Inspired by the colourful tapas bars of Spain, Esquina was one of the pioneers of the small plates revolution back in 2011. Following opening Chef Andrew Walsh’s departure – to open his own restaurant Cure around the corner on Keong Saik, and last year, Butcher Boy – in 2015, current Head Chef Carlos Montobbio took up the reins. Pushing forth the Spanish and Catalan flavours that are expressions of his heritage and personal culinary experiences, the 31-year old Barcelona-born chef shows his culinary chops once again when we returned for their new tasting menu, which we reckon is the most holistic way to experience Esquina’s offerings.
Available during lunch and dinner at $108++ per person, the seven-course Tasting Menu is an effort to encapsulate the evolution of Esquina over the years. In fact, the meal opens with the signature snacks that have withstood the test of time, particularly the Mini Spanish breakfast, an eggshell full of soft scrambled egg, potato espuma, mushroom ketchup, and chorizo crumbs. Another old favourite, the Italian Tsarskaya oyster won hearts (mine, at least) by being a creamy-briny-tangy flavour bomb, also courtesy of jalapeno ponzu, pickled ginger flower, and salmon roe.
Rounding up the munchies is a smoked Atlantic mackerel, which contrasted beautifully with the sweet corn tuile it’s served on, alongside eggplant puree, a punchy romesco sauce, and capers.
The first course was already a winner, because even though I’m no vegetable fan, I enjoyed the grilled sucrine lettuce paired with herb yogurt, fried macadamia nuts, rosemary oil, and cider vinegar for sweetness and acidity. The char on the lettuce from the Josper was just right, never overwhelming yet carrying through from start to finish of the dish. You might be forgiven in thinking the next course of beetroot is a prettily plated dessert instead of a starter since it’s accompanied by horseradish ice cream, smoked walnuts, olive oil caviar, and raspberries. Obviously, tucking in will give it away as we discover the bed of stracciatella cheese beneath the gently pickled discs of beetroot.
The affinity between pork and Spain means we’ve come to expect well-executed pork dishes on any Spanish menu. However, the first porky plate uses the English Dingley Dell pork rather than the Spanish Iberico pork. We later learn that it’s partially to do with the availability of whole Iberico pork jowl in Singapore. After 18 hours in the sous vide with a marinade of honey and rosemary, the pork jowl is finished on the Josper grill. Though tender, the meat benefits from the flavourful chipotle mayo, pickled pear, and a dusting of togarashi. The other pork dish, which is actually the last savoury course, sticks to more familiar taste profiles like rhubarb apple chutney and mulled wine sauce with juicy suckling pig.
The fun part laid in the next two delightful courses bearing the ocean’s bounty, as they’re also off the menu creations and part of Chef Carlos’ experimental series. Guests get the opportunity to offer feedback and potentially collaborate with the chef on the next item to make the a la carte menu. Between the George Bank scallops and the Suquet, our vote goes to the latter. A seafood stew that’s really the fisherman’s dish in Barcelona, the comforting Catalan favourite gets the luxe treatment at Esquina. Bacalao (Spanish salted cod), octopus, and carabinero prawn are cooked in a rich, heady carabinero broth in a bag – a treatment reminiscent of the French en papillote. Served in a plastic bag – it’s safe, with the ability to withstand up to 220°C– the heavenly aroma of crustaceans hits, making it so easy to fall in love with.
That’s not to say the scallops are not delicious; these US shellfish are larger and sweeter compared to the more commonly-seen Hokkaido scallops, and they hold their own against the robustness of the Jerusalem artichoke purée, burnt onion sauce, and chorizo crumbs.
A refreshing sangria sorbet is served before the final dessert course, what the folks at Esquina call the BBC – beer, banana, caramel. The malty beer ice cream played well with the banana cream and salted caramel, and is a dessert even banana hates will find palatable.
One thing: six years on, the restaurant still hasn’t swopped their torture devices they call seats for something more comfortable. They’re still going strong, so who are we to judge?
Top Image: Smoked Atlantic Mackerel
Esquina is located at 16 Jiak Chuan Rd, Singapore 089267, p. +65 6222 1616. Open Tue-Sat 12pm – 2.30pm, 6pm – 10.30pm. Closed Sun-Mon.