I strongly believe that Masterchef: The Professionals is the best culinary based competition show in the world – even though I believe Netflix’s The Mind of a Chef reigns universally supreme. Partly, this is due to the fact that rather than Gordon Ramsay, the show is hosted by esteemed chefs who have not yet sold their souls for commercial opportunities and actually give a dog’s bollocks about sharing knowledge to the contestants (I do miss having Le Gavrouche’s Michel Roux Jr. on the show though). But more importantly, it gives us viewers a chance to glimpse into the mind of a chef; how their thought processes work, and how they function under immense pressure. And the more you watch the show, the more you realise that the ones that try the hardest and are the most desperate to please are often the ones who end up being eliminated earliest. The best chefs are the ones who are comfortable and confident in their abilities, aware that they do not need gimmicks and unnecessary innovative techniques to make their food shine. While I understand that less confident chefs have the compulsive need to mask their deficiencies with frivolous distractions and unnecessary flair, I certainly did not expect this in Tippling Club, one of the highest rated restaurants in Asia to act in such a manner.
Tippling Club should be a confident restaurant; it has the credentials to be one. Hell, it is already one of the best restaurants in Asia and in Singapore, ranking at an impressive 31st in the latest Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants list (above the mighty three Michelin starred Tenku Ryugin and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong). And in some aspects, this confidence is displayed and does shine through. The decor is impressively casual and laid back, with a dark dining area with dark lighting, hipster friendly bar stools and a large open kitchen operated by a smooth, efficient team. The service team is friendly, relaxed and cheerful, while the dining clientele was free from the suit-clad yuppies that you would normally find in establishments like these. You get to pair your courses with cocktails – where the cocktail menu is basically strips of scented black paper and ingredients like burnt syrup, edible stones and grass extracts can be found. My citrusy Caramel cocktail with burnt syrup was a revelation, while the Campfire cocktail with a toasted marshmallow gets a nod of approval from my partner. But let’s move to the food because that is what you are here for. Throughout the meal, there are extreme highs. But then on other instances, you sort of get the impression that the chef is trying to hard. To best illustrate this, I shall do a dish by dish analysis of my five course tasting meal:
Before the meal began, we were served five amuse bouches and a palate cleanser. Each plate of food was immaculately presented and looked incredibly appetising. The Prawn Cracker with garlic aioli and sakura ebi tasted like a grown-up, jazzed up version of a popular Asian children snack. It was rich with umami from the shrimp, and the garlic aioli was lovely and spiky. The reconstructed Bocadillo ‘sandwich’ was even better, with an intense tomato fondue, spicy chorizo filling and paper thin feuille de brick. The Tom Yum Mousse was intriguing, with a crisp battered coriander garnish, while the aerated cheese puff with the lightest of pastry casings and a rich molten cheese centre had my companion wishing for more. The peppers with a light aerated soy ‘foam’, while salty, was intriguing, merging the West and the East in one small bite of food. There was only one minor miscue – the mushroom ‘sushi’ with algae mayonnaise. It was a confused attempt in emulating Nordic cuisine, where the musky funk of the algae overwhelmed the delicate flavours of the mushroom. Still, these were well-executed, well thought out plates of food, and one really does understand the vision of the restaurant.
Moving onto the actual courses and things start to get a little more confusing. The first course of Petuna Ocean Trout, Beetroot, Smoked Ox Tongue and Horseradish looked like it came straight out of an Andy Warhol, almost as if the trout was the victim of a horrifying homicide incident – complete with a rather jarring splattered beetroot gel. Still, the classic combination of beetroot and smoked trout works every single time, and the fish itself was perfectly cooked, without any of the slimy, slipperiness that often comes with sous vide cooking. The smoked ox tongue was rather muted, and the horseradish was nondescript. All in all though, this was still a piece of modern cooking done rather well, as it is based upon classic combinations that has proven to be successful over time.
The second course of scallops in a bowl of creamy, smooth garlic soup was a resounding success. To remove the pungency of the garlic, the chefs have triple cooked the garlic before blending it in a to form a vibrant, heartwarming bowl of soup with plenty of cream and other nice things. The scallops, lightly pre-cooked before being finished off by the residual heat of the soup, were plump and sweet. This dish was accompanied by a parsley parmesan tuile, parsley puree and home grown herbs like cats whiskers and tarragon flowers. The gentle flavours of the parsley meshed well with everything else in the bowl, creating one harmonious dish. This was a very simple dish, but it was the best course out of the entire meal; proving that simple, well thought out and well executed dishes stand out naturally.
The third course of the meal was another fish dish, this time it was turbot, regarded as the king of all fishes from a culinary standpoint. A meaty, versatile fish, it pairs well with a wide array of ingredients, from conventional accompaniments sea herbs to something out of the norm like chicken and meat. Sadly, the list of ingredients do not include watercress or turnips. In fact, I am convinced that the puddle of pungent, peppery emulsified watercress puree should not belong on any plate on any restaurant (Before you berate me, I do like watercress in certain dishes and do make a mean watercress soup), despite adding some vibrant colour to an otherwise dull-looking plate of dish. The fish itself was perfectly cooked, meaty and succulent, while the ‘risotto’, made of finely diced squid, was also well cooked, well seasoned and tasted strongly of the sea. Take away the watercress, replace it with a wonderful seafood sauce and this would be a triumphant plate. It was also during this course that my companion and I began to notice the extraordinary amount of green on the plates of food being served to us – dots of green parsley puree here, slick of green there… Yes I am aware that it is spring and there is a need to convey a sense of freshness to diners. But there is a fine line between beautiful, springtime dishes and the green eggs and ham found in Dr. Seuss stories. And Tippling Club was teetering nervously between the two at the moment.
When the third course arrived, I instinctively groaned. Before even tasting it, my appetite was whetted away by the large slab of green that covered the main elements of the entree. It was a piece of milk skin, stained green from food colouring before being presented on the dish like a cheap piece of Kraft Cheese found on supermarket shelves. Remember the green eggs and ham reference just a few lines above? Yeah, we are balls deep in Dr. Seuss territory now. The milk skin itself added nothing to the dish, and both my companion and I left it on the plate. The actual main course was four measly pieces of pork, which was a bit of a let down. Nonetheless, it was well cooked with a crisp exterior and a juicy inside. Braised salsify added a nutty element to the dish, while the salsa verde provided spice. These are very simple flavour combinations that work well together, but once again, it seemed as if the chef has gone out of control with his ideas just for the stake of standing out from the norm.
After the disappointing pork dish, we were done with the mains and were given a small palate cleanser to refresh our taste buds. The Mandarin Orange ‘Bomb’ was freezing cold. I made the mistake of popping the entire thing in one go, like a gourmet Ferrero chocolate, and instantly regretted it. The immense coldness and the spice from the curry sent me into a coughing fit. Regretfully, due to this coughing episode, I did not taste much of the palate cleanser, though my partner assured me that it was rather lovely.
Finally, after a long and eventful two hours, dessert was served (seriously though, how do people labour through 10, 12, 15 course meals?). It was a stark contrast with the previous plates of food. While earlier courses were lovely and green, with colours that evoked the sense of spring and life, this was completely dystopian and was eerily black. But this was a rather successful plate of food. Tonka bean is an acquired taste, and can taste like the contents in a bottle of perfume if the chef has a slightly heavy hand. Here, the chocolate ganache was well balanced and well judged, with just a hint of the perfumed tonka flavour coming through. It also had a lovely sugar crust on the outside to provide a bit of a bite. I have never had oxidised bananas before, but they were tart and provided an acidic spark. It was served in a multitude of ways, with the banana ‘creme brûlée’ standing out the most. A jet black banana puree was piped into the lightest of sugar cylinders, showing that even though the menu may have been a bit confused, there were still some damn good chefs in the brigade. So, despite the rather depressing presentation – seriously, the dish looked like it came from one of Francisco Goya’s 14 Black Paintings – this was actually a very successful, unique dish.
Overall, Tippling Club seems like a restaurant that is trying too hard, despite having a fantastic brigade of chefs, a lovely setting and a very innovative ethos. Still, sometimes in life it is important to take a step back or dial back slightly, as it is better to simplify than to overcomplicate things. The best plates of food served to me during this five course tasting menu were simple, well thought out and perfectly executed. Tippling Club has the tools to become a vaunted dining establishment ranked up there with all the big names in Singapore, it just needs someone to install a “STOP” switch. Still, they have fed me well and I would happily come back again. But for the love of Christ, throw away green coloured milk skin next time.
Tippling Club, 38 Tanjong Pagar Rd, Singapore, 088461
5 course tasting menu for two with two cocktails ~ SG$450