August 6, 2020

These days, I approach dining out with some trepidation. After all, this so-called ‘right’ that some of us have been taking too lightly can be stripped away in a blink of an eye. Take Hong Kong, for example, the recent moratorium on eating out could be the final blow to the already bruised and battered F&B landscape. For me, meals are never long and I tend not to stay past my welcome, since turning tables is beneficial for these businesses to rake in the green. So, when a lunch invitation at Corner House came around, it posed quite a challenge for the homebody in me. With seven courses including wine; I had to be prepared for a long-drawn affair.

I ensconced myself in a corner table. White linen draped across its top, drenched with sunlight streaming through the canopy. My socially-distanced neighbours were out of sight, yet their lively chatter floated across the room and parquet floors revealing their presence. One look at the bread basket that flourished the empty table, was enough to get me into a tizzy. And the anticipation of chef David Thien’s world of experience, as the newly appointed executive chef, was building up.

Born in La Réole, a small village near Bordeaux, Thien is a brilliant mix of French, Chinese and Creole, which instantly puts him in an advantageous position to understand the distinct flavours from his heritage and the combinations to excite the palate. Former executive chef Jason Tan has left to set up his own restaurant, leaving many to wonder if Thien is capable of retaining the restaurant’s one Michelin star, which Corner House has consistently held onto since the little red book debuted in Singapore in 2016.

Big shoes to fill indeed. Thien started on the right foot with the bread course to expound on his affection for cheap and cheerful hawker fare. There were sticks of squid ink laminated youtiao (Chinese fried dough) and crispy curry potato stuffed snails accompanied by a gleaming quenelle of sambal belachan butter. This certainly fulfilled my fantasy scenario of schmearing butter on fat-laden pastry and sipping on Guy Charlemagne rosé brut champagne.

No shame in polishing off the bread, but restraint is key in light of the impending courses. Amuse-bouches came in the form of crab coated with vadouvan sauce on poppadom wafer tartlettes, Thai-inspired beef tartare on crispy rice and moreish seafood otah brioche fingers that you wished came in surplus. The same innovative spin on traditions carried into the next two dishes. First, Thien’s personal take on achards—a dish that melded marinated Japanese hamachi with assorted pickled vegetables, and a tongue-tingling granita of pickling juices. Puddles of burrata and creamy mascarpone kept the acidity in check.

There was a sense of familiarity in the P’tit l’ail—a dish that attempted to refine hor fun with sweet pucks of seared scallops drowned in beurre blanc, married with koo chye (Chinese chives). Tiny flashcards also romanticised the course, reflecting the fleeting reminiscence of Thien’s childhood memories: his dad does a noodle dish supported by a seasonal ingredient similar to koo chye.

So far, the mod-sin inflections are indicative of an expat, who has lived in Singapore for a good six years rather than a local. My favourite dish, also the one that threw the biggest curveball, was the sea urchin ‘risotto’ except that in place of rice, pellets of washed, cut and charred beansprouts were cooked in mascarpone, parmesan cheese. It commands your attention from the very first inquisitive poke to the very last desperate scraping of the bowl.

‘Chicken Satay’ followed swiftly, which I knew my better half would go crazy for. As a French man, he would often lament about how his countrymen were missing out if they do not widen their palate. Here, an Albufera sauce underpinned by a peanut dipping sauce was served over Anxin chicken. And it was the best and only iteration I’ve had of this ubiquitous hawker dish.

The wagyu done two ways (one as a tartare and the other as a sukiyaki) did not quite make the mark. Still, I finished up the bowl of tartare over rice with no complaints but felt a little crestfallen that the pinnacle of the afternoon failed to telegraph Thien’s talent and vision.

The meal concluded with a stellar pre-dessert of cookie crumble, pineapple filling, coconut cloud and mango, pineapple and passionfruit sorbet. This little sweet and sour treat relegated anything that came after that to the back of your mind. Like the wagyu earlier, the main dessert posed a simultaneous identity crisis: a mont blanc that’s not quite as straightforward and given a slight Asiatic hint with the usage of adzuki red beans instead of chestnut, I found the replacement somewhat meaningless and wondered if this was a vestige of the chef’s poor grasp of local desserts.

Overall, the new Corner House menu was a mash-up of hits and misses. While it’s easy to draw comparisons between past and present, I am hoping that Thien will come to his own soon.