Tapas dining may be a way of life in Spain but in Singapore, it is still very much a fad that peaked four to five years ago, now survived by a coterie of trendy small plate eateries with great vibes, a strong wine list and accomplished cooking.
|Chef Carlos Montobbio|
Enter Esquina, a former Jason Atherton and Andrew Walsh tapas stronghold now presided by former Antidote chef, Carlos Montobbio, who took over the reins of the Jiak Chuan eatery two years ago. The Barcelona native now puts Spanish flavours in the vanguard while international flavours – think former Antidote dishes like clam sphere and veal cheek “bao” with Perigord black truffles – take a back seat. What stays, however, is Montobbio’s touch of modernity.
Esquina’s menu format of “snacks”, “soil”, “sea” and “land” still harks back to its heydays but apart from two dishes (roasted cauliflower and ibero pork burger), every other dish has been replaced with Montobbio’s creations.
No one should miss the freshly shucked Brittany Tsarksya oyster (S$7 each). Yes, the oyster is fresh as it should be, but the refreshingly sweet and briny Jalapeno-infused ponzu broth with salmon roe and ginger flower takes the mollusc to a whole level.
Smoked Atlantic mackerel (S$6 each) is also a winner. Thick slices of the fish arrive on paper-thin corn tuile with capers and the young chef’s interpretation of escalivada as smidgens of sweet red bell pepper and miso-infused eggplant puree, creating a little party on the palate.
In the hands of Montobbio, vegetables become more ever more palatable. Sucrine lettuce (S$12), a small variety of Romaine with a sweetish flavour, is grilled in the Josper oven until its surface is enveloped in char, then doused in cider vinegar and served alongside macademia nuts and a puddle of herbed yoghurt. Anyone who thinks lettuce is tasteless should help himself to this.
Montobbio’s dabble with Pantagonian toothfish ceviche (S$26) is also a success. Instead of using lean white fish, he uses the fatty yet clean-tasting, Pantagonian tooth fish that has been cured in lemon and serves it in tiger’s milk concocted with mirin, soya sauce, rhubarb jus and aji amarillo with sweet potato crisps that taste better than the ubiquitous potato crisps.
|Foie gras terrine puff pastry|
Long time fans of the Spanish chef will be comforted by the off-menu dish of caramelised foie gras terrine (S$18) puff pastry with a layer of glazed leeks sandwiched in between and served with chopped chives. The contrast of the airy yet flaky pastry skin with melt-in-the-mouth foie gras is transcendental. It’s your lucky day if it appears on the day’s special.
Now, the mood plummets a little as the meal progresses into the more classical courses.
|Dingley Dell pork jowl|
There is nothing wrong with the Josper oven-grilled French pigeon on burnt rosemary polenta (S$24) or the Spanish suckling pig (S$32) with deep-fried crackling and slow-cooked pork in a Christmasy arrangement of rhubarb and apple chutney in mulled wine jus. These merely pale in comparison with the fore courses as they weigh the meal down rather than excite the palate. I’d rather snack on the lighter pork course of Dingley Dell melt-in-the-mouth pork jowl in chipotle mayo paired with pickled pear (S$14).
The sea urchin and lobster paella (S$32) holds some potential. Plated rather than served in a pan, the paella is prepared from broth prepped with lobster head, where all the flavour is, and served with tongues of raw uni and smidgens of saffron aioli. Even if the paella arrives with no lobster meat, the richness of the lobster flavour is without reproach. But herein lies the problem – the sweetness of the uni is lost in this preparation.
|Potato and truffle gratin|
For my next meal at Esquina, I would happily trade the paella dish for the potato and truffle gratin (S$20). Think of it as a mielle-feuille of potatoes sandwiched with a bewitching filling of butter and truffle paste. The dish is sauteed upon order and served with a gooey burnt onion sauce enriched with an organic egg yolk.
Tapas may have lost its charm but great food – like Montobbio’s modernist Spanish – will never go out of fashion. To stay on course, my general advice is to steer off the classics (that said, you may find some exceptions).