I can finally say I’ve been there, done that.
Are we going to call every under 20-seater tapas THE place to “see and be seen”? Really? Going to all that expense to a pseudo speakeasy – a place that nobody from outside can see what’s going inside – to see and be seen. Talk about over-exaggeration. Esquina is one of those few – but so many – places that fit in that description, and it’s not too difficult to see why. The Epicurative describes the atmosphere as one of an “indescribable joie de vivre”, “a little piece of Manhattan’s lower east side transported to Singapore’s Chinatown (together with its obligatory hipsters)”, as described by The Atmospherists. Online food coloumn Rubbish Eat Rubbish Grow proudly proclaims that, “struggling artists can’t afford this place”.
It might well be true, but I didn’t visit Esquina at night. At least, I didn’t feel that way when I my colleague, Adibah and I visited this afternoon. The tapas bar takes on a more laidback, collected semblance. There are no queues – no social responsibility or pressure to vacate – one felt affable and agreeable.
We talked, dreamed and fantasized about coming here for weeks, so when an opportunity popped by, we zipped down to Jiak Chuan Road in the Keong Saik cluster after an event in the Orchard area. Esquina is commanded by Jason Atherton, a protege of Gordon Ramsay, but when it comes down to the actual work, its executive chef Andrew Welsh who truly helms the space. In the grand scheme of the Michelin universe, Atherton is a greenhorn, with just one Michelin star earned for his restaurant, Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. The Sheffield-born chef stepped out of Ramsay’s shadow only three years ago, opening his first restaurant in Shanghai, and London a year after in 2011. In the same year, he bounced back into Asia, opening Esquina and his flagship Pollen in Singapore (whose food review by Esquire Singapore is amazing, awe-inspiring and garbage at the same time), following with a third Singapore restaurant, Keong Saik Snacks in 2012 along with his first Hong Kong restaurant, 22 Ships. When a chef’s flagship restaurant is awarded a single Michelin star, you know not to expect the world… especially for me, after coming off Joel Robuchon a week ago. Which is what we did; we went in without any expectations whatsoever.
Esquina isn’t quite sure whether it should be a novo haute Spanish tapas bar, or a haute tapas bar. Compared to FoodBar DaDa, whose concept is a little more international while still recognizing its Spanish roots, and in doing so, taking a leap of faith; this Atherton shack feels more like an evolution rather than a revolution. As such, it’s actually more Spanish than it really wants to let in on despite the obvious expertise of fine dining spun into the concept. The look’s Manhattan, the blood’s Spanish but the execution is irrevocably modern European. Since December, this gastronomic wanderlust has also set its eyes on a quick cash grab intended for the white-collar working class. The three-course set lunch feels more like a mini degustation menu, reading like a compilation of the tapas bar’s “best” of. It takes advantage of the seasonal ingredients as they come and go, offering slight to extreme variations of the items on the menu. We also proceeded to add two more dishes solely based on how tantalizing the descriptive read… well, I did. My colleague, Adibah on the other hand, was very specific about wanting to have the Scallop Ceviche. As enticing and affordable as the Josper Grill options were, they were only available for dinner service, which was a pity. Once you go Josper, you never go copper…steel, or any kind of grill. I’d have to come back someday in the evening for the Josper.
Long after the Japanese mastered sashimi and sushi, the western world was largely struggling with the taboo of having raw fish. Typically made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices, spiced and seasonings added, the ceviche is pretty much the predecessor to the seafood (be it tuna, sea bream or salmon) carpaccio in modern cooking today. Atherton pays tribute to the ceviche with a scallop variant which is as refreshing and light as it is savory. The presentation is impeccable, painting an homage to the treasures of the garden oceans. The presentation is visceral, painting an homage to the treasures of the oceans – lifted by exuberant flower petals and spiced with an aquatic touch with the sea green cucumber, rockets and pea sauce – it’s alien. But when savored, there’s a certain familiarity in flavor that reassures the diners, and seems to confirm that this oceanic galaxy, an anti-thesis opposite to ours, is not only not so different, but filled with an exhilarating microcosm that rivals, perhaps surpasses our own. There were nods to our own local version of the ceviche – the raw fish salad served alongside porridge. While I initially disliked the immediate connection I subconsciously formed, I grew to accept it, love it in fact.
Grilled Ox Tongue with Roasted Cauliflower Puree and Cumin Cauliflower Cous Cous
The beef carpaccio served with toast and egg yolk was also something that didn’t awe me instantly. I don’t profess myself a professional, but I’m admittedly quite fussy when it comes to beef. I enjoy beef in its original flavor, and any seasoning, sauces or spices has to enhance and expound on the original beef flavor. So therefore, I dislike anything that attempts to mask the taste, just as they did here. In theory, Esquina gets most of the things right with this dish – the raw egg yolk complements raw beef perfectly, and the frozen foie gras on the top (not too much, though) for that fuller, richer beef experience. However, the taste of tangy pickles, combined with a hardened toast took me out of loving this dish. It was only towards the end, when we asked for a second helping of fresh toast (done right this time) that I really took to it. By that time however, it was too late.
Now to the set lunch proper. I have to say that I was absolutely impressed by the three-course set lunch – blowing the two dishes we ordered a la carte away by millions of miles. The appetizer of Grilled Ox Tongue with roasted cauliflower puree and cumin cauliflower cous cous looked and tasted better than it read. The tongue was delicate, tender, and combined with the earthen flavors of the puree and cous cous, it was a hearty, homely comfort dish that warmed up something inside.
Confit Pork Belly dressed with Pineapple and Chorizo and topped with Crispy Pork Skin
For the mains, there were two choices for the day: Pan Fried Seabass, served with citrus salad and shaved flannel drizzled in lemon olive oil; and the Confit Pork Belly dressed with pineapple and chorizo and topped with crispy pork skin. Adibah had the former, and tasting it, I feel it builds up on the scallop ceviche, enhancing the flavors of what was right in the appetizer and elevating it to a main course level. The confit pork belly is decidedly richer in fuller in flavor. It’s a drastic depth change from the Grilled Ox Tongue appetizer later, but it’s not a change one can’t handle. The team at Esquina really shows its finesse with this dish. The pork belly is a layered portion with at least three textures of meat with vastly different characters, and the trick is to keep the flesh tender without overcooking the belly. It was executed perfectly, and I applaud Atherton for that. However, with a very heavy caramelized belly, I’d have expected the dressing to be balance out the rich pork fat. Instead, the pineapple and chorizo dressing is slightly taxing on my taste buds. Nevertheless, the small portion of it all alleviates any concerns on the rich flavor.
Chocolate Tea Ice Cream, Sponge Sacher, Pickled Cherries and Hazelnut Praline
Perhaps it’s the result of watching too much Masterchef Australia, but I am not at all impressed by the presentation of the “deconstructed” Chocolate Tea Ice Cream, sponge sacher, pickled cherries and hazelnut praline. Otherwise, I love it. My second favorite after the pork belly.