IN the manufactured restaurant hierarchy of Singapore, we all know who the stars are, and not just by the ones they’ve been given. Whether they’re burning the ends of things, doing their French grand-mère proud or having the cheek to do their own thing, they’re the names that tumble from diners’ lips or best restaurant lists like the gospel according to the fashionably hungry.
Then you have Drew Nocente – an outlier of sorts, with a strong indie cred but still hovering on the periphery of the “big boys” club. If this was a rom-com, he’d be the solid dependable buddy to the suave jock who gets all the girls. He’s a guy who likes to salt and hang things, hates wastage, and built his restaurant on a menu of solid charcuterie, wagyu brisket, signature IPA-leavened sourdough and occasional fine-dining surprises like a highly-Instagrammed umami panna cotta with uni.
But the chef’s latest move is a game-changer – he’s done away with a la carte options and serves a full tasting menu only for dinner and for lunch closer to the weekend. It says “Feed Me”, and he will do so for S$128++ or S$168++ (prices will be revised soon, though). And it’s an eye-opener – as if he dug deep into his psyche and pulled out the fine dining chef he’s been hiding in his subconscious all these years.
Make no mistake – it’s still him. A personable, unpretentious Aussie-Italian in a leather apron wielding an quasi-Singaporean twang and a butcher’s mastery who lets his cooking do the talking. There’s technique but no pretension, no spiel about provenance or philosophy but a quiet attention to detail and minimising waste. He may not personally know the parents of the Kagoshima A4 wagyu he serves, but he can tell you how he renders the fat from all the trimmings and infuses it with hot binchotan, to make a wonderfully smoky mayonnaise to serve with his signature grouper dish.
While he’s naturally meat-handed, he makes a strong seafood impression with his deft juggling of temperature, acidity and texture. Instagram uni is missing from the opening palate teaser of umami panna cotta aka chilled chawanmushi, but raw chopped ebi ably takes its place, marinated in yuzu juice and oil, with sliced pickled radish and a crisp nori square. The slightly too firm chawanmushi affects the scoopability of custard and prawn but is still a promising Japanese-meets-Aussie collaboration.
Fish and chips, and a cheeseburger are deconstructed into little bites – the former as a slimmed down croqueta of crispy chickpea stick filled with creamy bechamel topped with edamame cream and a dab of caviar; and the latter a homemade pie tee cup spread with smoked ketchup and filled with wagyu tartare and pickled onions. A sparkling Pepik rosé from Tasmania – part of the wine pairing – is a surprisingly good match.
And these are just the little bites before dinner starts proper with the familiar sourdough that blooms out of a little pot, ready to scoop up whipped lard or wakame butter.
The sashimi sojourn continues with sliced raw scallops marinated and topped with caviar and yuzu sake jelly bits, but what really perks it up is a scattering of nitrogen frozen chilli granita that tingles and cools in the same mouthful.
After that refresher, you come down to earth with a comforting confit of egg yolk on mashed Jerusalem artichoke studded with mushroom bits and topped with crunchy fresh seaweed. Intense, hot mushroom dashi is poured over, and the magic of fungi and egg plus a gelatinous crunch makes this a done deal.
An abalone is next, lightly grilled and hiding under its shell. The tender flesh gets a boost from a vegemite-like glaze made from fermented sourdough trimmings, in a full-bodied charcuterie broth enriched with the abalone liver. It’s like a multiplex of flavour, and some savoy cabbage is on hand to soak up what you can’t spoon up.
Apart from some charcuterie (and lardo) to remind you of his roots and jog your cholesterol level, the menu continues at a steady creative pace. Our favourite is the aforementioned grouper – a fillet of locally sourced fish in a broth seasoned with homemade soy sauce that tastes like Bovril. The smoky mayonnaise is topped with crumbled dried and roasted fine bones, and a crispy fish skin cracker with ikura completes this zany but incredibly poised composition that shows a refreshingly left field kind of thought process.
A lean dry aged tenderloin – or the better A4 wagyu – is the most predictable of the lot, though also satisfying with baby beetroot and oyster leaf.
That signals the end of the meal. The prelude to dessert comes in the form of cheese and crackers, which of course looks nothing like the real thing. Here, aged Comte is turned into a savoury mousse with crunchy hazelnuts, fresh peach cubes and blood orange jelly bits. A hazelnut biscotti masquerades as a water cracker.
As for the sweets, you can take the Aussie out from Down Under, but you can’t take away his genetic connection to pavlova and violet crumble. The first one appears as raspberry sorbet on a colourful bed of crumbly-chewy things like mochi bits, freeze dried berries and other bits and bobs. A crisp meringue shard covers the lot. And crushed honeycomb appears in a chocolate-toffee sticky chewy arrangement of crushed feuilletine, chocolate ganache, cocoa nibs and even shiitake mushroom – just give up and submit to sugar shock. Although the chef does temper it with salt and acidity for good measure.
Chef Nocente is one of the most under-rated chefs in town, and way overdue for his place on the A-list. The restaurant could use a spruce-up to match the food, but it’s our guess the chef wants to keep things real rather than frou-frou. And staying real – while flexing his creative chops – is his star power.
12 Purvis Street. Tel: 6358-3130
This article was originally published in The Business Times.