I strongly feel MasterChef: The Professionals is the best culinary-based competition show in the world – even though I believe Netflix's The Mind of a Chef reigns universally supreme. Partly, this is due to the fact that rather than Anthony Bourdain, the show is hosted by esteemed chefs who have not yet sold their souls for commercial opportunities and actually give a dog's bollocks about sharing their knowledge with the contestants (I do miss having Le Gavroche's Michel Roux Jr on the show though). But more importantly, it gives us viewers a chance to glimpse into the minds of chefs, how their thought processes work and how they function under immense pressure. And the more you watch the show, the more you realise that the ones who try the hardest and are the most desperate to please are often the ones who end up being eliminated earliest. The best chefs are those who are comfortable and confident in their abilities, aware that they do not need gimmicks and unnecessary innovative techniques to make their food shine. While I understand that less confident chefs have the compulsive need to mask their deficiencies with frivolous distractions and unnecessary flair, I certainly did not expect one of the highest-rated restaurants in Asia to act in such a manner.
Tippling Club should be a confident restaurant; it certainly has the credentials. Hell, it is already one of the best restaurants in Asia, ranking at an impressive 27th on the latest Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list. And in some aspects, this confidence is displayed and does shine through. The decor is impressively casual and laid-back, with a dining area featuring dim lighting, hipster-friendly bar stools and a large open kitchen operated by a smooth, efficient team led by Chef Ryan Clift. The service team are friendly, relaxed and cheerful, while the dining clientele were free from the suit-clad yuppies that you would normally associate with an establishment like this. Instead of wine, you get to pair your courses with cocktails, where the cocktail menu consists of strips of scented black paper and ingredients like burnt syrup, edible stones and grass extract can be found. My citrusy Caramel cocktail with burnt syrup was a revelation while the Campfire cocktail with toasted marshmallow got a nod of approval from my partner.
But let's move to the food because that's what guests are really here for. Throughout the meal, there were extreme highs. But then, in other instances, we got the impression that the chef was trying too hard. To best illustrate this, I shall do a dish-by-dish analysis of the five-course tasting menu (SG$450 for two, including two cocktails):
Before the meal began, we were served five amuse-bouches and a palate cleanser. Each plate of food was immaculately presented and looked incredibly appetising. The prawn cracker with garlic aioli and sakura ebi (top left) tasted like a grown-up, jazzed-up version of a popular Asian children's snack. It was rich with umami from the shrimp, and the garlic aioli was lovely and tangy. The reconstructed bocadillo 'sandwich' (top row, middle image) was even better, with an intense tomato fondue, spicy chorizo filling and paper-thin feuille de brick pastry. The tom yum mousse (bottom right) was intriguing, with a crisp battered coriander garnish, while the aerated cheese puff (bottom row, middle image), with the lightest of pastry casings and a rich molten cheese centre, had my companion wishing for more. The palate cleanser of tomato water, basil and olive oil (bottom left) did its job expertly. There was only one minor miscue: the mushroom 'sushi' with algae mayonnaise (top right). It was a confused attempt at emulating Nordic cuisine, where the musky funk of the algae overwhelmed the delicate flavours of the mushroom. Still, these were well-executed, well-thought-out plates of food, helping diners to gain an understanding of the vision of the restaurant.
Moving onto the actual courses and things started to get a little more confusing. The first course of Petuna ocean trout, beetroot, smoked ox tongue and horseradish looked like it came straight out of an Andy Warhol painting – almost as if the trout had been the victim of a horrifying homicide incident – complete with a rather jarring splattered beetroot gel. Still, the classic combination of beetroot and smoked trout works every single time, and the fish itself was perfectly cooked, without any of the slimy slipperiness that often comes with sous-vide cooking. The smoked ox tongue was rather muted, and the horseradish was nondescript. All in all, however, this was a piece of modern cooking done well, based on classic combinations that have proven to be successful over time.
The second course of scallops in a bowl of creamy, smooth garlic soup was a resounding success. To remove the pungency of the garlic, the chefs triple-cooked it before blending it to form a vibrant, heartwarming bowl of soup with plenty of cream and other goodies. The scallops, lightly pre-cooked before being finished off by the residual heat from the soup, were plump and sweet. This dish was accompanied by a parsley Parmesan tuile, parsley purée and homegrown herbs like cat's whiskers and tarragon flowers. The gentle flavour of the parsley meshed well with everything else in the bowl, creating one harmonious dish. This was a very simple dish, but it was the best course of the entire meal, proving that simple, well-thought-out and well-executed dishes naturally stand out.
The third course of the meal was another fish dish. This time it was turbot, regarded as the king of all fish from a culinary standpoint. A meaty, versatile fish, it pairs well with a wide array of ingredients, from conventional accompaniments such as sea herbs to something out of the norm like chicken or another meat. Sadly, the list of ingredients does not include watercress and turnip. In fact, I am convinced that the puddle of pungent, peppery emulsified watercress purée does not belong on any plate at any restaurant (before you berate me, I do like watercress in certain dishes, and I myself make a mean watercress soup), despite adding some vibrant colour to an otherwise dull-looking plate. The fish itself was perfectly cooked, meaty and succulent, while the 'risotto', made of finely diced squid, was also well cooked, well seasoned and tasted strongly of the sea. Take away the watercress, replace it with a wonderful seafood sauce and this would be a triumphant plate. It was also during this course that my companion and I began to notice the extraordinary amount of green on the plates of food being served to us – dots of green parsley purée here, a slick of green there... Yes, I am aware that it is nearly spring and there is a need to convey a sense of freshness to diners. But there is a fine line between beautiful springtime dishes and the green eggs and ham territory found only in Dr Seuss stories. And Tippling Club was nervously teetering between the two.
When the main course arrived, I instinctively groaned. Before even tasting it, my appetite was whetted away by the large slab of green that covered the main elements of the entrée. It was a piece of milk skin, stained green from food colouring before being presented on the dish like a cheap slice of Kraft Cheese found on a lowly supermarket shelf. Remember the green eggs and ham reference just a few lines above? Yeah, we were deep in Dr Seuss territory now. The milk skin itself added nothing to the dish, and both my companion and I left it on the plate. The actual main course was four measly pieces of pork, which were a bit of a letdown. Nonetheless, it was well cooked, with a crisp exterior and a juicy inside. Braised salsify added a nutty element to the dish while the salsa verde provided spice. These are very simple flavour combinations that work well together, but once again, it seemed as if the chef has gone out of control with his ideas just for the sake of standing out from the norm.
After the disappointing pork dish, we were done with the mains and were given a small palate cleanser to refresh our taste buds. The mandarin orange 'bomb' was freezing cold. I made the mistake of popping the entire thing in one go, like a gourmet chocolate, and instantly regretted it. The immense coldness and the spice from the curry sent me into a coughing fit. Regretfully, due to this coughing episode, I did not taste much of the palate cleanser, though my partner assured me that it was rather lovely.
Finally, after a long and eventful two hours, dessert was served (seriously though, how do people labour through 10-, 12- and 15-course meals?). It was a stark contrast with the previous plates of food. While earlier courses were lovely and green, with colours that evoked the sense of spring and life, this was completely dystopian and eerily black. But the tonka bean ganache with oxidised banana and finger lime was a successful plate of food. Tonka bean is an acquired taste; it can taste like the contents of a bottle of perfume if the chef has a slightly heavy hand. Here, the chocolate ganache was well balanced and judged, with just a hint of the perfumed tonka flavour coming through. It also had a lovely sugar crust on the outside to provide a bit of bite. I had never tasted oxidised banana before, but this was tart and provided an acidic spark. It was served in a multitude of ways, with the banana 'crème brûlée' standing out the most. A jet-black banana purée was piped into the lightest of sugar cylinders, showing that even though the menu may have been a bit confused, there were still some damn good chefs in the brigade. So, despite the rather depressing presentation – seriously, it looked like it came from one of Francisco Goya's 14 Black Paintings – this was actually a very successful, unique dish.
Overall, Tippling Club seems like a restaurant that is trying too hard, despite having a fantastic brigade of chefs, a lovely setting and a very innovative ethos. Still, sometimes in life it's important to take a step back or dial back slightly; it's always better to simplify than to overcomplicate things. The best plates of food served during this five-course tasting menu were simple, well thought out and perfectly executed. Tippling Club has the tools to become a vaunted dining establishment ranked up there with all the big names in Singapore; it just needs someone to install a STOP switch. Still, they fed me well, and I would happily return again. But for the love of Christ, throw away the green-coloured milk skin next time.
38 Tanjong Pagar Road, Singapore 088461, +65 6475 2217