Basque Kitchen by Aitor
3 Fullerton Road #02-01/02/03
The Fullerton Waterboat House
Tel: 6224 2232
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sat: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6.30pm to 11pm
It was with great reluctance that we came out to eat this week. For more than a month, we had created a new world order in which food was not molly-coddled by tweezer-wielding chefs, but taught to be independent and take public transport.
We established a strict protocol that involved not answering the door when the food deliverer came, compelling him to place his culinary charges on a designated stool and leave, whereupon we, like stray dogs, would retrieve them.
Unfortunately, they would sometimes pop out of hiding the moment we opened the door, just to check that they were safely collected. It is a level of professionalism that is not to our liking.
We CSI-measured condensation levels on nasi lemak parcels to decipher if they came straight from the restaurant, or went on a city tour with other dishes. And our palates only just returned from trauma counselling, having finally accepted that after 20 minutes, french fries can never, ever, be resuscitated. In short: maybe we’ve gone a little stir crazy these past few weeks.
It takes a bite of the truffle croquetas (S$22) at Basque Kitchen by Aitor’s pintxos bar to nudge us back into the reality we once had. Nothing says “we’re back!” like hot-to-the-bite sturdy fat spheres of crackling light crust barely holding in a creamy hot bechamel sauce, covered with slivers of black truffle. It’s the triumph of “a la minute” over the flaccid, tepid excuses that limped into our home not so long ago.
We pick Basque Kitchen to break our drought because it was our last dining-in memory before they pulled the curtains on restaurants for HA. From its original down-to-earth tribute to coastal Spanish cooking in Amoy Street, the restaurant is now a next-level fashion plate that showcases the controlled sophistication of chef-owner Aitor Jeronimo Orive.
There are two ways to dine at the prettified restaurant at the Waterboat House with its creamy hues, fine dining aura and riverfront view straight out of a “How to Dress like a Michelin-starred restaurant” playbook.
There is a pintxos bar for limited but upscale bites in a cosy bar-lounge setting. Or you can go for the full gastronomic experience in the main dining room that’s so delightfully spacious, the tables are not so much socially distanced as they are deserving of their own postal codes.
Each offers a unique dining experience, neither of which comes cheap, but there is no scrimping of quality here. At the pintxos bar, opt for the Tsarkayas oysters (S$7 each) au naturel. They sound Russian but are French, with possible Japanese lineage and a brief fling with a Canadian mollusc. Plump and meaty but without any cloying creaminess, with a long minerally finish, you could eat them all night long, but there are other snacks to consider.
Tuna sashimi (S$36), for one, is brushed with rendered Iberico fat that adds an inspired lardo effect to the meaty fish, which you roll over a dollop of caviar for good measure.
Smoked salmon “bikinis” (S$22) are a twist on the jamon and cheese toasties, replaced with salty smoked salmon and creme fraiche between slices of butter-fried bread. We prefer the Txaka (S$30) for the creamy fresh crab meat mixture piled high on top of toasted focaccia and a garnish of caviar.
Your money is better spent on the snacks than the main courses, which are quite run of the mill. A sous vide wagyu short rib (S$68) is overwhelmed by an over-reduced jus that has the consistency and intensity of undiluted Bovril (the creamy potato mash helps somewhat); and small Spanish squid (S$42) are described as stuffed with its own legs (which sounds oddly unsympathetic) minced into a mealy mixture with smoky capsicum and coated in a deep, inky sauce.
Save the “real” cooking experience for the tasting menu (S$248 for dinner), where chef Aitor’s full creative range comes into play. While a range of nibbles that represent the four elements of nature sound airy-fairy, they taste perfectly grounded – crisp pani puri shell filled with garlicky mushroom cream; foie gras terrine on crisp biscuit; pressed ankimo; and chicken wing lollipops propped on its own bone.
While the cuisine is a nod to his heritage, the Japanese aesthetic is very clear, particularly in the standout tomato course – a palate-cleansing clear jelly made of bonito-infused tomato water made with the Japanese amela varietal, matched with tomato sorbet, and filled out with the vibrant fruit.
He certainly has a way with lardo, carefully layering a cured slice over fat, earthy morels stuffed with chicken liver mousse and a shiny port wine glaze. The different layers of gamey earthiness from the mushrooms and offal are totally in sync.
Subtle turns of phrase are evident in the whole menu – you can plainly taste the Basque influence in the arroz dish of bomba rice cooked in broth, but it gets a lighter treatment with lobster broth coloured an emerald seaweed green with plankton aioli, and topped with unusual deep fried sea anemone. And instead of a hunk of rubia gallega or aged Spanish beef, you get a nugget of txuleta – dry-aged mature Australian beef with a mild gaminess but good flavour, done with classic jus reduction and garlic mousseline.
A pick-me-up pre-dessert of Basque green apple sorbet laced with cider, apple jelly and compressed apples is another subtle nod to the motherland. So is the main dessert – an ensemble of wild Spanish strawberries with ice cream.
But we detect a good whiff of Chinese New Year in the shortbread petit fours, bringing us back home after our temporary detour to San Sebastian.
And what of Chef Aitor? After several years of finding his niche, it seems like he’s finally found a place he can call home.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.