Casa by Remy Lefebvre

#01-20 CHIJMES

30 Victoria Street

Singapore 187996

Tel: 9722 8171

Open for lunch and dinner

Wed to Sun: 12pm to 2.30pm (3pm on Sun); 6pm to 10.30pm

We have to admit we hesitated to go to Casa. Thanks to our trusted dictionary, What Dining Concepts Really Mean, we’ve come to learn that “home” is usually a euphemism for “can’t come up with a better storyline for the food”. In the same way that “contemporary European” means “cannot be counted upon to cook like grandmother”. Or when a chef tells you he’s influenced by his many travels around the world, you can take it to mean, “could not get permanent work in top restaurants of his choice”.

Plus it seemed particularly precious of chef Remy Lefebvre to speak of home when he spent hardly any time in the Brittany of his birth, grew up in the Ivory Coast and did not even start cooking until in his 20s – by chance, and in an Irish pub in Spain. And after a spell in Spain, Middle East and Hong Kong, the French national was recruited to Singapore in 2014 to helm a Mexican restaurant. All of which leads you to wonder: is he a chef or a locum with a frying pan?

Let’s just say we’ve encountered enough chefs over the years who’ve taken the conventional cooking route and whose recipes – including those of their grandmothers – we would be happy to not eat again. But for chef Lefebvre, who padded his resume with more solid credentials in his 20-year peripatetic career, he’s pieced together a repertoire that has no specific roots but is grounded in something more unique – his own voice.

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Casa, then, isn’t so much his home but a place that he can call his own, to cook without constraint and be as geeky about his philosophy and methods as he wants. That includes cutting off the gas in his restaurant and cooking only with firewood and charcoal. But he has compromised with an induction cooker for stocks and sauces because he’s a nerd, not a masochist.

The restaurant is pretty. It sits in CHIJMES in the same unit that El Mero Mero – the Mexican restaurant he used to work in, with the same owners who are now his business partners – was in. Navy blue, light grey and blonde wood dominate, with the open kitchen and a fire burning discreetly. Whole fish hang in a chiller instead of meat – spelling out his emphasis on seafood, although he has hunks of grass-fed wagyu dry-ageing in another chiller. Sustainability, lactose-free, responsible farming and organic produce fill his vocabulary, while his flavour profiles veer towards acidity, bitterness and spice.

Aimed at the woke and hungry, the idea is to feed your mind as well as your palate. There will be times when the palate will grumble that the mind is eating better, but whichever way you lean, it will not be a boring meal.

There’s only a tasting menu offered at dinner, ranging from a four course at S$118 to S$258 for eight courses. We aim for middle ground with six courses at S$198 – not cheap but tolerable. The snacks are a hit – whisper-thin and crisp tart shells filled with a mild, sweet pumpkin miso and smoky, gamey lardo from a black pig from Basque country. The chef spent a good six years in Barcelona and Madrid, so he knows his way around a Spanish larder. Paired with the tart is home-smoked ocean trout – firm and glistening, topped with ikura and a good sprinkle of Kampot pepper to jolt you awake.

(Related: Wagyu Jin is a celebration of Japanese beef)

There’s a multicultural tussle between raw Italian red shrimp topped with a smidgen of blink-and-miss Japanese uni that is too discreet to assert itself, in a pool of pine nut milk. The latter is shot through with a double whammy of wasabi and yuzu kosho that’s like the yakuza of the spice world. The odd mixture of sashimi and spice is calmed by the pine milk, with pine nuts and sliced gooseberries for crunch and fruitiness. A crunchy fried pastry similar to “kueh rose” is a bonus bite.

Ratatouille is a scaled down version of eggplant mash and tender red peppers in plankton oil and escabeche of champagne vinegar which is high on acidity but tempered by the seaweed oil. It’s not a favourite, but the next contender – fresh oysters lightly grilled and seasoned with home made fish sauce and nasturtium oil – is.

Half a marron lobster also gets the firewood treatment – super fresh with creamy coral, doused in a light coconut saffron sauce and paired with an unusual basil risotto of fermented koji rice. Literally the first stage of sake making, the rice has a vague sweetness and a soft yet chewy texture – it’s a bit of an acquired taste but novel enough to intrigue you.

For the fish mains, the aged sea bream is oily and fleshy, perked up by sweet lemon curd and served with a side of organic Cambodian rice “fried” in the fire with sofrito, like tomato-garlic fried rice. It’s better than the aged monkfish tail – which is fleshy and bouncy but with little flavour, although the jus of Bouchot mussels and sliced zucchini help a little.

(Related: A guide to outdoor grilling)

For a good chew and beefiness, dry-aged grass-fed wagyu has none of the fat associated with the breed but boasts a satisfying, clean meaty flavour. Baby potatoes smashed and brushed with bone marrow are a perfect match. To end off, luscious black figs are syrupy and squishy on a gluten-free wafer and walnut and fig leaf sorbet – rather off the wall with a bitter yet pleasing finish, ending with popcorn milk. It’s not your garden variety dessert, but if you want something more intellectually stimulating than different textures of chocolate, this is it.

And so it is with Casa – it feeds you in more ways than one, and serves cooking that you can write home about.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.