SINGAPORE — Apart from 2020 being a year of all things vegetable, turns out, this is also the year that made al-fresco dining glamorous again. It is encouraged in part by the allure of sitting outside where fresh air blows and any semblance of virus contamination is swiftly carried away with the wind. It’s helped too by the fact that landlords and government bodies are practising generosity by allowing restaurants to expand their sitting capacity at the perimeter, setting up tables and chairs outside so that indoors, safe distancing measures can strictly adhere.
It’s a concept Caffe Fernet had embraced wholeheartedly when landlord, Fullerton Bay, allowed 80 seats to be set up outside bringing the establishment’s total seating capacity to 130, with 50 of these being indoor. As far as al-fresco sitting is concerned, it really doesn’t get much better than here at Caffe Fernet where you’re greeted by an expansive view of glittering Marina Bay Sands on the horizon, and a sky that changes hue as day turns into night.
The menu here hinges on refined flavours of new-Italian cuisine, which, in plain speak, simply refers to traditional Italian ingredients and dishes updated with local and seasonal produce. There’s not much fanfare to be held here, so taper those expectations especially when much of what we know of Italian fare veers more towards big, hearty, and rich flavours that seem created to satiate fully.
What is present at Caffe Fernet though is a curation of food by former Wolfgang Puck chef, David Tang, that is boldly acid-forward. To have food with elements of acidity in a place such as this, is, of course, to be expected, but to be duly informed of the fact means a certain pride and dedication to this one element of gastronomy—it’s simply laudable. It’s a commitment to citric that’s consistent from plate to plate, no matter how unsuspecting its outlook.
A Mushroom Agrodolce (S$24++), for example, comes with exceedingly smooth corn polenta and a medley of savoury mushrooms that have been glazed with a red wine agrodolce—a sauce reduction of honey and fruit vinegar that lends an eclectic tang to a plate this moreish. It is also generously seasoned—almost on the veer of being too salty, but fortunately not. I like this dalliance with salt. It’s bold, daring, and quite possibly demandingly foolhardy.
A plate of Burrata (S$24++) comes with pleasantly sweet green tomatoes and layers of very, very mild heat and acidity, of course, from the sauce of roasted tomatillo and fermented serrano chile. It’s subtle this spiciness, like a brief “Hey” on the streets from that person you’re secretly in love with. Hey you. I see you.
This acid-forward approach works—mostly. There’s an Octopus (S$32++), that, in my head, I set up unfairly to be the bastion of perfection. I mean, it’s an Octopus, hello? Could there be any other seafood more delectable? Here, the octopus has been treated well. But the accompaniment of pepperoncini Rosso vinegar and basil oil could use a little cheerleading on the side to uplift the flavour of this fine octopus much heroically.
Pasta selections bring joy, although at times regrettably placid. The Tonnarelli Vongole (S$29++) was the best pasta I’ve tasted in a long while—an Italian take on a classic spaghetti vongole. Cured citrus butter hugs the squid ink tonnarelli like a long-lost lover with a deep longing in their heart. It’s well seasoned, though at this point I’m hardly surprised. It also came with a generous handful of flower clams and dried chilli thrown in for a slight herbaceous edge and makes for a great mouthfeel with the butter sauce. I’ll come back for this.
Mains come by way of fish and beef. The Pompano Piccata (S$42++) is an Italian take on the Golden Pomfret, served with golden nectar of Amalfi lemon sauce that pairs dazzlingly with the fish. I’m impressed at how easily this Ah Hua Kelong fish flakes like a dream in the mouth with a crispy layer of skin that tethers between being bold and gentle—it’s all pleasingly perplexing, but I suppose some fish do that to you. As much as it is good on its own, it’s the little touches of trout caviar and capers that really brings everything together.
Nothing could have prepared me, though, for the Peppered Short Rib (S$65++) which rendered me completely speechless, eyes rolling at the back of my socket, as I think about what I’ve done right in the world to deserve such praiseworthy chunks of meat. While I usually scoff at restaurants that lean much too much on fabulous Black Angus short rib for superior taste, here, Chef David has transformed this good class of meat with a lacquer of honey mustard, black pepper, and coriander seeds before being slow-roasted—overnight.
The result is meat that gives way with nary a resistance so the mouth can focus on the medley of sweetness, gaminess, and slight spice that pairs gorgeously with the salad of lightly pickled fennel and nectarine.
I would be lying through gritted teeth if I said I wasn’t expecting a fancier dessert. But then again, the slice of Cheesecake (S$16++) was a fitting coda to a meal that’s been filled with non-stop fireworks. It’s a rectangle block of lemon ricotta that no matter how greedy your portion, does not fill you up quite as quickly as regular cream cheese does.
It sits on a Rosemary shortbread which, frankly, is the most original idea in a cheesecake I’ve ever seen. To be given cheesecake for dessert is brave even for restaurants with fame on their side. But at Caffe Fernet, courage is but another word for confidence, and with food this punchy and terrific, you could serve me flavoured ice for dessert, and I wouldn’t even blink an eye.
Website | 70, #01-05 Collyer Quay, Customs House, S049323
Mon - Tue: 4pm to 10.30pm
Wed - Sun: 12pm to 10.30pm
Balancing the New Normal: