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Whitegrass makes a comeback
30 Victoria Street
Open for dinner only Tues to Sat: 6pm to 9pm
IT was supposed to be a clean break. After a three-year relationship with Singapore diners who fell in love with his brand of modern Australian cuisine at Whitegrass, Sam Aisbett decided it wasn't going to work out. "It's not you, it's me - and manpower problems, leasing issues..."
By last December, it was over. There might have been sniffles. A vague promise of getting back together with a smaller restaurant. That hasn't materialised. So that was that.
So we thought. Five months down the road, Whitegrass is suddenly back. Not with Chef Aisbett, but a new guy, hoping to pick up where his predecessor left off.
Not so fast.
Maybe if the owners (the same as the original Whitegrass) had just changed the name and started on a new slate, that might have alleviated some preconceptions your mind has to deal with. Starting with "What happened to the rest of the restaurant?" when we're shown to our table in a tiny, solitary dining room. We remember three - each individually decorated, like living pages from an 80's issue of Home & Garden magazine. Now it's just the one, with another blocked off for private dining.
But the name remains - and presumably its star - so we're meant to forget the past and embrace the new chef - the exceedingly polite and enthusiastic Takuya Yamashita. He has some Michelin-starred chops of his own, coming from the one-starred Ciel et Sol in Tokyo, which we haven't had the pleasure to try. He hails from Nara prefecture, and as can be expected, the menu emphasises produce from Japan, executed with French flair. "La Cuisine Naturelle" is the premise, and you pick from either a five-course set for S$168 or an eight-course seasonal degustation for S$228, to see how Chef Yamashita executes it.
The chef is new in town so he's operating in a bit of a vacuum, relying on what he's already done in Tokyo to appeal to an audience he doesn't really know.
The evening's snacks - usually a time to make a good first impression with little bites of creativity - are too restrained for our tastes. Rather good chewy-dense pandan toast is a polite companion to a blob of bafun uni that's creamy with a tinge of funkiness but nothing comes out of that conversation. A cube of jellied shredded oxtail looks pretty perched on its marrow bone but will not have you at "hello". But what will complete you is an unusual sweet-savoury crunchy tart filled with a peanut butter mixture and a topping of parmesan cheese floss that picks up on the salty notes.
Focaccia - which looks like a slice of normal crusty bread but why quibble - comes out with a warning that it's hot from the oven and is indeed lovely with a crackling crust that shatters satisfyingly. Enjoy it with your pick from a roll call of butter flavours that include seaweed and yuzu.
A first course of oyster holds some promise. A large specimen from Hyogo prefecture - which could be just a bit fresher and plumper for perfection - sits in its own juices sweetened with granny smith apple puree and clear jelly bits, under a layer of sliced baby zucchini. The briny flesh gets a lift of sweetness and acidity combined, while the zucchini offers companionship if nothing much else.
A deboned chicken wing is stuffed with a rice and mushroom mixture that's more rustic than elegant, although it's shaped in a very neat ball and lowered into clear chicken consomme, and finished off with a shower of truffle flakes. It's simple and competent, but not particularly striking.
When you're claiming to uphold the beauty of nature's bounty with little manipulation, the ingredients really have to shine and this is where the chef's sourcing falls short.
A lightly steamed fillet of hirame needs to glisten, bounce and flake all at the same time, not sit dull and heavy under a pretty blanket of buttery sansho pepper-infused crumble. It's labelled as Ikejime on the menu - not a preparation method like our server describes it, but the way the fish is killed with a long needle through its spine to keep the meat quality pristine. Not so with this particular specimen though, where something has definitely been lost on the journey to Singapore.
The main course of lamb loin is passable - round, delicate medallions of rare meat contrasted with a lamb croquette, pulled together with a swirl of spicy capsicum sauce and roast asparagus. Pretty straightforward affair.
Dessert is a winner - vanilla-ish ice cream that's actually made from sake lees, surrounded with strawberry chunks, all enveloped in a vibrant layer of red jelly that tastes both familiar and surprising at the same time. It's a trait that Chef Yamashita should aim for in the entire meal.
The new Whitegrass is barely two weeks old, so it still needs to find its feet. The staff are sweet and try extremely hard but are prone to nervousness. The food needs a rethink, with a stronger Tokyo accent for a better identity - which means much better quality ingredients, sharper presentation and clearer flavour. For the price, it should deliver much more.
Our meal feels like an awkward first date, as we try to wrap our heads around this new setup while the chef and team get used to their new environment too. But there are enough sparks to make this a potential long-term relationship, so let's see where we go from here.
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.