DINING OUT

Spanish ayes for Kulto

The newly opened paella and tapas eatery gets off to a satisfying start.

NEW RESTAURANT

Kulto
87 Amoy Street
Singapore 069906
Tel: 9620 5626
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10.30pm. Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun.

IT'S been so long since we've eaten in Barcelona that we wouldn't recognise authenticity if it slipped behind us on a train and nicked our smartphone. A chicken nugget could dab itself with aioli and call itself tapas - and we would let it slide. We've even willingly eaten enough grilled octopus legs here to be hauled up for crimes against cephalopods - but we would appeal on the grounds that we didn't enjoy any of them.

While we have learned to manage our expectations of late, it took a nibble of green olives and a sip of Rioja at Kulto to almost stir up some long-buried memories of croquettes and jamon in the touristy bodegas of Barceloneta.

The key word is "almost", but what's a caveat between travel-starved foodies? Besides, we've got the best of both worlds with chef-owner Jose Alonso, a born-and-bred Rioja native who's worked with enough establishment chefs in Spain and done enough rounds of the local dining scene (and the Singaporean palate) to know what works and what doesn't here - namely, a penchant for eating earlier than the Spanish and a low threshold for salt.

Chef Alonso started off with the high-end Binomio (which was respectable when he was there) and branched out with mainstream Tapas Club (for cheap but cheerful basics).

Now he's got his own place and he's picked a comfortable middle ground for his debut at Amoy Street, where hipness is plentiful but parking is not.

The food is not a major stretch for him as it's really an upgraded version of Tapas Club, but with higher prices and therefore better quality ingredients.

The current pricing is nonetheless very sane, especially with a two course set lunch at S$30++ (add dessert for S$5) that makes us feel like big spenders.

We're there for dinner, but the a la carte menu is cleverly priced at an average of S$28 to S$38 a course or less, so it doesn't feel like a major splurge. Fresh green olives are very mild, without any aggressive acidity so they disappear very quickly as you survey the tasteful interiors done in easy-going beige tones with touches of wicker and greenery.

A large open kitchen takes centre stage with chef Alonso in full view to satisfy your cultural bias that if there's a Spaniard in the kitchen, all will be right with your tapas.

And it is, starting with the chilli crab croquettes (S$12) where our smug cynicism about non-Asians not being able to capture the essence of our street food is quickly laid to rest. The creamy-but-not-cloying bechamel-filled crunchy fritters have a commendable spicy familiarity, especially with the sauce that identifies itself as onion, ginger, garlic, chilli and tomato ketchup on the palate.

Iberico chorizo, confit potato and soft eggs (S$22) is a classic plate of Spanish comfort, where nuggets of salty spicy cured sausage with smoky bak kwa undertones go to bed with tender fried potato slices and two soft-cooked eggs that envelope everything in a velvety blanket of goodness.

Chef Alonso's version of grilled octopus is part of a mar i muntanya (literally sea and mountain, or surf 'n' turf) combo with thin slices of pork belly (S$28) grilled well enough to earn him some respect at a Korean barbecue joint. He gets the meat crisp and lightly charred and maintains a resilient, juicy bite, while massaging the paprika-dusted octopus into tender submission.

He also makes a dramatic appearance with a giant pan of seafood paella (S$38 for two) that looks like it could feed an army but actually yields just enough for two. It's more of a genteel version of the real thing with plump al dente grains of rice that soak up a not-too-intense broth with seafood that doesn't taste like it went through hell and back.

The mussels are fleshy and juicy like they went through a nice sauna instead of a blistering furnace, and the same with the shrimp and clams.

Meanwhile, a Josper-grilled Iberico pork collar (S$28) fares decently, paired with bitter grilled padron peppers.

There are no churros to end off the meal on a cliched note, but instead, a lovely whisky cake literally takes the cake with its light, cream-sandwiched sponge layers drizzled with Japanese whisky.

Consider Kulto a bridge between Spanish authenticity and Singaporean pragmatism. It's not enough to send you on a vicarious trip to La Ramblas, but it holds just enough appeal to keep your fantasy alive in safe surroundings.

With apologies to the octopus of the world, but we'll be back for more of them.

Rating: 7

WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average

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.

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