It’s “Gastro-botanica” no more at Corner House.
With the departure of founding chef Jason Tan, Corner House’s menu gets a complete makeover courtesy of newly-installed chef de cuisine David Thien.
One-time chef de cuisine of the now-defunct Shelter In The Woods and consultant chef to Straits Clan, the Bordeaux-born Thien brings his French-Chinese heritage to the fore as he debuts his brand of “French-Asian cuisine without shackles” in the wooded reaches of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
“What is French-Asian cuisine without shackles?” you may ask.
My read? It’s Thien’s way of bridging the key chapters in his life that have shaped his palate and hence his approach to flavours, all underscored by French cooking techniques gleaned from his time spent in French establishments including L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Singapore, and Cordeillan-Bages, Bordeaux. In other words, Franco-Asian cuisine.
From the get-go, Thien makes no secret of his fascination with South East Asian flavours and local rempahs, something he discovered after he stepped foot on local soil some 12 years ago.
They make a stately entrance by way of a trio of punchy little snacks that are worthy of mention. First, osiblue prawn and mackerel otah (grilled fish cake with spice paste) sandwiched in a rectangle of buttery brioche “croque monsieur” with 18-month-aged Comte cheese. Then steamed shredded crabs spiked with vadouvan spices (French derivative of masala spice) and buffered with dahl aioli on little rounds of crisp pappadum. Finally, larb (fish sauce, chilli flakes, lime juice)-scented beef tartare paired with puffed rice on tiny cups of Romaine lettuce. They are all one-bite wonders.
Gaining on the momentum built, bread service gives a nod to Singapore’s part-Malay heritage with a paste-like quenelle of sambal belacan-perfumed butter, a smart and surprisingly well-whipped butter with the nuances of the spice paste down pat.
As the meal progresses, the spotlight segues into Thien’s growing up years with the arrival of Achards, a popular South Asian pickled sweet-and-sour vegetable dish (also named acar) native to the the Indian-subcontinent but also a staple salad of fruits and vegetables from the Reunion Island where the chef was exposed to from a young age. Here, pickled vegetables of carrot, purple cabbage and cauliflower are served alongside an appetite-piquing granita of the achar’s pickling liquid and matched, outlandishly enough, with cured hamachi and dollops of burrata cream. The pairing is not what you will expect but the dish passes muster.
Locals familiar with the Chinese chive will be tickled with P’tit l‘ail, chef’s take on a childhood noodle dish cooked by his father using chives planted in their home garden. Here, the Chinese chives are charred and served as a savoury sauce thickened with cream, reduced white wine and chicken stock alongside fava beans, grilled Hokkaido scallops and charred kway teow. The breath of the wok is evident in this well-executed course but the sharp acidity from slivers of pickled radish that decorate the dish do throw a spanner into the “wok”. Still, it’s a good dish.
Developed by his new family at Corner House, Thien’s uni “risotto” is probably the most interesting item in the repertoire. Bean sprouts are charred, shaped to resemble rice and slathered in a creamy and luxurious coat of Hokkaido sea urchin, mascarpone and Parmesan. Finished with lemon oil and a crown of sea urchin lobes, the dish endears itself to lovers of sea urchin but its richness and sweetness does not detract from the mildly grassy and raw flavour of the bean sprouts. Those who are averse to bean sprouts – be warned!
I am a fan of well-made rendangs and am, in general, open to well-intentioned interpretations. Thien’s “rendang spaghetti” with seven herbs pesto, a tribute to the enfant terrible of French cuisine Thierry Marx, makes me question my tolerant worldview towards such interpretations. Firstly kudos to Thien and his team for the architectural marvel in constructing this tower of beef rendang encased in strands of spaghetti held together by chicken stuffing. While visually impressive, the polarising flavours from the rendang and herbed pesto are jarring. I’m none the wiser about the chicken beyond its functional presence in supporting the pasta. I’ve heard good reviews about the other beef dish – a Japanese-inspired sukiyaki with an apparently to-die-for broth. That’s for next time.
Hopefully by then, Thien’s cuisine would have evolved to incorporate Creole influences courtesy of his Chinese-Mauritian father who hails from La Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
1 Cluny Road, E J H Corner House, Singapore Botanic Gardend (Nassim Gate Entrance), Singapore 259 569; +65 6469 1000; cornerhouse.com.sg