Ola Cocina del Mar
12 Marina Boulevard #01-06
Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 3
Tel: 6604 7050
Open for lunch and dinner
Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 2pm; 5.30pm to 10pm.
Dinner only on Sat

What kind of Michelin value can you place on fun?

It’s what comes to mind at Ola, helmed by the sunny-dispositioned Daniel Chavez – who by any standards has the calling of a starred chef with a resume that stretches to his work with the late Santi Santamaria. But instead of putting tweezers to plate or raising the bar on contemporary fine dining Spanish cuisine, he’s putting out gutsy, family-style fare in the comfort of his CBD home, with his sole purpose seeming to fill happy bellies than feeding any Michelin ambitions.

After six years at Marina Bay Financial Centre, Ola stands strong and has even expanded, which is the reason for our visit. You can’t tell it’s different when you walk in because the new sections have been designed to blend with the old. It just feels a lot bigger even as the menu seems smaller as chef Chavez has whittled it down to a few well-chosen options in different sections from tapas to mains.

If you’re Spanish by birth, you’re not going to be moved to tears by the cooking here. Authenticity has been gently nudged aside in favour of the Singaporean palate so the flavours are gentler, and seasoning just so. It’s Spanish by inspiration, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag, with Peruvian and modern European influences.

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Huevos (S$24) is hearty brunch fare of fluffy scrambled organic eggs embracing slippery mushrooms, melting-soft cubes of grilled pork jowl, bits of Spanish sausage and spinach.

Grilled octopus (S$28) has the requisite charred sticky surface and yielding texture, even if it’s not a role model for other molluscs. Crunchy fennel and rouille lightened with grated orange zest add contrast.

We bypass the ubiquitous paella in favour of fideua de cigalles (S$46) or the Spanish version of Hokkien char. Traditionally, the short noodles are dry-fried till toasty brown before being cooked in stock till they stand up to attention (the mark of authenticity). Here they’re flat and tender, with crunchy charred edges that come from being finished in a hot oven. This is apparently Chinese-style, the way Ola’s customers like it. We rather like it too. Even though it starts off slightly under-seasoned, the accompanying romesco sauce and bits of salty sausage balance it off perfectly. The langoustines that crowd the surface of the noodles are shiny, fresh and sweet, with rich coral. And who doesn’t like the contrast between tender noodles (although we would prefer a bit more bite) and crackling edges?

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Also comforting is the Fisherman’s Soup (S$38) – a tomato-based seafood broth which is pure in flavour, with a nice hint of black pepper. Streaks of squid ink decorate the soup and point to the bouncy baby squid that’s sourced locally and could give Japanese firefly squid a run for its money. Firm white fish, chewy fregola pasta and shrimp top it off.

Josper-grilled Spanish pork (S$38) is something they do very well – the pork jowl emerges with some fat intact but the rest melted into the flesh to plump it out and keep it moist. To assuage your guilt, the lentil salad with roast peppers and grapefruit, and grilled broccolini keep you on the righteous path. And to end off, acceptable churros with chocolate sauce (S$16) and home made fruit tarts (S$12) with the kind of buttery, cookie-like crust that we’ve been searching for, are made by a promising fresh graduate from local cooking school At-Sunrice.

The cooking in general is done by chef Chavez’s local team led by head chef Ng Yi Yi – a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean foodie who knows how to navigate the world of East and West to our advantage. For those who’ve eaten in Spain and cured their tastebuds in salt, chef Ng is the perfect antidote.

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They say their priority is really in feeding customers what they want, rather than what Michelin expects. If accolades come fine, but if it ain’t broke, there’s nothing in Ola that needs fixing.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH