Sometimes, being at the top just isn’t enough. You want to aim higher. Such seems to be the case at Skai – aka Equinox after it’s gone on a soul-searching sabbatical and returned with a brand new outlook and wardrobe.
Its old self seemed content to let its prime view on the 70th floor of Swissotel Stamford be the star, while it plugged along quietly with a serviceable menu that didn’t try to assert itself. Think of it as Jaan’s responsible older sibling – steady and reliable while letting the hotshot Michelin star take the limelight. We hadn’t been to Equinox for years except to pass by, so our last vague memory of it still remains the view of the buffet spread from above.
Until now. Perhaps, after a few yoga and confidence-boosting sessions with repeated mantras of “I am worthy” and “I will not stand in anyone’s shadow” – it has re-emerged as Skai with an appropriate contemporary feel in both menu and decor.
It sounds like “sky” with a Scandinavian accent but what it really is, is a budding steakhouse that doesn’t want to alienate a wider crowd. It has a well-curated selection of artisanal beef, but to cover all the bases, it’s part of a wider menu of mod-European standards with a strong Japanese slant.
It’s also given a bigger platform to its executive chef Paul Hallett, who is not so much a new import but a Welsh native who has been with the hotel since 2013 and was at the helm of Equinox.
It’s a good move to give Skai a sense of identity – so you can identify the food with an actual chef rather than a view of the Padang.
(RELATED: Chef Paul Hallett fuses East and West)
The restaurant has swopped its power-dining demeanour with something more startup-worthy. Staff are dressed in smart-casual attire, while you can pick tables with sofa-style seating for a relaxed tete-e-tete rather than a testosterone-filled deal-making lunch.
The lunch sets are good value at two courses for $39 or three courses at $45. The portions are petite but you get nicely executed staples such as creamy cauliflower soup with a crunchy tempura of enoki mushrooms and a few shavings of truffle to start, or a simple smoked salmon.
On our first visit, both mains of grilled iberico pork and Stanbroke wagyu tender are on the dry side and served on the wrong side of warm. Meanwhile the braised octopus ($22) from the a la carte menu is a skinny tentacle that doesn’t leave much impression from being smothered by overprotective piquillo pepper sauce and cream of Hokkaido corn.
But we do get a sample of pastry chef Koo Jee’s refreshingly fun desserts from a dry-ice smokey trifle of coconut, mango and lemongrass to a sticky, chewy chocolate, peanut butter and banana – a triumvirate of joy. Definitely a talent to watch.
A second visit yields a few more satisfying results. Uni saffron risotto ($38) doesn’t weigh you down with heavy cream or cheese – there’s just enough to hold its definition of risotto until its Japanese aesthetic changes the flavour profile with sweet pickled cucumber and uni as a topping rather than mashed through the rice. There is some of that, but without the onerous funk you get in some versions.
Yellowfin tuna tartare ($24) is also rather enjoyable, marinated in a soya-ginger dressing that’s just slightly heavy on the ginger – scoop it up with delicious puffed-rice crackers of which there are not enough.
Steaks are priced from $85 to $195, so it will appeal purely to a certain mindset and wallet. On our part, we grumble about paying for the airfare of the S$65 Welsh Rhug lamb shoulder and the S$68 Stanbroke wagyu tender (an upsized version of the set lunch but all we can afford steak-wise).
The Welsh lamb doesn’t disappoint apart from the over-cooked edges but it’s nice and fleshy within. Plus, there are thoughtful touches from a tender-tasting portion of pan-fried sweetbread and whole roasted vegetables.
Our expectations are too high for the wagyu, which is a sort of cross between tenderloin and rump. It doesn’t stand out, and the air-conditioning does a quick job of sapping out its moisture, but we manage a few juicy bites before that.
Dessert arrives with some entertainment as our young lady chef torches a round of lemony tofu cheesecake atop a cookie base and lifts it to reveal a second layer of treats – beautifully composed bits and bobs of cream, custard, jelly and cookies all matching the lemony theme.
While the cooking at Skai doesn’t hit a high, we like where it’s going and the overall vibe which is contemporary and welcoming. Sky-high eating also means pricing to match, although there is some attempt to feed you enough for the money. Heads-up that water here is chargeable at $5 if you refuse to order $12 bottled water. The server mumbles something about a filtration process but they need to be a little more convincing.
Otherwise, Skai is on the right trajectory and if it plays its cards right, there’s nowhere to go from here but up.
2 Stamford Rd
Level 70 Swissotel Stamford
This article was originally published in The Business Times.