Magic Square (Singapore)

Desmond Shen, Abel Su and Marcus Leow

From Virgilio Martinez, Mauro Colagreco, Umberto Bombana to Massimo Bottura, we’ve seen our fair share of pop-ups in Singapore. So it may come as no surprise to hear of yet another one, Magic Square. But make no mistake, this one is nothing like the others.

You see, Magic Square is not a two-night phenomenon but a 12 month-long restaurant pop-up in a 1,000 square-feet space with a communal table for 18. Its location? Somewhere tucked in the wooded reaches of Portsdown Road, adjacent to Pietrasanta The Italian Restaurant.

Founder, Ken Loon, of Naked Finn and Nekkid started this incubator project to help nurture future talents in the F&B industry. In the interest of balancing the books, he has kept capital investments to a minimum, made possible by main sponsor, Miele, kindly chipping in with appliances from wine chillers to vacuum cleaner.

In spite of what they say about too many chefs spoiling the broth, Loon has hand-picked not one but three below-30 previously “unknown” young chefs to preside over the open kitchen: Desmond Shen, Marcus Leow and Abel Su. Each month, one of them takes turn to steer the menu with Shen taking the lead in the opening month of May, Leow in June and now Su in July.

You may have heard of some of the headline dishes from the past months: an awe-inspiring Malay-inspired petai miso by Shen in May and an eye-opening Peranakan-style brussel sprouts in buah keluak emulsion in June, both of which I’ve missed. For the July menu, Odette-trained Su is taking a slightly different tack, choosing instead to mostly let his local produce do the talking.His nine-course dinner menu ($78++ per head) introduces new, sometimes uncharted, flavours but expresses itself as a crescendo, starting light and gently building in momentum.

Gamberro Rosso, Winter Melon
Soon Hock, Kai Lan

This means that the parade of opening plates may come across as light, and intentionally so. A little chunk of sweet raw shrimp on a bed of winter melon cooked-down in tomato soaked in the gently funky flavour of fermented apple broth. Then a piece of steamed soon hock with textures of kai lan in an ethereal emulsion of clam broth spiked with sake, ginger and fermented green chilli brine, so subtle that it caresses your palate. But subtlety can be a double-edged sword, it may be perceived as plain by some and refined by others. I’d pick the latter.

Taro, Whitebait

The flavours gather speed in the ensuing dishes . Steamed and fried taro cubes in a bechamel-like veloute of taro soup balanced with kombu dashi. As if to call for your attention, Su tops it with beautifully caramelised white bait that provides both a textural and flavour counterpoint.

Duck Liver Tart

If Su had served you duck liver (from a local bird ex-Toh Thye San Farm) as it were, it may have passed unnoticed. So he creates a pate out of it, rounds it with Hua Tiao wine and tops it with the black citrus powder of yuzu and lime. As you sink your teeth into the silky confection, it assaults your palate in the most wonderful but unusual ways – gamey sweetness from the liver, a wee bit of bitterness from the citrus powder and a tinge of heady, almost pleasurable, hit courtesy of the Chinese wine. Unforgetable.

Duck Claypot Rice

But the chef, who is Cantonese, reserves the best for the last. With Japanese koshihikari short grain rice, duck fat, sake and salt-cured duck leg “lap cheong”, he cooks a duck-centric claypot rice topped with succulent lobes of duck heart. Think about this – fluffy grains of rice, each coated with the mildly sweet and savouriness of the ingredients it’s cooked with, with none of the greasiness that you’d expect from a local varietal. That’s not all – with it, he fields a skewer of charcoal-grilled duck breast tsukune that is not only plump but brimming with an intensely smoky flavour from its time on the grill. Ace dish.

Taiwanese Oolong Tea Sorbet, Lychee

It’ll be interesting to see how Su would handle the bolder flavour of either the Malay or Peranakan cuisine that his colleagues so readily embraced these past two months. For now, if this menu shows anything, it is that Su is able (no pun intended). As if to further prove this point, he serves you another of his best in the finale course – an unexpectedly riveting dairy-free pre-dessert of Taiwanese Oolong sorbet with lychee.

5B Portdown Road, Singapore 139 311; tel: +65-8181 0102

© Evelyn Chen 2013
Please note that the reviews published on this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.
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