Restaurant Ards: Redefining Modern Asian cuisine
A year ago, I had the good fortune to dine in the now-defunct Bridge Restaurant, where the Chefs Ace Tan and David Lee were eager to please—their massive efforts at piquant illustration limited while trying to juggle expectations. I polished off a backfin crab and passionfruit gazpacho and waxed lyrical about a native fruits dessert that exuded sparks of culinary brilliance through luscious cultured cream and a medley of local fruits. However, much of the restaurant’s appeal, thrived on its bustling brunch trade. And as much as the chef duo strived to produce an innovative fare with an emphasis on intriguing ingredients, the dining population wasn’t quite ready for it yet.
This year, I was once again blessed with the pleasures of dining in the freshly minted Restaurant Ards on Duxton Road. Stiff white table linen and fur padded chair backs find a place in the nook of the high ceiling kitchen, a spacious open concept illuminated by natural light streaming in from the skylight windows. And despite the connection not being fostered upon our first introduction, the unravelling of a meal that transcends fine dining p’s and q’s remind me of why I write about food. Like children craving for candy, we are all hardwired to respond to a story. At Restaurant Ards, the chefs’ stories manifest in their food; and might I add, looking past their ‘Asia, Roots, Distinct, Singular’ representation, these two lads have a lot to say. On that note, a 15-course menu will require a good 4-hour time commitment, just be wary.
Courses lend itself to fantasies better than any pre-defined kind of cooking; their inspiration stemming from Chef Ace Tan and David Lee’s dedication to create their own cuisine that breaks away from the pre-notions of mod-sin. Deconstructed dumplings with their fillings splayed out between paper-thin carrot folds, set the tone. It’s a relief to know that the mimicry isn’t just visual. The parcel may just be a tad perilous to devour with lady-like mannerism, but the flavours are wonderfully balanced. The light whisper of Chinese tea throughout the smoked minced pork amplifying and extending the yum cha experience.
Buttery pastry cases come filled with vinegared Japanese corn, mentaiko fish roe custard, raw carrot and corn crackers. The scattering of kailan flowers over, another happy addition to the parade of dishes inflicted with floral nuances.
At this juncture, you’re starting to worry if most of the courses would just consist of singular bites. Fret not, the Mother’s Chicken Soup will put all these uneasiness to rest—as it should. The sweetness of the 12-hour steamed chicken, winter melon, fish maw and cucumber flower are so reminiscent of a tonic brew, one would enjoy when nursing a cold, that it would make you shiver with pleasure.
The bread course rolls out on the 7th course. Signalling the end of snackage. Restaurant reviews usually don’t turn over so much space for the bread starters, but the one at Ards deserves it. Genmaicha infused mantou is lavished with more affection via the ginseng butter dotted with honey and green tea crisps. There was no radiated tension nor self conscious artsy effort here, only good bread and butter which made me squeal just a little inside.
I tend to think of cold noodles as low-hanging fruit when it comes to fine dining circumstances, but the Ear of the Sea proved me wrong. Taking a more formalised approach to Chinese dining, the abalone is slow cooked in white tea for 18 hours. This is served alongside house-made noodles dressed in fresh yuzu. My favourite part is the mushroom granola which “crunchifies” the amalgamation.
But some of the more elaborate dishes are underwhelming. I don’t know how having 33 ingredients in a dish the size of a fist can be dull, but it is. I owe it to my lack of interest in the traditional dumplings, but when the conglomeration of various treasured mushrooms gets lost in translation and the roof of battered and deep-fried lotus root steals the limelight, I call it out.
Fortunately, the next to reignite those flames was the Fish on Fish. The usual, exploited cod placed back on its high pedestal in favour of the more localised red grouper. Slow cooked till agonisingly tender in sea water, natural salinity is extricated in the process, with the umami factor bumped up several notches with scallop butter and seaweed. The punctilious care for seafood by the duo is truly a testament in this multi-component entry. Wasabi spiked snow? Flower clams? Housemade XO Sauce? Oyster Broth? Henri Matisse would be so proud of the culinary fluidity conveyed on the white canvas.
End off your meal with the Coconut Kaffir Ice. Beneath that icy first impression lies a strategically layered dessert that convenes coconut custard, coconut crumb, coconut meat dressed in apple vinegar, fermented coconut cream and shaved coconut ice. It’s refreshing with a coconut oil dressing that is highly complementary to the kaffir lime zest.
I’m grateful for the emergence of Ards in a restaurant world so plagiarised by Mod-sin and up-town Asian cuisine. Sure, there are still a few bolts to be tightened. But if the chefs’ dedication to embrace fine dining in the realms of a cuisine unknown isn’t convincing in itself to dine at Restaurant Ards, perhaps my amorous exhalations of this happy meal might pique your interest.