The modern French restaurant accommodates many types of dietary concerns, but trypophobes beware.
by Shamilee Vellu /
May 15, 2022
Marron. Photo: Saint Pierre
There are circles (and little holes) galore – well over 30 of them – at Emmanuel Stroobant’s two-Michelin-starred Saint Pierre, which recently unveiled its tasting menu for 2022.
Titled Opulence, the menu is inspired by enso, the sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism that connotes elegance, enlightenment and the divine moment a mind is free to create unreservedly.
The six-course menu is a showcase of Stroobant’s particular brand of “modern French cuisine with Asian accents”, one he’s been honing at Saint Pierre for over 20 years.
It speaks to the long-time vegetarian and yogi’s particular sensitivities as well as his peripatetic career as a Belgian, classically French-trained chef who’s spent over two decades in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.
That’s probably why, in his hands, certain cultural mashups – like Australian marron (crayfish) with galangal consomme and French pigeon with buah keluak – don’t sound like they should work, but do.
Throughout the new menu, you’ll see that constant push and pull towards balance, with creamy countered by clean, rich by a kiss of acidity.
Take the crab dish. Steamed, delicately sweet hairy crab sitting atop an incarnadine disc of capsicum is dramatically cut out from its salt crust tableside by Stroobant, who then pours a green pea veloute with just a touch of freshly-added passion fruit juice.
This is a nod to the late, great Paul Bocuse, says Stroobant, “who would add a drop of acidity before the dish went out, which gives it that brightness and really lifts it.”
And the caviar course – served in a custom tin – resembles a yin-yang symbol with its neatly bisected halves of translucent tarragon jelly and briny orbs of dark moss-coloured N25 oscietra caviar. Sitting on a ginger-infused cauliflower puree and topped with an ochre tongue of bafun uni and carefully tweezered fragments of ice plant and shiso flowers, this presentation practically begs for the camera to eat first.
Then there’s the dish that maxes out the circle theme (and will likely strike terror into the hearts of people who fear clusters of small holes). This scallop dish is a lot, presentation-wise. Hairlike dill tips sprout from circular buttermilk dots on a disc of wild basil jelly with circular holes revealing preserved winter black truffle.
Sitting on a bed of Jerusalem artichoke tartare, the entire enterprise is then ringed with dots of chive oil, and then encircled with a concluding ring of artichoke cream for good measure. While tasty, the dish recalls a barnacle-clad crustacean and human skin follicles and could do with some of that streamlining Stroobant is clearly good at.
Moving towards inclusivity
The circle also has deeper meanings for Stroobant, who interprets it as a certain open-mindedness and willingness to experiment that some older, classically-trained chefs can lack.
“There are no rules,” he says. “Just do it and see what comes out,” surely an attitude that lends itself well to his taste experiments with Shokouwa next door, part of the Saint Pierre group. (Experiments underway include kinki fish and young bamboo shoots from Kyoto).
Saint Pierre’s refreshing melon sorbet is also made with Shoukouwa’s trimmings – very zero-waste and on-trend.
“Enso” also speaks to a kind of enlightenment, of paring things back.
“There’s a trend towards wanting to simplify things, towards lightness,” says Stroobant, 54. “Many people now request no butter, no cream or no cheese, for example, especially in the last few months. Diners are becoming more aware of what goes into their bodies.”
Stroobant says he reduced his menu from eight to six courses as part of that desire to pare back, to simplify. “When I go to a restaurant with my family, I’m happy to spend 1-2 hours there but I’m not sure if I want to go back to the old days of three, four, five hours for a fine-dining meal.”
Most notably, Stroobant has become popular with a particular genre of diner, those with dietary restrictions. While he felt quite differently in his youth, Stroobant says he understands these better now given his brushes with high cholesterol, conversion to vegetarianism and his personal food allergies, which concern capsicum and garlic.
“There’s not a shift today where I don’t have a mix of dietary restrictions to deal with, whether it’s dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan, or so on,” says Stroobant, who regularly customises his menu to suit such requirements.
“There’s a lot of demand for high-quality experiences tailored for different dietary restrictions, and frankly, I like the challenge. I like how a vegan can come in and be surprised that we put so much thought into our dishes. It’s never just about taking garnishes and turning them into a main dish.”
Saint Pierre takes dietary restrictions so seriously that it conducts monthly training on allergies for its staff. Though there is the odd one that manages to stump even Stroobant.
“One diner, who was vegan, said he couldn’t eat eggplant because it contains nicotine,” he recalls, chuckling. (For the record, nicotine is indeed present in several plants such as eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes but in such low quantities that it’s pharmacologically insignificant for humans.)
Despite his love for all things green, Stroobant doesn’t think Singapore is ready for a vegetarian fine-diner, not just yet. “There are issues, wine pairing being one of them,” he says, “but I think going pescatarian is possible.”
Many years ago, Stroobant had the pleasure of speaking with Alain Passard, that grandmaster of French cuisine who kicked meat off his restaurant’s menu way back in 2001. “
Alain looked at me very intensely and said it’s only at 50 years old that a chef will find his own personality,” says Stroobant, who brushed off the comment at the time. But he clearly believes it now. And so too will diners.