It was just this week that I was discussing about the power of names with a friend of mine. You see, I believe that each individual name ultimately symbolises who we are and what we become; after all, we as humans are defined by our names. This applies to restaurants too, where the name of the restaurant often implies a particular image, theme or message. For example, Ho Lee Fook suggests a rather casual dining atmosphere with a playful and humourous menu; Caprice and Grissini implies that the restaurant is rather elitist and formal; while the name Kaum (Balinese for ‘Tribe’) also stands as every single tribesmen in the fertile lands of Indonesia would be justified in stoning the chef in charge for his blasphemous take on traditional Polynesian food. The restaurant featured in this review, Rhoda, is an interesting one. The restaurant is named after the grandmother of head chef Nate Green (Formerly of 22 Ships and Ham & Sherry) who had inspired him to cook at a young age, and as the name implies, this is a restaurant that is designed to satisfy and provide comfort with its modern, hipster take on comfort family food. And when it is right, my God is it good.
While the food may be rustic and simple, the interior and design is anything but. Large, copper coloured industrial doors make way to a rather tasteful interior full of grey coloured stone walls, burnt wood and brass. There is an open kitchen at the centre of the restaurant, along with a large charcoal grill, so you can watch men clad in black shirts do filthy things to pieces of protein with smoke and fire. You can smell the fire, the flames and the aromas of rendered animal fat all the way at the door, and you can be sure to smell it on your jacket the very next morning. To further enhance this industrial, grungy vibe, an eclectic mix of rock n’ roll, 70’s metal and Brit-pop is blasted out of the restaurant’s speaker system. Talk? It’s hip to not talk during dinner now, as what you say will not be heard by your companion anyways. This mix of contemporary and classic is also evident in the food. While the restaurant adheres to fundamental cooking methods – with a heavy emphasis on the element of fire – and eschews from the contemporary, the plating style and flavour combinations are still relatively modern. So while Rhoda serves up grandma’s food, but it is grandma’s food with panache, style and flair.
The great Marco Pierre White once quipped that you can judge the quality of a restaurant by the quality of its bread. After all, bread is often the first thing people eat in restaurants, and trust me, first impressions matter. Here, first impressions are sublime with the restaurant’s freshly baked Suntory Dark Ale Bread. Break it apart, hear the beautiful sound of the crust giving way to a steaming hot, fluffy interior, and inhale in the lovely smokey, charred aromas of the bread. Slather on some of the restaurant’s own nori-infused butter for an umami kick and recoil back on the restaurant’s bar stools in satisfaction. It is simple food done exceedingly well. Another complimentary snack came in the form of deep fried lotus root chips & liver mousse. While the mousse was silky smooth and had tremendous flavour, it was let down by the lotus root chips, which were unfortunately stale and slightly greasy. Still, they made great nibbles while my companion and I waited for our appetisers to come.
While having little to nothing to do with grandma or home cooking, the dish of charred corn, clams, slow cooked egg & katsuobushi (HK$158) had my companion and I both purring. The sweetness of the corn meshed well with the natural, briny sweetness of the clams, while the smokey element from the char was accentuated by the inclusion of Japanese bonito flakes. The egg yolk added a touch a lavishness and provided lubrication. It was as if your roasted corn-on-the-cob had travelled to Japan for a brief, yet wildly successful, cultural exchange.
The second appetiser arrived in the form of a roasted Mangalica pork loin, with a copper brown crust and a blushed pink interior. Remember how I said that names wield power and define a person and/or thing? This pork loin was titled as ‘Very fatty (but delicious)’ on the menu, and trust me, the best way to describe this dish was that it was very fatty, and trust me, it was also very delicious. The intense heat from the behemoth that is the restaurant’s charcoal grill caramelises the surface and melts the fat on the interior, resulting in a crisp, succulent and juicy piece of pork steak. To counterbalance all this fat, protein and more fat, there is some sharp, acidulated kimchi on the side. It does cut into some of the richness, but then again, why bother? This is a bold, primitive dish; it screams “MEAT” in block capitals and hot pink neon lights. It is a display of bearded masculinity, testosterone and smoke. No point trying to taper and cut all the smoke, fat and protein, especially when the pork is as good as it is.
If you had any qualms about Rhoda being a comfort food destination, look no further than the restaurant’s cottage pie. While most of the restaurant’s other dishes have a touch of modern flair to them, this was an unadulterated, unfiltered, classical piece of cooking. The smart man would judge pies according to the mantra given by Sterling Archer: A pie should not only be hot, it should be moist; but hopefully not flakey
In all seriousness though, this was a staggering cottage pie, with big hits of cheese, meat and an intensely flavourful sauce. The beef, braised for long hours with a mix of root vegetables, peas and aromatics, is tender and soft. This lies beneath a dome of mashed potato as gold as Donald Trump’s lavatory. It is crisp and soft at the same time. A bowl of pickled purple cabbage is served on the side, with the acidity of the vegetable adding a touch of balance to an otherwise heavy dish.
Unfortunately, we hit our first major blip on what has otherwise been a very smooth road. The dish of Agria Potatoes, Burnt Roscoff Onion, Slow cooked egg, Parmesan read fantastically well. After all, who says no to well-roasted spuds sitting on a mattress of deeply caramelised onions with an egg on top to lubricate the whole damn thing with its silky, molten yolk. Warning bells rang when two waiters failed to describe the dish to us, one of whom muttered something about an onion consommé in the dish. What arrived in front of us can best be described as a car crash of flavours. The potatoes, carrying a hint of smoke from the oven, were fine by themselves or with the egg, but clashed with the intense bitterness from the burnt onion. While I can see the merits in caramelising a root vegetable until it is dark, it only works when the non-charred parts of the veg remain sweet and perfectly cooked. Here, you taste carbon on one end and the onion’s natural harshness on the other. The onion consommé added little to the dish, and when you break open the yolk, the resulting mess can best be described as a muddy brown puddle.
Thankfully, all is right again when the plates are cleared and dessert comes. It arrives in the form of a set, unbaked cheesecake – more akin to a panna cotta – that is thick and heavy with heaps of cream. The cooled cream glistens, and has a lovely little ‘panna cotta-like’ wobble. It tastes of honey and cheese, with a light, refreshing sweetness. Dots of Quince gels add a fruity note; while strips of rhubarb lend the dish its distinct, sharp note. It is a well-rounded, well conceived dessert, and ended the meal on a high. Grandma never made cheesecake like that, but I bet she wished she could.
I understand why the pundits love Rhoda. It is simple, unfussy and serves up big plates of food with big big flavour. There is a lot of fire, a lot of smoke, lots of beards, and a lot more fire. Sometimes they go a bit overboard with the seasoning and smoke, but most times, the resulting plates of food are sumptuous. It is classic, simple cooking. But now, simple is the new sexy, and Rhoda is very sexy.