Another small plates joint. Another Italian pizza place. Another oven-obsessed restaurateur, this time with a mammoth wood-fired oven imported from Italy. Another of those in a shophouse space fifty times as long as it is wide, so tight you can hear the inhalation of pasta by your well-mannered neighbours.
Yet, first impressions seldom count, do they? Kandahar Street’s new kid on the block, Cicheti, grows on you slowly but surely. Past a set of rustic black wooden doors, you step on a map of Naples plastered on the floor, which seems to set the scene for the namesake Venetian bites you are about to savour. It’s rough on the edges too, not in a bad way, what with exposed brick walls, weathered oak tables and antique pulley lamps. A palpable buzz from a mix of red-faced locals, noisy expats and trigger-happy tourists channels an alluring vibe. They are evidently having a good time.
How can you not? Over wine and beer, rounds of appetizing one-bite eats set conversations aflow. A quartet of Bruschetta ($11) has the softest and sweetest confit tomatoes set on smoky rounds of baguette, separated by a thin spread of rich ricotta cheese, simple but outstanding. Cicheti’s Beef Meatballs ($11) are moist and hearty, sitting in a reservoir of slow-cooked tomato sauce and enlivened by shaved grana that is lovingly melted on top. While Gamberi Grassi ($11) of prawns in herbed butter can come across overly-greasy to some, one has to be won over by the nutty flavours of the well-seared crustaceans. You can always cut the richness with a Grilled Pear Salad ($11), sparingly adorned with blue cheese and doused in balsamic vinaigrette. The standout of the salad must be its sliced pears, dessert-sweet yet offset by a heady char on the grill.
The highlight of Cicheti is its pizzas. Besides a charcoal-eating monster of an oven, the main showpiece of the restaurant is a sizeable, well-lit corner showcasing the Venetian equivalent of a prata man. Executive Chef Lim Yew Aun deftly flips his housemade dough, gently spreads sauce over it and sprinkles various fillings, before he wields his pizza peel and with one jerk of the arm, slips his dough into the searing heat. What a show! Chef Lim’s rustic Neopolitan pizzas aren’t laden with toppings, allowing the dough to do the talking. It’s an imperfect, hardly symmetrical wheel – uneven surface, blistered edges, irregular burnt spots – but its ugliness is its beauty. What more with a perfect mix of chewy and crusty, well-salted and not too heavy.
If multiple small plates and pizzas aren’t your idea of a nice dinner out, there are more substantial mains and pasta to choose from too. Definitely opt for the Salt-Crusted Whole Sea Bass ($35), good for two persons. Stuffed with rosemary, thyme and sliced lemons, the baked fish is kept moist by a shield of packed salt, a dish that will bring you straight to the Adriatic coast, sans breeze and bikini-clad, olive-oil-rubbed Italian dames. Warning though, that the fish’s skin is extremely salty, so do not eat it as if you are in a Chinese restaurant!
The dessert section seems dead set on being incongruous, quite against the grain of authentic flavours apparent in the rest of the one-page menu. Experimental leanings come in the form of a Herb Jelly Grappa ($12.50), which promises layers and layers of different herb flavours, but its overpowering sweetness washes away any florality afforded by the suspended shards of green. A Polenta and Almond Cake ($12.50) is intriguing on paper but ordinary and somewhat dry on the palate. But daring attempts at freezing Crème Brulee ($$12.50) till its texture is akin to gelato, and at topping it with candied bacon crumbles that sneakily leave a trail of smokiness seconds into biting them, yield a dessert that will revive stale conversations at the table, or simply get dessert cognoscenti swooning.
A work-in-progress drinks menu, pending the opening of the second-floor bar, deserves a second visit. Through the lilting French accent of the exceedingly ernest maître d’ (Monsieur Thierry Gallot), we make out that there will be an exciting selection of hand-crafted grappa cocktails. Surely, a bottled beer, a house white and a house red will satisfy the booze-o-meter of weekend evening diners for only so long.
First impressions seldom count, but the experience at Cicheti could use a little fine-tuning. Once the owner’s complete vision of the restaurant materialises, we’re pretty sure that it’s capable of making many regulars out of today’s ubiquitous restaurant-hoppers.
Written by Mr Nom Nom
On this occasion the meal and photos were compliments of Cicheti