Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A lack of choice in Singapore - and for that I am grateful

Venue: Esquina
Style: European, tapas
Address: 16 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore [Google Maps]
Phone: +65 6222 1616
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri from 12pm / Dinner Mon-Sat from 6pm
Bookings: Yes, recommended [the menu says, "no reservations!" but apparently there's been a change in policy]

Some contemporary psychologists contend that too much choice leads to unhappiness; this is based on the idea that when faced with a range of options, we experience "analysis paralysis," uncertain of how to make the best decision and, thereafter, regret over that which we did not choose.

Anecdotally, I can appreciate this, as I am a food fetishist now living in Hong Kong, a relatively small area offering 12,000 hawker stalls, dessert bars, sky bars, normal bars, cantinas, steakhouses, private kitchens and some guy with a sweet potato and quail egg cart which smells surprisingly good each time I walk past. It is the foodie equivalent of Whack-A-Mole; for every remarkable eatery you visit, there are a dozen more you should try and five more probably opened as I was finishing this sentence.

It was with relief that last week's trip to Singapore was only for two nights, denying me much choice in where we dined. There were only two destinations: 1) local Singaporean fare at the Maxwell Food Centre and, 2) Esquina.

Like it's sister restaurant in Hong Kong, 22 Ships, Esquina is named for where it is situated; the former on Ship Street, the latter literally on a corner (the Spanish word being, 'esquina'). I can see why they opted not to name themselves after the street itself - "Jiak Chuan Road" was entirely meaningless to our cab driver, who thought we'd prefer to spend the evening in a car park instead.

Once inside, we engaged in conversation with executive chef Andrew Walsh, who sold us on the multi-course tasting menu without so much as having to twist an arm (no brutish behaviour whatsoever; you do wonder if you'll at least get some colourful language when dealing with a team whose culinary director is a protégé of Gordon Ramsay).

We drank Palacio Remondo's 2011 "La Vendimia" rioja blend of garnacha and tempranillo, not because I know that much about wine but the blood orange and soft tannins tasting notes struck me as being well suited to a meal that would run the gamut of seafood, cured meat, paprika and Manchego.

First came breakfast, a miniature stew of pure egg, smoky Iberico and a bravas sauce at the bottom that was so tangy as to be sweet. In a good way. 

Spanish Breakfast: Slow-cooked egg, bravas sauce, potato & crispy Iberico

For our second courses, I opted for the scallop ceviche, which was so clean-tasting as to almost be a palate cleanser. Really, they should make a gum flavour out of this dish. Nate and I swapped plates halfway and I tried his Iberico Bellota course, which is as melt-in-your-mouth as pork products get, with a nutty taste.

Scallop ceviche, iced cucumber, avocado and wasabi puree, radish and yuzu ponzu

Iberico Bellota

Up next is sea urchin, a delicacy that doesn't overwhelm people with happiness if you tell them that's what you're bringing to a dinner party. The outer spines effectively conceal that inside, there is nothing but tender deliciousness. This course was the umami equivalent of a nuclear weapon; Nate and I ceased to have any awareness of one another's presence while this was in front of us. It's remarkable how meaty seafood can taste and this was like a crayfish had had its genes spliced with a bag of Porcini mushrooms.

Sea urchin & crab bisque, sea grapes & herring roe

Things briefly get out of hand when whipped potato explodes from chef Andrew's cream cannister, decorating the guests sitting next to us as well as the good chef himself. They may be perturbed, I can't tell, but Andrew has a sense of humour about it, leans in for a photo and orders complimentary drinks for the "victims."

The remnant of confit egg yolk dripping down the side of the shell in the picture below gives some sense of the decadence of Esquina's beef tartare: you are encouraged to tear apart your bread, pile it up with the ruby red beef pieces and mop up the creamy egg and frozen foie gras gratings as you eat. It's a triumph of excess.

Beef tartare, spicy ketchup, confit egg yolk, frozen foie gras & toast

The tartare is a tough act to follow, but having tried 22 Ships' smoked beetroot, goats cheese and pear dish, I figured this variant with burrata and honeycomb would not let us down. It's a masterful combination of taste and texture, I just can't go past a dish that is smooth, crunchy, sweet, nutty and herbaceous all at once. Another word that needs inventing: something that describes a person who is greedy for sensory variation.

Marinated beetroot salad, honeycomb burrata, pinenut crumble

I realize that saying "everything is amazing" is boring but I can only work with the facts. The honey roasted chicken wings do bear a resemblance to a bowl of rolled oats, but the crumbly granola and truffle milk is delicate and balanced, with no element overwhelming the other and we wanted more, on the spot.

Honey roasted chicken wings, pinenut, bacon & oatmeal granola, truffle artichoke milk

Next in the procession, another scallop dish, essentially a "surf 'n turf" but with a regional variation: airy green curry with gamey duck meat alongside the large, firm scallop and the best coconut rice I've tried (could the secret be to use coconut cream rather than milk?).

Seared scallops, duck green curry, pickled papaya, coconut rice

Nate and I had been eyeing the roasted padron peppers leaving the kitchen and our hungry eyes were rewarded with a complimentary plate of them, in all their spicy, chargrilled, garlicky glory.

Roasted padron pepper, chilli, garlic, salt

Closing out the savoury courses was the most aggressively meaty dish on the menu: a combination of ox cheek and tongue, with great development of flavours, which had been cooked long enough as to dissolve in the mouth, set against a half-crunchy half-smooth hazelnut pesto sauce.

Ox cheek & tongue, tarragon & hazelnut pesto

Pre-dessert tasters of sangria ice-cream cones are cute but could taste more of sangria for my liking.

Sangria ice-cream cones

I decide to be predictable and give in to my chocolate craving, ordering up the chocolate mousse with chocolate soil, blackberries and churros. The mousse comes in a nice, thick quenelle but isn't noteworthy, though the churros are right on the mark: crisp and fresh without a trace of grease. Nate's choice of peanut butter with caramelized banana and rum is more memorable, with its distinctive sweet, burnt flavours.

Chocolate mousse, chocolate soil, blackberries, served with churros [background]

Peanut butter & jam sandwich, peanut butter ice cream, caramelized bananas, rum & raisin jam

It is at this point that I am reminded of something Steve Martin said: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." The same is true of food, assuming that, like music, it makes you feel something. Something that you must tell others about, so that they might be moved as well. It's then that you realize how inadequate language is and that there is no word that captures exactly how a paper-thin slice of dry-aged pork feels against your tongue. Someone once said to me, as I struggled to describe something, "It's the memory of it that's always better anyway." Spoken like a veteran of the only thing worse than bad food - bad sex. The memory of it is never as good which makes the moment in which you eat it that much more tantalising, because soon it will be over and no barrage of language can capture the visceral pleasure of well-made food, particularly when eaten in good company.

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