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Visually exciting cuisine
1 Cluny Road, Nassim Gate
Singapore Botanic Gardens
EJH Corner House
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6.30pm to 11pm.
Sunday: brunch 11.30am to 3pm; dinner 6.30pm to 11pm
"SO what's gastro-botanica?" asks the alter ego - my penny-pinching, buffet-loving, occasional dining companion whose opinion of fine "terroir" dining is that a handful of greens, a sprinkle of edible soil and a single perfectly grown turnip do not an appetiser make. "That's not food - that's what a rabbit serves to his girlfriend when he hasn't got enough carrots to go around."
The alter ego has a point, admittedly. Selling a philosophy, whether in life or in a restaurant dining room, can swing from lofty ideal to unnecessary conceit as fast as you can say "amuse bouche", if it isn't perfectly executed.
Gastro-Botanica is a nifty catchphrase thought up by Jason Tan - chef/partner of Corner House, which replaces stalwart Au Jardin in the Botanic Gardens. For sure, it's a concept that fits the surroundings - the setting is a lovely colonial bungalow, the food is high-end French-rooted gastronomy, the house is surrounded by lush greenery ... you get the idea. But unless chef Tan's got carte blanche from Botanic Gardens to pluck and cook from its many manicured plots, gastro-botanica is a nice idea that rings a little hollow in this case.
Instead of allowing itself room to grow into its surroundings and build up its own identity naturally, Corner House seems to be squeezing itself to fit a pre-determined image of what it wants to be. Forget about spontaneity - what you get is a carefully scripted, by-the-book fine dining experience which leaves you a little stressed in wanting to be as impressed as much as the restaurant wants to impress you.
As far as the infrastructure goes, the old Au Jardin has been given a good scrub and polish, with brighter lights and a more compact dining room that fits in more tables than before. The servers are eager-beaver youngsters well-schooled in the way they recite the descriptions of the dishes and their attentiveness. But throw them a curve ball and they struggle to think on their feet, which is perfectly understandable but also an indication of how the restaurant could be setting too high a standard than they can meet at this time.
Chef Tan's cuisine is as confident as one would expect from one well-schooled in hotel fine dining and also as a Bocuse d'Or champion. That competitive streak comes through in his cooking, with dishes meticulously arranged more for visual excitement than true enjoyment.
At dinner, you have three set menus to choose from with no ala carte options. You either go the whole hog with the S$248 Discovery menu, or pick from either four or six courses priced at S$98 and S$148. With almost every second option in the latter menu attracting a supplement charge, you may end up paying much more. Still, things get off to a fun start with an amuse bouche of creamy scrambled egg and creme fraiche served in an egg shell poised on the heads of a boy and girl wooden toy, followed by torn pieces of crispy-edged cheese sponge. Snacks such as a macaron-looking soft bun sandwiched with an egg yolk marmalade and cornmeal cracker with avocado and prawn are prettier than they taste.
Chef Tan's contribution to the gastro-botanica theme includes an artful display of carabinero prawns, marinated cherry tomatoes, tomato sorbet and white tomato-flavoured marshmallow with olive oil caviar, set against a grey ceramic plate emblazoned with his initials 'JT'. You get a mouthful of firm, chunky prawn chased by a squish of sweet-sour tomato tang, followed by the zingy tomato sorbet and fluffy marshmallow - a sort of several-shades-of-tomato sock to the palate. Not particularly original, though.
He brings you down to earth with a comforting sous vide egg served in a hollowed out onion, topped with a super sweet onion puree showered with minced Australian truffle, and wafer thin onion crisps and tiny onion tart on the side. But he goes into onion overkill when the server pours earl grey tea over onion foam for a funky, tea scented creamy emulsion.
Meanwhile, his art-on-a-plate skills come into play with an elaborate canvas of dark braised red beetroot cubes scattered with smoked eel, olive powder and coloured beetroot slices. It offers a cleaner taste than the mediocre Asian spice-scented foie gras arranged with sour mango strips and sesame crisps which reminds you of Chinese style duck, but none of the joy of eating the real thing.
Cod fried with its scales on that emulate the Japanese amadei or tilefish is weighed down by its rich egg yolk confit sauce, although the rare-cooked Hungarian pork with its panko and mustard crust is better than the Australian wagyu topped with bone marrow and a bland mushroom sauce with even blander turnips stuffed with mushroom druxelles.
Dessert is a visual delight if not a tasty one. Chocolate mousse is cleverly shaped into realistic pebbles with cloying lemon curd below and real shimeji mushrooms marinated in lime; kaya flavoured creamy mousse sandwiched in tasty cookies with yuzu sorbet are a textbook example of how elements that taste great on their own don't necessarily work together.
There's little in the menu that you won't have seen in some form or other elsewhere, but it doesn't mean the dining experience in Corner House doesn't meet the standards of a restaurant of this calibre. What we'd really like though, is for the folks to stop thinking of themselves as a show house, but rather, more of a home.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good