan.
If you order the S$128 menu, you get a "vegetable garden" with 25 kinds of vegetables - who's counting? - laid out as a salad of raw leaves and cooked root vegetables, with flavour boosters such as tomato crumble and pureed beetroot, lemon and black garlic. Clouds of clam emulsion add a briny accent to the whole compilation. Either take their word about the 25 different vegetables or bring an auditor on your next meal. Either that or push the plate to your companion having the cheaper set so he can do the counting while you have your extra courses.
Those courses would include an ice-cold chawanmushi infused with truffle and topped with a creamy rich mushroom veloute. It's almost like eating cold savoury mushroom ice cream which is rather nice in a cloying way.
A pan-seared Hokkaido scallop creation (a S$22 supplement) stands out for being piping hot - such a rarity in restaurants these days. The scallop is decent, given a good sear and dressed up with both roasted and pureed celeriac. Truffle dressing on the side lends a bit of acidity, while a squid ink lattice cracker adds extra salt and crunch. It's a well-executed dish but we're starting to sense an over-reliance on truffle by now.
The Japanese tile fish or amadai is roasted with its scales intact and hats off to the chef for getting it shatteringly crisp perfect with milky flesh. A yellow-tinged fennel cream with a hint of saffron makes friends with a pilaf of buckwheat grain and vegetable brunoise. Both complement the fish very well.
It's time for the S$68 diner to get his main course and it's a decent-sized fillet of kinmedai (a big-eyed snapper) that's cooked sous-vide so it looks steamed, sitting on truffle sauce (again) and topped with finely shredded black truffle.
For the S$128 set, swopping the venison for iberico pork is not a good decision as the two medallions dry up within minutes of the first mouthful. It takes the generous drizzle of sweet ruby port reduction to counter the anaemic meat.
Desserts are our joy of the day, starting with a pre-dessert of rose ice cream with refreshing red currant jelly and raspberries. Our favourite is the bi-coloured spears of pear, cooked in white and red wine and arranged with melt-in-the-mouth almond meringue biscuit at the bottom, crunchy nuggets on the side, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. It make us happy enough to almost want to wave at curious passersby bending down to peer below the curtain level into the restaurant. Almost. We would need more whisky in the whisky-laced baba to do that - the booze-soaked baby cakes sitting in yuzu syrup, topped with chocolate cream whirl and vanilla ice cream is more enjoyable than we expect.
Other nice touches include petit-fours of warm financiers and chocolate tarts and free coffee and tea. All of these add up to a credible one-star Michelin meal - meaning it meets the guide's requirements in a polished, albeit unexciting manner. It's a place you wouldn't mind being friends with, but it'll be a while before we become best buddies.
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.