When Culinary Giants Chef Kristian Baumann and Chef Jason Tan Team Up
It would seem fortuitous that this matchmaking was taking place in an airy, romance-filled colonial building space, set in the middle of a UNESCO heritage site—the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Corner House, where you can hear the stridulating crickets behind frosted windows, was home to Nordic gastronomy powerhouse, 108 restaurant for two nights in October. Coined as the new Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant has bedazzled stylish diners with their ever-changing menu that champions locality, seasonality and sustainability since opening its doors in the summer of 2016. Clearly, the kitchen had no business foraging in its luscious surroundings (it would be illegal), it’s just pretty and poetic in the grand scheme of things.
I wasn’t necessarily craving another restaurant with torrents of elaborate courses prettified with edible herbs placed with tweezer precision. After all, I’ve been on plenty of solo dinners the past few weeks like Nobelhart and Schmutzig in grey Berlin and HIDE overlooking London’s lush Green Park—hot spots spanning two fashionable cities (yes, I’ve chalked up plenty of miles in the midst). The awkward ‘first-date’ response you reap from service staff is not something that you’re ever prepared for. I’m not sure planting me in the corner of a dining room, facing another solo diner squarely was the best idea, but it didn’t matter as they had me at Egly Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru. Without any debate, Corner House is probably the most romantic place to sit and sip on an elegant cuvée. The opulent, dimly lit den, armed with plush high back chairs harvesting an increasing appetite for the finest.
Your interests are piqued with the appearance of Chef Kristian Baumann, who has a dark denim apron over form-fitting chef’s whites, black thick-framed glasses that hint at geekiness, whilst his unruly wavy hair suggests some form of eccentricity that will soon be displayed in his cooking. It’s safe to say that Chef Kristian’s boyish good looks did play a part in putting in the good word (I’m only human), but truth be told, his unfussy yet inventive plates will sweep you off your feet in the same manner.
The trio of amuse bouche is unfamiliar and possibly the only ‘collaborative’ efforts by the two chefs to convene on a plate. The menu jumps straight into the tropics. Mud crab draped gregariously with coconut cream and capped with Krystal caviar—the trio take too long to mingle on the palate and the transient moment of indulgence is gone with the wind. It then takes a scenic route through dynamic Thailand with a visual spectacle of a dish inspired by the ubiquitous Thai Mango Salad. Luxurious, slippery ribbons of mango are bedazzled with flecks of seaweed salt and rest on sea urchin sauce. It’s a king hit of flavour and we’re not even at the final part of the opening act. Finally, there is an ornate little orb illustrated in Tunisian shades of red—within lies a delicious roast chicken broth chock full of braised banana blossoms. This one is my pick, the liquid gold prepared so arduously that it coats your lips with a definite sheen.
The delightful dance ritual between the two chefs commences and Kristian kicks off with an exquisite fan of radish sitting in a shimmering puddle of grilled courgette over salted green strawberries concealed below. There’s not denying the dedication behind this seemingly simple dish, radish first marinated in mandarin sake for a compelling injection of tanginess, with strawberry seeds adding more texture to the crunch. Chef Jason’s impressive follow-up is a rustic crock of sweet Cevennes onion emulsion reinforced with the richness of a 63°egg and flanked by wacky shards of onion crackers. Reading very much like a snooty French artisocrat’s dinner menu, the references to our Asian roots are very much uncanny and distinct. Breakfast soft boiled eggs with Bawang Goreng (crisp fried shallots) come to mind, and I start to question my plebian tastebuds.
There are no awkward pauses, and the tango continues in fierce debate—Nordic zaniness against a wanderlust attitude of global parallel. The dish that is most resplendent with flavours has got to be Kristian’s Layers of Soft Yellow Beet. Slow cooked for 4-hours before being marinated, the root vegetable surrenders to the knife with resigned submission. In between these layers, a light coat of caramelised scallop paves a dramatic red carpet entrance for ‘umami’. “Pineapple cherries have always been native to Asia. However, we’ve established a unique collaboration with the breeders such that we can now get our stash from a farm that’s 30km away from 108,” touts Kristian, whose fervent passion for sustainability practices will surely find its way by the end of the meal.
There is a crispy scaled New Zealand blue cod with smoked Normandy mussels, christened with a mysteriously delicious laksa crustacean sauce. And while it’s decent enough, this pales in comparison to the humble brown beech mushrooms crusted in seaweed powder accompanied by a bowl of smoked egg yolk sauce that is absolutely besotting. You’re advised to get handsy with this snack, no holds barred, there might be a chance of burnt fingertips, but it’s well worth the trauma.
I am an enormous advocate of wagyu and all of their prized cow counterparts. A4 Toriyama Beef? Yes, please. Everything about this dish glistens, the succulent cross-section of perfectly cooked beef, drippings of soy caramel and pompoms of grilled sweet bread nuggets. I could go on about its flawless execution, but in fairness, it vanished way too fast to formulate a second opinion.
Desserts from the 108kitchen were brilliantly refined sugar bombs. Kristian’s obsession with seaweed presides once more and this time, in the most haute fashion I’ve ever witnessed. Tangles of seaweed garnish titillate the olfactory senses lightly. With heightened senses, you approach the Rausa Konbu ice cream with caution. It’s autumn on a plate, guarded by rings of homemade hazelnut oil and a flavour assault akin to a sea spray with the ponderosity of Kristal de Chine caviar. I wax enthusiastically about the dessert to friends from the neighbouring table. It would take a maniac of a chef to conceive such cultish flavour combinations, yet with Kristian, you get the sense that anything is possible. I am baffled, rendered speechless. That is what Chef Kristian Baumann does to you.
Look. I’m trying my best not to sound like I’m smitten. But the matter of fact is, even whilst I was chowing down on the toothsome salted egg yolk macaron that is a product of Corner House’s kitchen, very much enamoured by its fine-tuned balance of sweet versus salty; my mind drifts back to the surreal ‘under-the-sea’ experience. If this was just the tip of the iceberg of 108’s vivid and exemplary cooking style, I would gladly spend one of 3 wishes and teleport to the heart of Copenhagen. Perhaps just a week later to allow Kristian to play catch-up. You catch my drift.