What do restaurants have up their sleeves to prove they’re worth it these days? Invite a Michelin-starred chef to cook up a PR storm by appointing an egg-cited intern via a contest? Check. Swap mee pok in bak chor mee with wriggly pasta and brand it Mod-Sin? Check. Pay loads to a famous culinary consultant to cozy up to the media during opening and installing a clueless kitchen crew thereafter? Check. Doing the classics right.
Case in point – Restaurant Ember. For the grounded standout along Keong Saik Street, not trying too hard is a weakness-turned-strength. The newly-renovated restaurant embodies a refreshing change from far too many gimmicky concepts out there. Even with the departure of Chef Sebastian Ng, who has been synonymous with the restaurant since 2002, the cozy outfit under the Unlisted Collection remains a promising stalwart that stares tradition in the eye and hardly flinches.
Who would have thought milky burrata and fresh pesto ($14) could toe the line between clean-tasting and flavoursome so well? Croutons provide pops of surprising crunch, which is a simple but genius accessory. A starter of steamed egg custard (part of the $42 set lunch) is a deceiving clue to Chef Sufian Zain’s Malay roots and European training, but a dead giveaway to his light-handed approach to ingredients. It’s a soft, dashi-spiked flan topped with a thick broth of asparagus, seaweed and mud crab, slipping down the gut with a slurp-and-you’ll-miss-it smoothness. A light dusting of lemon rind gently lifts the dish.
The main courses prove to be heartier, with outmost revelry for the protein. Twice-cooked duck confit (also part of the $42 set lunch) is not fork-tender, but moist and sufficiently salted. Arriving with a dollop of mashed potato, caramelised onions, and accompanying shitake mushrooms laden with jus, it’s as much sin-on-sin as it is finger-lickin’ good. Did we mention the duck’s wonderfully crisp skin?
We also wax lyrical about the seafood in the Bouillabaisse ($32), a reunion of all manner of sea creatures with the unmistakable hint of saffron. Those who prefer their Provençal soup a little thinner should volunteer the information upon ordering; or else settle for a soup the consistency of black sesame paste – not that there is anything wrong with that. It is unapologetically aggressive, so much so that it overcooked the langoustine, but all else being quite perfectly executed.
Chefs who are adept at the savoury often stumble when they try their hand at sweets, but Chef Sufian manages to juggle the artistic demands of cooking with the scientific rigours of dessert construction. Here, he even takes liberties with a modernist touch. A ginger foam is a flavour airlift to three hefty textures of pistachio ($15) – in sponge, in ice-cream and in crumble. Paired with port-macerated figs, a mousse of cheesecake ($12) smartly takes away its signature cloy, Of course, the obligatory chocolate lava cake is there to remind you that Restaurant Ember hasn’t strayed too far.
While Restaurant Ember’s food is both Instagram-friendly and tastebud-pleasing, its service tends toward mechanical. The occasional overdrawn pauses between courses and hasty introductions of dishes doesn’t help either. Small talk can go a long way, but Restaurant Ember is far from hopeless.
What do restaurants need to do these days? Sometimes, less can be more.
Written by Brandon Ho.