If you’re drawn to the grittiness of speakeasies, back alleys and assorted interpretations of off-radar eating and drinking, then you’ll feel right at home in Gemmill Lane. Or more specifically, the alley at the end of it – it’s just that Gemmill Lane sounds a little nicer than Amoy Street’s backside. But that’s literally what it is and, for the past few years, Maggie Joan’s and its neighbours have earned a certain amount of street cred for its back lane concept which includes al fresco drinking in front of large garbage bins.
We’ve always marvelled at the way Maggie Joan’s managed to squeeze an entire dining room and kitchen into its rabbit burrow of a space. Think subterranean with a side of claustrophobia. Making your way through its dimly lit interiors and slightly-better-than-basic furniture, you’re not sure if you’re there to have dinner or hide from an imminent apocalypse.
Still, if you can accept their definition of cosiness, you can get down to the business of enjoying the satisfying, inventive modern cooking that comes out of its open kitchen. Newly installed head chef Zach Elliott-Crenn brings some interesting pedigree as the former head chef of Portland in London.
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Being Australian, he already has the breezy, uncomplicated, produce-driven DNA (a trait exported to the UK years ago, arguably saving British cooking from itself) but this was honed further at the similarly minded Portland, serving the lush bounty of the English countryside. At Maggie Joan’s, you can see that same influence in the seemingly effortless juggling of the familiar and the unexpected – and the way he pulls back just before a dish becomes too clever for its own good.
There’s a sprinkling of Aussie flair in the menu with his use of Coffin Bay oysters, some macadamias here and olive oil cake there. The zinginess of fresh herbs, and the way he keeps up the momentum with the texture and mouthfeel of each bite means you don’t feel bored along the way.
Take the butternut financier (S$4) which is just one bite but already packs a few surprises – a flourless baby muffin of mashed squash and ground almonds baked with a surprise creamy macadamia filling and a shower of grated mimolette cheese. It’s like a dessert and cheese course in one, except you’ve only just started.
A smidgeon of smooth chicken liver parfait (S$5) is piped into a too skinny, not-crisp-enough cigar-shaped pastry tube, topped with a too-sweet croquant-like mixture of crushed pistachios and quince jam. It’s a cute take on the foie gras and compote idea but execution wasn’t quite as polished as it could be.
Coffin Bay oysters (S$6 each) spell out the perfect combination of simplicity with a clever curveball. You start with good oysters that are neither creamy and bloated nor skinny and metallic – this is the Goldilocks of shellfish, topped with mild wasabi cream and palate cleansing parsley and apple juice granita that could find alternative employment at a Korean bingsu shop.
Hokkaido scallops (S$24) are pan-seared a little longer than they should be, and are oddly the weakest link in an appealing creamy broth of miso-enhanced beurre blanc that fills up a deep-dish scallop shell. The real stars of this dish are the little bits of super crisp potatoes – Jagabee, step aside – that disrupt the richness of creamy sauce.
Meanwhile, just-poached prawns (S$25) and diced apples drizzled with marie rose sauce is a deconstructed prawn cocktail that’s so shy, it covers itself with a blanket of shredded romaine lettuce that does little apart from fill your five-a-day vegetable quota.
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While we generally stay away from vegetarian main courses, the grilled corn ravioli (S$28) is a knockout in terms of chewy, creamy, sweet, crunchy goodness. You get resilient ravioli filled with sweet corn puree, just enough of cheesy pecorino sauce without weighing you down, with crunchy hazelnuts and shimeji mushrooms that don’t really do anything but are nice to have. It throws shade at the pork dish (S$42) which boasts too lean Spanish iberico chops and a cold apple puree that seems unnaturally shiny and smooth, rich stock reduction and grain mustard finish. Passable, but it could do with a fat injection.
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To end off, an ensemble of characters come together for the most unexpectedly enjoyable dessert. The lead actor is a crumbly olive oil cake, joined by a delicately perfumed tarragon ice cream. And like the reliable sidekick, enter thin slices of firm papaya to complete the production. But if your tastes lean towards the conventional, a sticky gooey apple tarte tatin and vanilla ice cream does the trick.
If Maggie Joan’s seems to have dropped off your radar lately, it’s time to head back to this back alley, because a new chapter is about to begin.
Maggie Joan’s Dining & Bar. 110 Amoy Street (enter via Gemmill Lane) #01-01, Singapore 069930. Tel: 6221-5564
This article was originally published in The Business Times.