As fine-dining continues to languish in Singapore’s cutthroat culinary scene, a recent rebel has caused us to sit up and take notice. The suspect here is none other than Chef Jason Tan of Corner House at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Bocuse d’Or Singapore 2008 champion and former Executive Chef of Sky on 57 surpasses critical expectations that descend naturally on a space that used to house 15-year-old Au Jardin.
At first sight, his hulking frame doesn’t seem to gel with his meticulous treatment of ingredients. Tomato, for instance, is presented in a dizzying variety of ways on a black plate inscribed ‘JT’ – a cloud seeded with an essence that’s more tomato-ey than the real McCoy, a Sunsugar cherry tomato bursting with plum, a Japanese Tomberry au naturel, a sorbet with a vinegary twist all read like an encyclopaedia of tomato on a plate. One almost forgets that steamed Spanish Carabinero Prawns are the star ingredient here. Perhaps this is exactly what the exotic-sounding ‘gastro-botanica’ label on the menu means, that plants can take your breath away as much as, if not more, than proteins?
Or maybe what’s really different is he makes everyday ingredients feel special, almost reborn. Unfanciful chicken is done two ways – breast meat sous-vide till all fibres concede to softness, and thigh meat pan-seared with an intense smokiness. They are draped with a lovely, rich sauce that harbours foie gras butter, prawn stock and chicken jus.
Take the humble onion as another example. Pureed and topped with Manjumup black truffles, or made confit for a small tart, both preparations of Cevenne onion are luscious on the mouth-feel, making comfort foods out of the sweet, earthy ingredient. But before you know it, the bulbous vegetable takes a lighter turn in this mini-degustation – first as lightly salted chips and another as tea infused with earl grey and onion confit. One hopes that Pringles will patent and start bagging the chips soon, and the tea’s a revelation like a gentle fairy coming out of the closet.
With the Mod-Sin rage still brewing, could we instead have been enthralled by his unpredictable local touches on modern European fare? Raw fish and porridge was the only image conjured when an amuse-bouche of salmon tartare reached our mouths – it must have been the ginger and lemon oil. Foie gras invokes memories of kway chap and braised duck, as the liver terrine teases with a finish of intense soy sauce. Did we mention it’s garnished with ginger flower, which is common in rojak?
The 8-course Discovery menu ($248++) is your best bet at experiencing Chef Tan’s full spectrum of tricks in his bag. Though the truth is that even with immaculate imported plateware, lush greenery as its surrounds and competent service that comes complete with spirited run-downs of every ingredient, Chef Tan might have out-priced himself slightly for a chef who has just found his niche, no matter how solid it might be. Even the more affordable 4- and 6-course lunch ($98++, $148++) come with price supplements for various courses that are quite a turn-off.
Nevertheless, Corner House keeps us excited with its potential with its more-than-noteworthy first menu. It may just be one of our favourite openings this year – even if it is, god forbid, a fine-dining establishment.