Whitegrass is one of the most intriguing restaurants in Singapore I’ve been to this year (though this year has been a fairly quiet one!). Not because the dishes at Whitegrass are straightforwardly delicious – no, the most straightforwardly delicious meal this year might go to Odette (Singapore), which turned out a fine French meal with aplomb in June. Rather, it is because chef Sam Aisbett, an ex head-chef of Sydney’s Quay, has an adventurous mind, and his attempts at “international cuisine” dishes are some of the most sophisticated I’ve tried.
“International cuisine” is often interpreted by chefs at a very basic level to mean using ingredients from other geographies in homage to the foreign style – e.g. I’ve had a few dishes in Europe that featured Japanese ingredients, that had diverged too far from the original to remind me of them. (For example, a kingfish “sushi” at Bareiss (Germany), a great restaurant, but fish on cold rice with a sweet starch bore only a passing resemblance to sushi). These dishes rarely excite, and I often prefer if the chefs would serve me dishes in the style that won them plaudits, and serve these foreign dishes only to European locals/regulars who would be impressed by/tolerate these experiments. Thankfully, at most high-end places, they usually restrict the number of these dishes to a quarter of the menu at most.
The worst excesses of international cuisine are perpetrated by chefs who indiscriminately use foreign ingredients in their cooking. This seems to be more an American affliction, and I shan’t name names, but every major American city has their share of chefs who serve kimchi burgers, and XO sauce something or other, and with invariably inedible results.
The meal at Whitegrass was beautifully presented, with well-thought out flourishes (a flowercup of salted-egg yolk stands out in my mind). It wasn’t a perfect meal – I didn’t like all the dishes, primarily because for the 8 course meal , cream was used in almost every dish, and we felt really heavy towards the end. There were a couple of clunkers in the meal – a butter poached pigeon that was tasteless and a plum cake that had poorly thought-out sugar architecture. But what made this meal stand out was two “international” cuisine interpretations that I felt would equal anything in restaurants in those native geographies.
I was particularly impressed with a slow roasted Mangalica pork wrapped in roasted black moss (“fatt choy”), which replicated the taste profile of a popular Cantonese fine dining dish where abalone is served with black moss, a light brown sauce, crunchy lettuce for texture. It came as no surprise to me that the chef is a frequent patron of Chinese restaurants, because the taste resemblance was uncanny.
The second, which was my favorite dish of the night, harked back to North America. It was a delicious composition of semi-hard textures – West Coast geoduck, fermented celeriac, hen of the woods mushrooms (commonly foraged in the Northeast), with some millet crisps. The trio of geoduck, celeriac, and hen of the woods each had a different bite to the tongue, but the combination was just a pleasure to chew. It was among the best composition I’ve had of these ingredients, including anywhere in North America.
Even the dishes which I didn’t think were knock-outs were incredibly intriguing – including a creamed chicken salad with hazelnuts and artichokes that reminded by of a very good Waldorf salad.
Sam Aisbett’s kitchen is probably one of 2-3 kitchens in Singapore where I have had dishes that are both wholly original and refined – the others being Candlenut and Restaurant Andre. Great to have it as an option in Singapore.
- “Bibimbap” – nori cream, dashi jelly, cucumber balls, trout roe, puffed rice, cherry radish
- “Sashimi of rock lobster, salted daikon radish, fennel pollen, frozen pomelo” (3.75/5)
- Sour cream at the bottom, flavored like the Chinese red vinegar used in shark’s fin soup. I like the sashimi, but the nitro-frozen pomelo was a bad idea – the freezing reduced it to bitter pithiness; there was no sweetness.
- “White cut free-range organic chicken, violet artichokes, pickled jellyfish, fresh and roasted hazelnuts, sesame, ginger vinegar” (4.25/5)
- A good mix of textures; the cream became a bit overwhelming to fully enjoy the dish, but it was an interesting intellectual dish, like a very good Waldorf salad. I like the touch of folded salted egg flowercups. There were little touches of flowers and root vegetables like chorogi.
- “Geoduck clam, steamed egg custard, fermented celeriac, white hen of the woods mushrooms, olive herb, umami broth” (5/5)
- My favorite dish of the night. A tribute to North American semi-hard textures.
- “Lobster custard with tapioca and umami pearls” (3.5/5)
- Very heavy – a chawanmushi with lobster oil. Decent, but the culinary-interest to how-full-is-this-making-me ratio was very, very low.
- “Australian tiger jade abalone with three treasures” (4.5/5)
- Intriguing dish – genuine Asian fusion that was completely unique – eggplant, shiitake, and green peppercorns from Thailand, with salted baked abalone and a hint of black vinegar. It fulfilled the first commandment of Asian fusion that so many chefs break – “first, do not be inedible”, and was actually quite delicious
- “Slow roasted Mangalica pork, scallops silk, white turnip cream, cabbage stem, fried black moss, aromatic pork broth” (5/5)
- A fusion dish worthy of any Cantonese fine-dining restaurant. Excellent.
- “Roasted Anjou Pigeon, slow roasted young beetroots, fresh milk skin, blackcurrants, native pepper berry, sour leaves (3/5)”
- A clunker after an excellent string of highlights. A butter poached pigeon that was tasteless. The best part was the beetroots which provided distraction from the monotony of unsalted meatiness that was the pigeon breast.
- “White peach from Wakayama preferecture, silver milk and peach seed jelly, peach skin granita, sour cream ice cream” (4.5/5)
- An intriguing dessert that had alternating spheres of peach-granita and spherified-milk-with-peach-pit-essence. The peach granita was excellent, and the coconut meringues on the wafer added a nice touch
- “Perserved Mirabelle plums, buttermilk mousse, roasted almond cake, crisp meringue, black plum ice cream” (2.5/5)
- An unexciting and functional dessert. What I didn’t like about the dessert for me was the thick wall of frosting sugar to keep the structure of the cake/inner plum sorbet/top plum ice cream together. The sugar wall was barely edible, and was only clearly there for structural engineering. Such barely edible food architecture should be kept to wedding-cakes and gingerbread houses, and does not belong in a fine-dining dessert.
- Manjar blanco Alfajor, Raspberry snowball
- An excellent Peruvian shortbread biscuit (the manjar blanco Alfajor)