The Spot
5 Straits View #01-26/27
Marina One The Heart
Tel: 6284 2637
Open all day Mon to Fri: 7.30am to 11pm; Sat: 5.30pm to 11pm. Closed on Sun.

[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]ith all the look-at-me sparkly steel and perfect landscaping that make up the achingly stylish new Marina One, it’s hard to, well, spot The Spot. But since we are still flush with the small thrill that per entry parking is just S$3.21, we don’t really mind meandering around this vast complex and its pockets of green tranquility in search of it. At least until we can’t find it and start cursing the lack of signage.

We find it tucked beside 1855, a huge bottle shop that anchors this all-in-one, all-day-dining (and drinking, we reckon) hangout that aims to be all things to all (mostly) men and women. It’s dark and glittery at the same time, lit by the golden glow of hanging lamps and a mega chandelier of wind chime-like tubes suspended over the equally huge bar.

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Judging from the serious drinking crowd in the outdoor smoking area, alcohol is the raison d’etre here – in the form of wine, hard liquor or suggestive S$20 cocktails with names like Martina’s First Touch, Undress Me and Passionista. We suppose the rules of courtship here require women to drink them according to the way they want the evening to turn out. We’re feeling particularly reckless that evening – we order a ginger ale.

Against a backdrop like this where pre-packed sandwiches and soft drinks from a chiller can still be seen at dinner time, it’s going to be quite a challenge to make an impact as a serious restaurant. But Singaporean chef Lee Boon Seng – who hails from Osia and Curate at Resorts World Sentosa – manages to put his personal stamp on a menu that’s similarly contemporary European but with his own unique Asian twists and turns. There are the usual mod-Singaporean inferences of laksa, buah keluak and pork floss popping up quite consistently – they work better in the background but when they take centre stage it can get a little in your face.

Green chilli, for example, is such a simple yet punchy addition to the creamy “mustard” that accompanies the hand chopped beef tartare (S$25) – which is a dead ringer for chopped tuna with its vibrant fresh and clean texture, marinated in soy and sesame oil. It doesn’t feel at all forced, which is what we like about it.

The familiar wok-fried zichar favourite of crunchy-tender baby squid (S$15), too, gets a successful makeover – the crisp-edged morsels sit on tofu curd aka silken tofu, with blobs of tofu mayonnaise, all pulled together with a sweet-savoury tamarind sauce. It’s a winning formula that Singapore chefs should aim for – instead of re-arranging or substituting Asian for Western ingredients, pick out the familiar and create something completely original.

Steamed pizza (S$18) is an interesting bar snack that takes its cue from steamed Chinese buns but is a little out of synch, as the damp, spongy dough coloured with squid ink is too wimpy a base for the assertive topping of deep fried baby squid, ink mayo and chilli sauce.

A main course of pork cheeks BBQ (S$26) sits in the middle of original and overstretch. Marinated pork cheeks are cut into squares and cooked sous vide till meltingly soft and fatty, then given a good char on each side till it resembles either very fat bak kwa or very thin char siew. The menu says bak kwa but this is a tomayto-tomahto kind of argument. We say char siew. It’s served like a steak with creamy potato puree and a sauce that’s like a syrupy black vinegar reduction. To counter the fat and richness, there are a few slices of sweet pickled cabbage.

It’s quite tasty, although it veers towards cloying and leaves nothing to the imagination. Unfortunately, we get a double whammy of this when we mistakenly order the lamb neck (S$30) as well, recommended by our server since it’s a dinner-only item. It shares a too-similar profile with the pork in the way it features rich meat, richer sauce and pickled vegetables to balance it off.

It works less successfully here as the lamb neck is heavy going and meant for fans of braised meats. It’s fork tender and sinewy in parts but dry in others, and sits in a thick, bitter-edged, chocolatey buah keluak sauce. Enoki mushrooms and chestnut bits offer a bit of distraction along with piquant pickled radish. It’s acceptable in its own right, but you probably want to skip a starter if you’re having it.

Whatever it is, don’t skip dessert, especially the frozen salted chocolate peanut (S$16) – a crazy combination of chocolate and black rice that sounds weird in theory but is flat out good in reality. Creamy pulot hitam forms a base for salted chocolate ice cream and little spongy cubes of chocolate cake topped with peanut butter. Chunks of honey comb are scattered around. Chocolate ice cream and pulot hitam are natural partners, while peanut butter and honeycomb are equally fun to have around. Together, it’s deep, rich satisfying harmony.

If that was good, the seemingly unassuming title of roasted butternut mousse (S$20) is an example of chef Lee’s imagination running ahead and leaving us far behind. It’s clever and ambitious – a liason of the creamy pumpkin mousse, rosella granita, buttery curry crumble, blue cheese and red date jam – which looks impressive but somehow creeps us out. Eaten individually or paired with one another gives us no joy, but mixing everything up as we’re told to do creates a mixture that you don’t really want to put into your mouth. If you close your eyes and take a mouthful it tastes rather good, but the stress of overcoming the way it looks is just too much.

Even so, chef Lee seems to be on the right track, with other interesting things on the menu worth checking out. The food tends to taste a little “hotel”- like and the all-purpose feel of the restaurant is not the best platform for his food, but in time we’re sure the spotlight will be on him.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.