AO Ringo
#01-44 Orchard Plaza
150 Orchard Road
Singapore 238841
Tel: 8879 9837
Open for dinner only Tues to Sun: 6pm to 10pm

One question comes to mind as we watch the solitary chef at AO Ringo fly around his kitchen – clanging platters, firing up the stove, juggling various oven doors, marinating meats, searing them, plating nine servings at one go . . . “Umm . . . why don’t you get an assistant ah?”

While it sits in the (presumably) rent-friendly if ambience-challenged Orchard Plaza, it’s not a shabby dive with its tasteful set up – textured walls, upholstered counter chairs and abstract artwork that supposedly hides the face of Ringo Starr in it. AO Ringo, get it? But, in this case, the Beatles connection is coincidental. The name is Japanese and translates to ‘green apple’, complete with a cartoonish logo that looks like a four-fingered homo sapien trying to scratch his armpit with the fruit.

Neither is this the solo venture of a newbie chef pouring his life savings into a shoestring do-or-die venture. AO Ringo is the offshoot of an obscure restaurant in Tokyo called The Ringo, and the chef is Yasuo Watanabe who was the former head chef of the Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant Sant Pau Tokyo, before working overseas stints in Dubai and Shanghai.

What a chef with his resume is doing in Singapore slinging pots and pans like a dexterous octoped with excellent EQ we don’t know, but in between him skidding from the stove to the fridge we gather it has something to do with Covid, working in Dubai and the owner of Ringo Tokyo wanting to set up shop here.

Which is good for us, as all that work experience comes into play in this compact kitchen stage, where he barely breaks a sweat with his lightning fast choreography that’s almost a performance in itself. In the time it takes the slo-mo Araki in his fourth floor kappo to slice a wedge of fish, Chef Watanabe has already plated a pork terrine with several condiments. Blink, and he’s halfway cooking paella on the stove.

The food is Spanish via Italy with a transit in France and pit stop in Japan. It’s the pricing that’s the real draw at S$99.99 for a seven-course set menu, but also Chef Watanabe’s deft, satisfying cooking and affable manner that add up to a cosy evening.

You start with a simple mound of stracciatella cheese – aka the runny insides of a burrata ball – drizzled with olive oil and served with thick slices of baguette. The bread looked cold and dry sitting on a baking tray earlier – but is warm, toasty and chewy to the bite. Smeared with creamy dairy, it’s a fail-safe palate pleaser.

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Up next is a rustic homemade pork and foie gras terrine wrapped in streaky bacon and served with more condiments than there is terrine to go around. You’ll have to carve up little bits of the chunky pork mixture – that has just enough foie gras to let you know it’s there without being a diva about it – so you can pair it with marmalade, mustard, pink peppercorn, pine nuts, salsa verde and a sliver of pickled beetroot. Sweet, savoury, nutty, acidic – the terrine embraces condiments of all persuasions.

Like everybody else, the chef does the token uni course, this time managing to stuff crab jelly, Hokkaido snow crab meat, scallop tartare and a mini heap of aka (red) uni into the tiny crevice of its spiky shell. It means you get less than a spoonful of everything but they add up to a mouthful of cool brininess that’s not as clean as you’d like but still passable.

The chef flexes a bit of Spanish muscle with the first hot dish – delicate, flaky roast cod fillet on a bed of carrot puree and a fluffy square of savoury olive sponge smeared with tapenade and garnished with sprigs of Japanese greens and a single strip of carrot.

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For entertainment, shrimp, squid and mushrooms spit and sizzle simultaneously on the roaring burners until they’re ready to adorn the paella that’s been resting in the oven before making its grand entrance. Fat pearls of arroz have dutifully soaked up the smoky paprika-infused sofrito base and seafood stock so they’re plump and chewy, with just a hint of a Catalan accent.

Iberico pluma – a choice cut of Spanish pork neck – is seared and served quite rare, with multiple assurances that you will not die or develop a fluency in the dialect of wild boars. Its juicy resilience is well matched with the earthy sweetness of beetroot puree and a blistered roasted padron pepper.

For a sweet ending, you get the only choice of the evening – a coffee semifreddo that’s like frozen tiramisu with an intense coffee jelly; or a mixture of cooked berries, frozen yoghurt and raspberry sorbet, with an added fizz from soda water.

We’re pretty sure the menu doesn’t even make a dent on Chef Watanabe’s repertoire and it doesn’t raise the culinary bar, but there is polish in the execution and you can’t go wrong with sincerity and honest pricing. If he could bring in another chef and ramp up the menu we would be happier but for now his cooking monologue speaks just fine for itself.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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