Chef Rishi Naleendra’s new restaurant is named after his favourite book: Cloudstreet.
We’ve not read the book, but we imagine some manner of fiction: The restaurant is birthed from an Art Deco-type space that was built pre-prohibition, populated with grand chandeliers, Champagne fountains, and bob cuts. Disused during the dry years, wild plants creep into the space, and the chandelier has collapsed, but there’s still a cheeky, bacchanalian spirit in the walls.
Now someone’s taken over the property. They’ve swept up the broken glass but left the plants there. There’s now a ballooning, cloth-covered light fixture that looks like an upended jellyfish, and there’s food being served.
It’s hard to find one common theme running through the place though. Cloudstreet sets up expectations and defies them at every corner: from the decor, which combines seemingly disparate elements — from the aforementioned fixtures, to Naleendra’s own paintings, and a chiaroscuro between the lit open kitchen and the dim, intimate corners — all gestalt into endless whimsical charm.
While there’s no menu for purposes of suspense (you’re handed a copy after the meal); ask for the wine list — even if you don’t drink.
Cloudstreet’s sommelier — one Vinodhan Veloo — comes to your table to introduce himself as Vino. You might keep your bemusement to yourself at this coincidence or — if one were to be less disposed to manners — blurt out some kind of ill-conceived joke.
As you peruse the tome of a wine list though, Veloo’s chosen profession seems less fortuity and more destiny — it’s one of the most compelling catalogues we’ve seen in a while. The list is comprehensive, but a far cry from the usual eye-wateringly long, often dull glossaries of regions and grapes.
Instead, Veloo — who sees experience at Odette, and has training in news writing — has structured the list like a magazine, complete with a contents page, bits of trivia, and even typographical art (not be confused with WordArt).
The tome itself is a mini-education in the world of vino. There are wines are organized by almost every alternative, niche category there is: from entire pages dedicated to winemakers; to old vines from the new world; to ruminations on hefty, serious Beaujolais that defy expectations of the region.
The list never gets ahead of itself though. It’s not dominated by “cool” labels and natural producers — which seems to have become a checkbox for restaurants with aspirations of trendiness — instead, sticking to what’s right and good.
Similarly, the food manages to be interesting but never esoteric. Your meal begins with a round of snacks: oyster on its shell — a familiar sight at Naleendra’s other restaurant, Cheek — arrives in new clothes: swaddled in a betel leaf, barely grilled, and sitting in a sweet pool of freshly-squeezed coconut milk.
While the food at Cheek has always consciously dodged any clear “Asian influences”, Cloudstreet happily, confidently embraces Naleendra’s Sri Lankan heritage, and then a little more. Lamb saddle, from an animal that’s been fed a diet of carrots and olives, arrive with very South Asian accompaniments: mint chutney and young jackfruit curry.
Cloudstreet doesn’t just stay put in one place though. This “great continent of a house” spans wide breadths with its influences. Naleendra’s mod-Australian beginnings shine through with dishes like painstakingly-constructed rolls of shaved Kohlrabi, nori, and scallop mousse; and a combination of pea sorbet, caviar, and smoked eel broth that’s an inviting play on contrasts.
Then there are in-between places. Marron, that Western Australian favourite, is eased into doneness over binchotan while being basted with its own tomalley and butter. This comes with millet cooked in Sri Lankan yellow curry, and puffed millet for texture. It arrives on a bronze plate tessellated with what looks like Islamic geometric patterns — and suddenly you’re jolted to another new, strange place.
Just as it was at Cheek by Jowl, the bread course is served in the middle of your meal. There’s no light, cheesy pão de queijo this time though. At Cloudstreet you get a dense, moreish monstrosity that could replace the main proteins and no one would bat an eyelid. With it, the team’s done something quite magical, combining vastly divisive flavours like liquorice, stout, and a baking soda twang to create an almost cakey, deeply-rich loaf that you eat warm with butter, ironically whipped till its light-as-air.
The fresh ideas continue well past the savouries. Cloudstreet’s pastry chef, Melissa Ong, has a deliciously rebellious streak when it comes to pushing what a dessert can be. There are almost-savouries like a palate cleanser of goat’s milk, fermented watermelon, and basil oil; and a “Vegemite on toast” petit four. It also takes some amount of courage (and insanity) to turn porcini into an intensely earthy cream, and put it on a plate with mushroom cake, milk ice cream, and a panel of caramelised milk skin.
The crowning glory of your sweets though, is an unassuming bergamot jelly that you get with the other mignardises. But this is not like any ignoble, puerile pate de fruit. Imagine a Swedish fish or a wine gum — slightly crusty, with a yielding, gelatinous core. This is the platonic version of that: a judiciously-sweetened, aromatic block given a crisp, delicate shell through culinary wizardry (and a dehydrator).
That jelly also sums up what Cloudstreet is: showing that truffles and uni aren’t the only routes to pleasure (although it’s very possible to order a vertical tasting of Château d’Yquem starting from 1969); and, at the end of the day, imagination is a sure route to a good meal.
Cloudstreet is located at 84 Amoy Street. Tel: 6513-7868