Much has been raved of Magic Square, the incubator at Portsdown Road for promising young chefs. But I would beg to defer: in the same way I would prefer not to have my hair cut by a trainee hairdresser, I have to confess I wasn't crazy about Magic Square. It's not to say that the food was bad, but it very much feels like I'm an experiment for said chefs to hone their skills.
Also, perhaps the chef was having a bad day, but his sullen demeanor and lifeless intonation didn't exactly inspire enthusiasm for his food. He seemed, at best, reluctant, and at worst, irritably testy, to present his menu. That irritation was most obvious when he stopped, mid-sentence, to glare with pursed lips, at a few diners who failed to pay rapt attention to his dead, monotonous description of some dish. I don't blame that group of talkative diners, the chef appeared so uninterested about his own food, how could he reasonably expect that anyone would be excited by that? And really, this may be some kind of a school for budding chefs, but I wasn't aware it was for us paying diners too. It felt like we were thrown back to our student life and being made to eat, supervised by a strict disciplinarian of a teacher. If I wanna talk to my dinner dates instead of learning about the conception of your dish, it's really my prerogative. And I may be wrong here, but the chef didn't look like he was even happy to be cooking.
The saving grace was how cheap the meal was, because we were definitely still hungry after those 9 amuse bouche-sized "courses". And it made commercial sense coz dinner was really more a sampling of the chef's talents, and in the same way you'd pay a discounted rate for a trainee hairstylist, the price reflected the chef's training wheels.
Less than a memorably great meal aside, I could definitely see potential. The point of Magic Square was really to help chefs perfect their craft in a formal set-up, which goal, I reckon, has been realized. And I would count this as my digestive system doing its part in supporting such a "charity project" for the year, so now, I'll like to return to restaurants more worth the work I put in at the gym, please.
Dinner started off with a palate cleanser of some sort, sliced rose apple seasoned with tamarind, rempah curd, lemon balm, torch ginger and jambu air juice. Clean and fresh, with a subtle heat from the ginger.
The next was grilled prawn heads and baked amaebi prawns under a 60C heat lamp, served with chrysanthemum petals, honey, fresh pomelo, white fungus and bitter lemon.
The chef explained that his philosophy of reducing wastage, and so used ingredients typically discarded. Like with the XO-sauced Beef Tartare, it was studded with fermented scallop abductor muscle, which would typically be discarded, and served it with bits of garum or the skirt of the scallop which is also typically discarded, and topped with a fried betel leaf.
Typically a bait fish and atypically used in cooking, the local black-barred halfbeak gar fish (Hemiramphus far) was treated 3-ways: first, the bones were removed, Japanese-style (whatever that means), then cured and dried, and finally layered with fish paste and char-grilled. This was served with lime to counter the muddy flavour of the fish.
This was the only dish I really liked: a cross between a mantou and prata burnished in fish sauce caramel, and served with a cauliflower curry and homemade ricotta. It was inventive, and the East-West fusion was executed seamlessly.
A riff on “chao tar mee sua”, wheat flour noodles were cooked in fish stock and then crisped into some kind of rosti-like pancake. This was topped with Scottish razor clams, and wisps of deep-fried kailan. I don't usually eat mee sua, but this was pretty commendable.
The last savoury course was a charcoal-grilled Aomori grain-fed beef ribeye that'd been marinated in fermented rice, and served with a mole rempah of chocolate, fermented black beans, satay sauce and sambal.
The first of two desserts was a charcoal-grilled Taiwanese mango marinated in kaffir lime oil. yogurt and Taiwanese macau pepper in a whey broth with lime juice. This was quite delightful in that the flavours were robust and lively.
The last dish of the night was a hybrid of an Indian cardamon kulfi and a Teochew pumpkin “orh ni”. topped with cardamon flavoured sable crumbs. Not a fan, the texture was alright but it was almost tasteless. I didn't get the kulfi now the orh ni in this.
5B Portsdown Road #01-02
Tel: 8181 0102
Dinners start at 6pm sharp (don't be late, because it's communal dining, dinner can only begin when every diner has arrived)