SINGAPORE — My fondest memory of being at Singapore Botanic Gardens involved me, a lover, and a wooden awning sprawling with creepers under which we stood waiting for the rain to abate. I am deftly reminded of this while making my way to Corner House to peruse the menu crafted by new Executive Chef, David Thein, who took over the reins of the kitchen from Singaporean darling, Jason Tan.
Tan was instrumental in taking Corner House to a much-coveted Michelin star, and many wondered if this new entrant will keep the stars shining equally bright against the beautiful setting of Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Thein prides his menu as being French-Asian and that in itself, left me shuddering with trepidation. When two culinary cultures that sit on opposite ends of the gastronomical spectrum (and globe) meet, what does one get? How does anyone find a middle point where both converge and use that as a worthy jumping ground to craft an entire 7-course menu? It’s an audacious act, this attempt at gastronomical synergy but one that, I’m happy to report, Thein pulls off with aplomb—but only at times.
He eases the diner into a lull of familiarity with an artisanal bread basket of squid ink youtiao, curry potato puff bread, and crusty sourdough roll served with unsalted Bordier butter (of course) and a delightfully pungent quenelle of sambal belacan butter. I’ve never had sambal belacan in any other forms except the original, but now, you can count me a fan of the butter iteration.
And then, he dances you through a trio of canapés that are reflective of Asian countries with a rich and diverse food history. From Thailand, a beef tartare sitting pretty on a lettuce cup; India manifests as a crispy poppadum with dahl aioli and steamed Sri Lankan crab meat; while a mackerel and obsiblue prawn Otah “croq-monsieur” is Singapore and Malaysian favourite brought to life in brioche and comté cheese. So far, so good.
Things get a bit more experimental from here forth—but most thoughtfully. The staff brought me Achards, or more commonly known as Achar. In a lot of Asian cuisines, this sugar-vinegar pickled vegetable delicacy is usually served as a condiment to brighten up a dish.
Here, Thein shows off the prowess of Achar by incorporating it in complementary ingredients that readily take in the magic of pickling. It all pays off very handsomely. I especially enjoyed the granita made from the achards’ pickling liquid—an intensely bold jolt of acidity that hits you at the back of the throat. If you’re one to be easily taken by surprise, I suggest letting it simmer and melt slightly.
While the P’tit l‘ail was meant as a tribute to the humble Koo Chye (Chinese chive)—and it was—I was more taken by the sweet nuances of the Hokkaido scallops. It indeed was one of the sweetest scallops I’ve ever had, which is an excellent balance against the mounds of earthy chive green-ness it’s carpeted in. There’s also a grand total of three thick strands of kway teow noodles, which, though small in quantity, has a pronounced wok-hei to it that takes me by surprise.
But of course, not everything was a hit. Some misses were entirely forgivable, but only because I appreciated the care and objective behind its execution. Take for example ‘One for all and all for one’ (I know, I know) an entirely Asian spin on risotto made using charred bean sprouts cut into the shape of rice.
While the creamy familiarity of risotto is present front and centre from the use of a mascarpone and parmesan cheese sauce, and the dish suitably elevated for fine dining with Hokkaido uni, there’s no escaping the sharp, unmistakable taste of bean sprouts underneath all this lusciousness. This was a dish conceived of team effort, but if anything, it’s confusing, a little bit overreaching, and a perfect example of how too many cooks do spoil the broth.
A dash of satay sets up expectation from its moniker alone, but a chicken satay it is not. The chicken could afford a fiercer grill and a bolder char while the exceedingly smooth Foie gras satay sauce could do with a touch of fried shallots to make this dish worthy of its name. This dish is finished tableside with a confusing pouring of chicken jus, which left me even more perplexed.
Not all hope is lost, though. I found the Japan X France portion of this meal to be most enlightening, though not all food writers would agree. Here, beef is given its day in the sun, and while it is easy to push for a Wagyu beef au naturale, I appreciate Thein’s effort in creating two acts for beef this exquisite to shine.
The first is Sukiyaki. The A4 Toriyama wagyu is ribbon-ed and grilled till melt-in-your-mouth consistency and served alongside French eel and a confit egg yolk that made my heart sing. The red wine jus is heavily decent and only aids in further uplifting the meatiness of this presentation. I tried eating everything daintily, but Sukiyaki is best enjoyed by moping everything up, so you get a little bit and the best of every element.
Act two is an Ochazuke that turned out to be my favourite dish for this lunch. Conceptually, it’s straightforward—chopped Wagyu beef tartare sits on a bed of seasoned Ibaraki and glutinous rice, finished with a light but fragrant Yuzu dashi. What’s impressive was the yuzu kosho, and furikake sprinkled on top which added a brief and welcome dash of spice in a 7-course presentation that has thus far been light on the palate.
My dining partner suggested I mixed this together for a more satisfying mouthfeel. Still, I prefer it scooped in parts so as to appreciate better the physical layers of flavours that it carries.
Burning memories is one of those desserts that could either be conceived before its creation or named after its conception—I’m not sure. But I’m impressed by the strict architectural form of this plating, a confident departure from the more organic forms taken by the previous courses.
It’s anchored by chocolate every which way save for the icy strip in the middle that shines bright red. That is the Hainanese chilli inspired sorbet which is also one of the most exciting things to happen today. Fortunately, it’s not intensely spicy Iike chilli is wont to do, rather it adds an interesting tingle into what is quite an overwhelmingly chocolate dessert.
It’s something I’m thankful for because if you’ve been a regular reader, you’d know my hate-hate relationship with chocolate desserts. It’s a saving grace though, this chilli-inspired sorbet, and in some ways, reflective of this new menu that probably needs slight tweaks and refinements before it can be crowned as adequately finished. Corner House under a new chef is many things—innovative, fresh, experiential. But to deem it worthy of the bright stars it inherited might be too premature—well, at least for now.
Website | 1 Cluny Road, Singapore Botanic Gardens, S259569
Lunch: 12 pm – 3 pm
Dinner: 6.30pm – 11pm
Balancing the New Normal: