Over the years, it’s been heartening to see big local restaurant brands doing more to embrace and profile local culinary talents – some of these talents that come to mind include Pastry Chef Cheryl Koh from Les Amis, Head Sommelier Vincent Tan from the Lo & Behold Group and Chef de Cuisine Yew Eng Tong from Resorts World Sentosa.
The Unlisted Collection is no exception, and the latest gem it’s honed and unveiled is Chef Alex Phan, who’s been tasked since April to give the tired Restaurant Ember a new jolt of gastronomic flair. While Chef Phan’s resumé doesn’t read like a pompous Michelin-starred world tour – he’s fresh off the rein at Cheek by Jowl and from various stints at the Spa Esprit Group – his compact menu is executed with the confidence and sophistication of a chef at least a decade older than his 29 years of age.
A duo of snacks preceding a four-course set dinner menu ($78++) reminds us that Chef Phan is on his way to greatness, just not quite as yet. Yam Chips with curry mayonnaise and Pork Rillette on fried wanton skin feel like dishes right out of an episode of Chopped – abundant creativity stunted by time crunch and subpar pantry in equal parts.
But Phan’s brainwaves become more lucid as you dive further into his menu. Local ingredients are a common thread, and so are smart flavour contrasts, distinctive Asian twists and portions so calibrated you’re bound to yearn for just that little more.
For instance, Phan’s seabass comes from up-and-coming local fish farm Ah Hua Kelong, just off the coast of Changi and Sembawang. It’s seared to a resounding crisp, flakes beautifully, and is adorned simply with charred corn and black fungus which are both acquired from a nearby market. The killer is its butter sauce, spiked with tomato such that the tug of acidity with richness gives your tastebuds something to remember for a while.
Capellini coated lightly in spring onion oil may be a dead ringer for Saveur’s sakura ebi pasta, complete with the signature spicy edge and tuning fork plating, but our vote goes to Phan’s version, for sure. It’s a more gentle rendition, with the kiss of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it umami from wispy bonito flakes. Yet, soft shimeiji mushrooms and crisp jicama cubes lend textures that balance tension with tenderness. It’s understated, yet well-rounded.
Phan’s pork belly dish is also a stellar show of his technique and patience in the kitchen. Brined and sous-vide for a grand total of three days, it’s no wonder the fatty pork yields to the fork, harbouring a deep flavour somewhere between braised pork trotter and balsamic glaze. A smear of fish sauce-accented salsa verde is the only balance to the creaminess of the pork, which we hoped we could have more of, perhaps in place of the bland fried enoki mushrooms sitting atop the pork belly. The dish is accompanied immediately by a pre-dessert of camomile jelly, aloe vera and hawthorn granita, unlike anything you’ll ever have had before. It’s uber refreshing, and that whiff of camomile is as gentle as it is persistent, in a good way.
The wide-eyed curiosity of seeing Tiger Beer, Lap Cheong and Pineapple named in the same dessert gives way effortlessly to a kind of gastronomic cloud nine topped only by real orgasm. Tiger beer is spun into an ice-cream that concentrates all that malty goodness; Lap cheong is rendered and the oil used to make a fragrant, sweet-salty cake; pineapple provides jolts of acid whether in dehydrated or syrup-drenched form. The Tiger beer’s bitterness blares like a wild typhoon, but bites of everything else tames it to a manageable, even pleasant drizzle. The whole dessert comes together a little messily, but it’s a masterpiece that hits the proverbial G-spot, with a nod to familiar Singaporean flavours.
To be fair, we have our gripes. A combination of mispronounced ingredients and inaccurate dish descriptions makes the service staff look a little silly. The restaurant is freezing especially on a slow night, and the oblong, tight space continues to be a tough one to work around. But 14 years since its opening and two Executive Chefs later, the new direction that Restaurant Ember is setting foot on is definitely worth looking forward to. While it’s an admittedly rocky start (cue Yam Chips and Pork Rillette), it’s got its many sparks of brilliance. And are we glad to have young local chefs like Phan turning the sparks we see in the dining scene today into the fireworks we’ll remember tomorrow.
Restaurant Ember is located at 50 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089154, p. 6347 1928. Open 11.30am – 2pm, 6pm – 10pm, Sat 6pm – 10pm.