Whitegrass plays it safe but shows flashes of brilliance

COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE — “Dessert is actually least Australian dish of the meal,” introduced our server. It was a bowl of coconut mousse, jackfruit ice-cream, over longans, fresh coconut flesh, almonds, and ginger cake, scattered with broken coconut macarons and flower petals. It looked like an artfully smashed pavlova, though less sweet, with the pungency of the jackfruit introduced at a non-offensive level. 

Three weeks into the official opening of Whitegrass, and chef Sam Aisbett, former head chef at Quay Restaurant and Tetsuya’s Sydney alumni, is still playing it safe. 

The entry level prix fixe menu ($170++) opens its five courses gently: the light smoked jelly and fennel with lemon jam and cured roe was somewhat meek as an amuse bouche, though a fittingly bright pop of colours to kick off dining in their stone- and green-palette round room. 

It led agreeably into the first course of yellowtail Amberjack sashimi decorated with dehydrated salted egg yolk rounds, toasted nori oil, nasturtium and salted radish. Our tongues skirted around the non-existence of the horseradish with the chatty, knowledgeable maitre’d, and let slide the stick-to-the-teeth salted yolk situation. There are things restaurants can get away with just by looking pretty.  

Though Aisbett makes a lot of effort to go beyond the surface: touches — little and big — also add to the congeniality of this restaurant: engaging Singaporean ceramic artists, Studio Asobi, to make its klepto-able mushroom cap-shaped butter and salt plates, and MessyMsxi to paint the inside of Aisbett’s mind onto one of the restaurant’s inner curved walls (tuning it into a whimsical sort of “Where’s Wally”), tugs at the heartstrings of the Singaporean dining set who, incidentally, made up about half of the guests when we were present. 

It was only in the third course that amiable Aisbett started to show the sum of his complexities: clear pork dashi broth, when added to a little bed of white turnip puree, transformed into a sauce that brought those seemingly disparate cubes of spoon-tender Mangalica pork jowl, soft Jade tiger abalone, fermented cabbage, white turnips, fiddlehead ferns and seaweed, together. Conversation in the Etta- (James) and Ella- (Fitzgerald) piped dining room came to a crest then. 

Aisbett quickly reeled this adventurousness back in, going with a definite crowd-pleaser of tender, full-blood Australian Wagyu with a sodium-heavy stock for his fourth course, and the “least Australian” dessert of local ingredients to close. 

His smart subduction really showed in the additional cheese course: a careful trio of approachable cheeses — a mild Brie de Meaux, an almost equally mild Stilton blue cheese, and a nutty, creamy Beaufort cheese. The latter hedged itself beautifully with the onion, carrot and swede chutney and lavash crackers, and with occasional cheese-eaters like those at my table.  

Whitegrass, being Aisbett’s first venture in Singapore and his first solo venture, embraces adapting to change and youth (wine list included), but not without thought. Barely a month old, the chef is still testing the waters, going where the local winds take him. I suspect, however, that Aisbett’s realized: in Singapore, nice guys won’t finish last. They’re perennials. 

#01-26/27 Chijmes, 30 Victoria St, (S)187996; +65 68370402, www.facebook.com/whitegrassrestaurant. Tue-Sat 6-9:30pm. 

Coconuts Critic’s Table reviews are written based on unannounced restaurant visits by our writers and paid for by Coconuts Singapore. No freebies here.

Former Food & Drink Editor of Time Out Singapore and HungryGoWhere’s first Editor, Celine Asril has seen her fair share of food and drink concepts flourish and go. She now reports on food and drink trends for Forbes Travel Guide, SC Luxury, Wine & Dine, Epicure and on her own blog. She believes in sustainable concepts, and that sustainability extends beyond the environment: dining can and should be sustainable to go the distance.

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