Chef David Thien’s got big shoes to fill. And not just because Corner House’s got a Michelin star and a place on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The restaurant, once helmed by – some might even say synonymous with – homegrown French chef Jason Tan, had been symbolic of how a locally born-and-bred chef could stand his own against the big players of celebrity chef restaurants and fine dining mainstays in Singapore. That’s no longer an uncommon phenomenon at this point though. Homegrown chefs have made their marks everywhere in the past five years; and Thien enters a very different playing field — one where his influences and ideas can shine without – hopefully – any sort of obligation to play to the “local” narrative.
Even then, the Bordeaux-born Thien has decided to express much of his past 12 years in Singapore – to delicious effect – with his debut menu at Corner House.
In the bread basket, next to curry potato laminated brioche and sourdough, you’ll find freshly crisp dough fritters, or you tiao — whose fine-dining presence has been made acceptable with a streak of squid ink. Unsalted Bordier butter and a quenelle of sambal belacan butter further pushes the play on local ingredients right from the outset of your meal.
One ponders the coronary ramifications of slathering spicy butter on deep fried dough, but all hesitation is forgotten once the dopamine hits. Ironically enough, the bread course is almost cheekily the most over-the-top thing you eat all meal — since Thien has a knack for necessary restraint. A risotto-informed dish of uni, parmesan, and lemon is cut with the grassiness of bean sprouts, finely cut to resemble rice grains.
There is a small slate of brioche, sandwiching comte and a housemade otah paste made with mackerel and Obsiblue prawns that is the moreish lovechild of a croque monsieur and otah toast; and tiny morsels of vadouvan-spiced crab sitting on top of papadum. Then there’s a satay-inspired dish of local Anxin chicken, grilled to an energetic smokiness and served with Albufera sauce enriched with foie gras and peanuts.
It’s all familiar flavours that might prompt some to draw comparisons to Mod Sin, but it’s not. Thien’s techniques and intents are firmly classical French — reflecting his training and experience at places like the now-defunct L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (where he was the sous chef); and TWG Tea (where he was the consultant chef).
If anything, Thien — who spent part of his youth in French department Reunion Island, and has Alsatian, Corsican, Chinese, and Mauritian roots — has the cultural berth to keep things interesting.
Thien plays with Achards, a Creole-style pickle that finds its roots in Indian achaar, a condiment that has also found its way through Southeast Asia under different but similar-sounding names. Here, the sweet-and-sour pickles find its way to a dish of cured hamachi, burrata cream and a granita made from the same pickling liquid.
In fact, the origins of every dish — Thien’s inspirations — is explained through a series of cards that arrive with each course. If fine dining is, for you, not some kind of intellectual-gustatory exercise then know this: the food at Corner House is strong enough to stand on its own without stories.
Stories like how, in France, Thien’s father would grow koo chye, or Chinese chives, by the kitchen window so that they had this otherwise hard-to-find ingredient to use in a noodle dish. Which results in a dish of kway teow, charred to mimic wok hei, Hokkaido scallops, and an emerald-green sauce made with the koo chye, stock, and cream.
At some point during the meal, the food takes a turn into very Japanese territory — with wagyu ending the meal in two ways. First, a sukiyaki broth with confit egg yolks and seasonal vegetable. Then, in a move that brings a small touch of Eastern dining structure, an ochazuke-style combination of rice, tartare, homemade furikake, and dashi which ends the savouries. This continues into dessert, where a deconstructed red bean mont blanc makes an appearance, with adzuki beans replacing the chestnut.
It’s the petit fours though, that truly hammers home the point that for whatever amount of ideation, it’s technique that truly defines an experience — Thien’s caneles are some of the best we’ve had: heady with rum and vanilla, and boasting an inexplicably correct — perhaps subjective — ratio of custardy inside and crunchy outside that translates into a gestalt bite.
1 Cluny Rd, E J H Corner House Singapore Botanic Gardens