Rustic Christmas-y classics.
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Singapore. Unless you’re into contemporary art: the recently reopened Gillman Village is a splitting image of Beijing’s equally fascinating 798 Art District sans the industrial look of the place which is a nod to its former use. And maybe gambling too. Singapore’s two casinos eclipsed the Las Vegas’ Strip in gaming revenue barely after a year of their opening, and is now second in the world only to Macau. But when it comes to food, there is certainly no shortage of restaurants in this Southeast Asian hub. Riding on the city’s rising affluence, the movement is all encompassing – big name celebrity chefs like Jason Atherton, Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy, Hide Yamamoto and Justin Quek have nudged Singapore into the epicurean spotlight; complementing the already cosmopolitan fusion canvas of hawker fare. While it is certainly curious that the city hasn’t been bestowed with a Michelin or Zagat guide, this “non-event” has ironically kept the industry one of the most amiable – drawing ever more chefs to its shores, and inspiring many others already here to strike out on their own. And one of those individuals is Jean-Charles Dubois.
Formerly of Raffles Hotel and his own subsequent start-up, The French Kitchen at Clarke Quay which he has since sold for a nice price, chef Jean-Charles now helms the understated Balzac Brasserie at Hotel Rendevous. The brasserie takes inspiration from French novelist and playwright, Honoré de Balzac. For starters, the restaurant’s logo, a quick and inkwell are direct references, as are the playwright’s amusing quotes about food and beverages and posters inspired by his novels, all of which are visible throughout the brasserie. No expense has been spared on the furniture either, sourced from antiquities and fleas from the Francophone world to replicate the decor of an authentic French brasserie. The setting is upscale yet relaxed, and as with most restaurants in the city-state, reasonably affordable. While it’s right by the hustle and bustle of the invigorating Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah districts (it is literally, located by the roadside), there is never a semblance of that disorder filtering into the diner. Whether you’re here for the full works, just the main or dessert, you’re gonna leave with a taste of rustic and countryside France. And the seasonal Festive Menu is a continuation of that deliverance.
Much like St. Regis’, the focus at Balzac Brasserie’s Festive Menu harks back to the idea of feasting on a table of plenty. The palate is hearty and comforting – defined by bold and exuberant colors, decidedly stronger flavors and a generally meatier disposition as a contrast against the harsh, cold, unfeeling diaspora of white-washed winters. There’s an air of extravagance, generosity and excessiveness, but this is after all, the season of giving so it’d be a mistake to expect anything less.
Balzac Brasserie bakes its own bread, and exploit this opportunity rather judiciously with the first few courses. As is expected, we were started with a warm bread basket stocked with a plain, as well as a sweeter variety served with two different types of butter: herb, and truffle butter with broccoli. The bread had a silky yet firm texture – a perfect canvas on which to dribble the butter on, particularly the truffle butter, whose more sophisticated depth contrasted against the sweetness of the loaf. For the amuse bouche, the brasserie offers a brioche which isn’t unlike French Toast. The Egg Cocotte with Cauliflower and Truffle Emulsion is, I suppose, a nod to the European Christmas classic – egg nogg. Dipping the brioche into the mustard colored concentration, it evoked, at least for me, the image of dipping kaya toasts into soft-boiled eggs. At the end of the day, whatever the association, the emotion it recalls is that of a comforting one. The soft-boiled egg worked well, with the cauliflower and truffle perfectly balancing the rawness of the yolk, giving it a much refreshing flavor with a clean end, preparing one for the meal proper.
Continuing the brawny tone set by the amuse bouche, chef Jean-Charles follows up with an equally rustic appetizer of Juicy & Confit of Kurobuta Pork Cheek with Foie Gras Terrine and Crispy Farmer Bread. The course recalls the traditional sandwich, the Pan Bagnat, which the farmers would prepare in the morning to for lunch in the fields. Much like the meals of laborers in Singapore, the Pan Bagnat is loaded with carbohydrates and protein – to give farmers enough energy to work ten-hour days. The sandwich works by compacting meats, vegetables into a rather stale, somewhat hollow-ed out bread – which must be the inspiration for this dish. The foie gras terrine is compressed into the meat into a single, full block. The bread, crispy throughout, is given a touch of aroma with a drench in olive oil. Like butter on toast, you slice a portion of the pork cheek and have it with toast – decorated sprinkles of salt, pepper allow for taste. The pork, when firmed together with the foie gras terrine, neutralized the bovine while sharpening the affectation. Like the Pan Bagnat, this combination isn’t meant to evoke the drowsy feeling after a full day’s meal. Instead, it remains refreshing and leaves one piped up for the main course.
Here’s where diners have to choose: the Pan Seared Atlantic Sea Scallop or the “Civet” of Venison and French Bacon. On one side, you’ve got succulent, fresh and luscious pan seared scallops tucked on a shallow island of lobster bisque over an ocean of a smooth, light and inviting ratte potato puree which is, quite frankly, one of the best mashes you’ll ever have. The other alternative is a pair of roasted venison loins which have been indulging in an extravagant spa of red wine for twenty four hours nonstop before being cooked. Served with a hearty apple and winter vegetables Civet sauce, it was rustic, homely and absolutely filling. While I vastly enjoyed either course, I think I definitely prefer the venison simply because it seems like a better value. Soaking the meat really pays off as the difference is obvious. The red wine permeates into the venison, enhancing the aroma and flavor of the meat – locking in all the juices together. The dish just keeps on building the strengths of each individual component. The intoxicated deer is further enhanced by the hearty and lively civet sauce, made from red wine. With that smeared all along the sides of ratte potato puree, sweet apples and winter vegetables, the whole dish aesthetically and flavor-wise, encapsulates the vibe of Christmas like no other.
Some chefs like to top the course prior with ever more exaggerating details and ever more extravagant period pieces without really thinking about the journey and symphony so far – Balzac Brasserie isn’t like that. The final course is a traditional, simple duet that’s more like the cherry atop a cake rather than a vast ornamental statement. The Traditional Christmas Chocolate Yule Cake and Milk Lollipop was straightforward, uncomplicated, and optimistic.