A dinner at Chef Sam Aisbett’s Whitegrass had us thinking.
Why would anyone in their right mind want to leave the comforts of home Down Under, or the tutelage of accomplished mentors at Quay and Tetsuya’s, to tackle the hardest task in the world?
Yes, we’re referring to setting up a restaurant in Singapore.
Why would one even drag the spouse into the venture, even if she does a marvellous job entertaining the Michelin-devout punter with a spunky self-confidence? Why did the little voice in Chef Sam’s head tell him that it’s okay to pair quail with century egg, that it’s not too bizarre to glaze deep-fried crablets with XO sauce? And above all, why is Whitegrass that brilliant?
Don’t get us wrong – brilliant doesn’t always equate to excellent. Elegant and serene as the Takenouchi Webb-designed space is, it feels a tad too feminine for the turbulent, kooky mind of the chef at the helm, like a Harajuku cosplayer donning a plain silky dress. Desserts at Whitegrass also remind us that there is a fine line between complexity and simply throwing in the kitchen sink.
A domed vacherin of jackfruit, longan and coconut flesh, capped with a parade of mousses, ice creams and purees is at best a mental cue of a trip to the wet market, at worst an uninspired lesson in tropical fruits. The modernist touches in the savoury department also don’t seem to register as well in another dessert that brings together South American feijoa (a type of flowering plant) ice cream, lime marshmallow, and apple fluid gel.
Otherwise, Chef Sam’s diverse culinary vocabulary is writ large on his impressive 8-course discovery menu ($255++).
At times, it veers thrillingly toward full-on modern Asian territory, like slices of tender Australian jade tiger abalone interspersed with soft shitake rounds, topped with gold leaf. They lay on a mix of umami kombu gel and kombu consommé that are a delightful contrast in itself, where hidden green peppercorns provide a peekaboo of tingling heat.
Singapore’s famed chicken rice is the inspiration behind the chicken course, except that each bite brings new excitement to the palate. Sweet shredded chicken and puffed quinoa – an interplay of textures. Toasty hazelnuts and sesame oil – a nutty exchange. Salted egg yolk pressed into sheets and baby artichokes spun into puree – an earthy yet unctuous sodium hit.
Japanese hits a high note in an ornately layered rosette, consisting of alternating shaved yellowtail & white beetroot. The vinegary notes in the beetroot, the bursts of horseradish kick from tonburi (seeds from a herb known as “land caviar”) and the finishing touch of spring onion oil make this as comfortable at Waku Ghin as it is in this nature-inspired space at Chjimes.
At its mains, the menu asserts more Western sensibilities without letting down on the Asian strokes. Hungarian Mangalican pork and Scottish beef are both layered so thoughtfully that by now, you’re beginning to see Sam Aisbett on the plate. The brilliance comes from the fact that from the moment he’s landed in Singapore, he’s drawn from a culinary vocabulary that’s both intrinsic and acquired, and to which he contributes back to, with his highly original conceptions.
He had us at his black moss-encased, salt-brined pork – so fatty it’s almost porcine gold. House-made tofu and ribbons of scallop pale somewhat in terms of flavour, salvaged by a pork broth that goes bone-deep on comforting umami. While the charcoal-grilled beef is slightly gummy for a tenderloin, there is no denying the fitting accompaniments of fermented mushroom puree and a drop of 20-year aged soy are extremely well-played, harbouring an intensity that is both outrageous and plain delicious.
Good cooking is like good wizardry, isn’t it? It should twist your mind without annoying the hell out of you. It should push boundaries, but keep your palate sane for the next surprise. Above all, it should set you thinking. And here at Whitegrass, we have a chef who’s a damn good magician.
Whitegrass is located at #01-26 CHIJMES, 30 Victoria Street, Singapore 187996, p. 6837 0402. Open Tue 6pm-9.30pm (last order), Wed-Sat 12pm-2pm (last order), 6pm-9.30pm (last order). Bar open Tue-Sat 5.30pm-11.45pm (last order).