Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bar Roque Grill at Amara - A Promising Beginning

It is interesting to note that with the increasing population, there seems to be an equally increasing amount of food joints mushrooming out in Singapore in recent times, though most have been quite forgettable and some really bordering on mediocre.

So, it was a pleasant surprise when I was privileged to be invited to a food tasting to discover a brand new establishment that strives to go back to some classic French roots cooking. That place is Bar Roque Grill, situated at a corner in Amara Hotel.

The place itself was cosy and elegant, and though some of the lightings and furnishings were not completed, the limited space was cleverly utilised by having an open kitchen concept to make the surroundings look less constricted.

The chef himself, Stephane Istel hails from France, and has worked under renowned chef, Daniel Bulud for many years before heading up Bulud's restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne at MBS. He has since decided to strike out on his own and has started Bar Roque with another partner to make his own mark on the culinary scene here.

Being an open kitchen concept, the food items are mainly a mixture of classic and rustic soups, salads and roasted meats. The kitchen also boasts of a 40k rotisserie that was imported overseas for that extra level of roasting excellence.

Having such a pedigree and a spanking new place to begin with, how was the actual quality of the food? For one, it was back to basics cooking for Stephane, and he himself proclaimed that he wants to honor some of his mum's classic recipes instead of resorting to modern fine dining wizardry.

And yet, Stephane tells us that he wants to also include local flavors to incorporate a little of Singapore flavors into his menu. And that brings us to the first dish.

Pork Belly Bun

This play on our familiar kong ba pau was actually made of pineapple infused/stewed pork belly served with pickle and chinese greens. Overall, the flavor of the pork was somewhat lost in the somewhat acidic dressing or pickle.

I get where he wants to go with this simple dish, but I would prefer if he can fine tune the balance a bit more. As the pork belly was supposed to be the star, the flavors need to come through better. Alternatively, something with apples might be a better complement as the classic apple and pork flavor profile is always a winner.

Mushroom Tarte Flambee
Bacon and Onion Tarte Flambee

His tarte flambees fared much better, and they originate from his hometown of Alsace, which had a tinge of German influence. Both tarts had a nice and thin crispy pizza like crust, served with creme fraiche followed by the choice of either mushroom or bacon/onion toppings.

Both tarts were delectable and would be great as finger food to go with beer. Both were also not too savory or too rich, and had just the right amount of balance. Personally, I preferred the mushroom tarte more simply because of that wonderful earthiness of the mushrooms which always goes well with any form of cream.

Mussels and Clams in White Wine

What was even better was this comforting and flavorsome dish of mussels and clams in white wine, topped with sausage strips and greens. Visually, it was pretty with the different combinations of colors. Taste wise, it had that natural sweetness from the mussels and clams and the right amount of acid and dryness from the well cooked wine sauce to balance the entire dish.

What surprised me was how well the meaty sausage actually went with the sweetness of the shellfish, and something that I am inclined to try at home now. Instead of throwing the dish out of its balance, it actually brought another level of depth to a familiar taste. Excellent.

Pork Knuckles
Slice Pork Knuckles

On to the roasted meats, and the pork knuckles here was a treat. Using the rotisserie, the pork meat had that nice moist and tender texture to it, and was perfected roasted. Most other knuckles of this nature tend to be a bit dried out and tough, but here, it still had a good bite and flavor with the meat juices nicely still locked in the meat itself.

Challans Duck

The roasted Challans duck cost a whopping $250, but it was huge, delicious and beautifully cooked. This is how all ducks should taste like. Duck is a meat that can be easily abused and ending up like powdered dried meat, but here it is succulent and tender and had that beautiful medium pink goodness about it.

Stephane elected for an oriental rub with a  five spice powder, but personally, I prefer it with just salt and pepper. Irregardless, it was the combination of the slow roasting of the rotisserie and the incredible protein that the chef was working with that made this plate so amazingly memorable. Not something you can eat everyday, nor can you afford to either. But it is a winner here.

Classic Apple Pie

But the star of the night for me was the sweets. Stephane went with a classic recipe that could go horribly wrong in most Singaporean French establishments and came out hitting the ball right out of the park.

The simple but hard to master apple pie. From the beautifully crusted pastry that was full of aromatic fragrance that flaked at the slightest hint, to the perfectly balanced caramelized apple fillings that was neither too sweet nor too acidic, this is how apple pies are made. Served with a cold ice cream on the side, this is the dish that epitomizes the best of traditional home cooking. Nothing else needs more to be said actually.

Chef and Sous Chef

While the general level of cooking is of a good standard, I do feel that there is room for improvement and refinement. For one thing, I would prefer Stephane to focus the theme of the restaurant to be classic home cooked French cuisine, and dispense with the Asian influences.

For me, the hits were the apple pie, the duck and the mussels and clams. Those dishes are hard to get right in Singapore these days, and he managed to hit the right note on each of those plates, so kudos to him.

I would like to see more accompaniments to the roasts, and have mentioned to him that it would be great if he can produce a great ratatouille dish here, something that few Singaporeans have tasted outside of knowing about it from the Pixar film. And judging by the way he described his version of it, I suspect it can be a real winner.

And it is obvious that despite being only 35, he has a genuine passion for food and cooking. And that's great. But what I like to see more is more cook to order dishes, and less of the roasting items. In his own words, he is more concerned with flavors rather than plating, and this is a great philosophy to have, considering there are many other fine dining that serves good looking but poor tasting food.

As my title of this post suggests, Bar Roque is a very promising beginning for a newborn F&B establishment, but it is also a very tough and competitive arena, especially in Singapore where rentals and HR have caused many a smaller outlets to fold.

I do wish Chef Stephane all the best and hope that he keeps working at this menu, and exude that infectious enthusiasm to his cooking brigade, who despite being a young team, has the potential to elevate the place to greater heights if they can focus on getting the food right.

A promising beginning indeed.

Bar Roque Gril
1st level, Amara Hotel facing Carlton Hotel.

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