Friday, August 1, 2014

Agnia at Once Upon a Bar - Modernizing Asian Classics

I always feel that those that who can only replicate recipes can, at best, be a good and competent cook. To be a great chef, you have to create and revolutionize food that has come before.

That is probably why I tend to favor chefs that constantly look at new ways to modernize classics. At the same time, understanding what makes a classic a classic is just as important.

Very often, young cooks will eagerly blend the old and the new, east and west without a thought to what makes them work in the first place.

That brings me to Jason and Benson, two young chefs who have started Agnia at Once Upon a Bar in Central Square. Jason brings with him a classical French background while Benson has been trained in traditional Asian cuisine.

Together, they are enthusiastic and eager to modernize our heritage food by applying modern cooking techniques and bring a sense of refinement to our local and Asian street fare. That alone, is exciting and full of possibilities.

Foie Gras Rojak

Think of rojak and the term will suggest a salad that basically throws everything into the mix. You tiao (fried dough), pineapple, tau pok etc. Agnia's rojak includes a classic French protein, the luxurious foie gras or duck liver.

Surprisingly, it worked for me. They took the effort to make the prawn paste from scratch, and they baked the pineapple slices to take away some of the raw sharpness of the fruit. The eventual sweet acidity and the crunch of the local salad had an intoxicating balance with the wonderfully caramelized and fatty interiors of the duck liver.

Clearly, these guys can sear a foie gras well. The liver has a crusty sear on the outside with a slightly charred aroma, and the inside of the liver was buttery moist and silky soft. Some might scorn at the idea of this pairing, but Agnia executed it very well.

Duck Confit Penyet

Combining French and Indonesian influences, this marvelously concocted duck confit penyet was a triumph in mixing the new and the old, and had both an east and west infusion. The duck was seasoned and marinated the classic French way, but using Asian spices instead.

Subsequently, it was finished off by deep frying the duck and smashing it the Indonesian way to give the penyet look and taste. The rice was infused with hints of lemongrass and other Asian spices and had a most refreshing and uplifting taste to it.

Finally, it was garnished with some egg bomb (fried egg crusts) to provide a playful and fragrant crunch to the whole dish and when served on a green banana leaf, it looked most elegant and pretty.

Wagyu Beef Sliders

Besides the modernized classics, Agnia provides some great bar and beer food for those seeking simpler fare. Their waygu beef sliders are made with homemade brioche buns and man-sized wagyu beef patties.

The beef was cooked to a perfect medium pink and hence, there was a nice and juicy moist texture to the protein. The brioche had an inviting buttery texture to it and helped to soaked in the beef juices nicely without being soggy. The obligatory fries completed this dish.

What was desirable was perhaps an inclusion of some sweet caramelized onions or onion jam and this would have been even better. That added hint of sweetness would pair well with the rich meat flavors.

Albondigas en Adobo

This is a Spanish influenced meatball and cheese dish that is another ideal pairing with beer. The meatballs were made from chorizo and thus, there was a noticeable hit of spice and heat. Immersed in a rich and tangy tomato paste, it was baked with Idiazbal cheese and the resulting Chipotle sauce had a nice mix of Spanish and Mexican flavors.

The meatballs were large and hearty and full of Latin flavors that will have you coming back for more. The baked cheese provided a comforting and aromatic savory dimension and the entire dish looked simple, but tasted extraordinary.

Crocodile Nuggets

At first glance, we were deceived into thinking that it was regular chicken nuggets. After a bite, I felt that the meat was different and had a drier texture to the usual chicken protein. When it was revealed to me that it was actually crocodile meat, I had realized this was my first stab at crocodile food.

Nevertheless, the batter was nice and crisp and the accompanying mayo/tartar dip brought some necessary acidity to cut through the grease. It may not be out of the ordinary, but it was interesting beer food nonetheless.

Mushroom Soba

For a vegetarian option, this subtle and light mushroom soba is an ideal dish that looks simple and refreshing. I liked how the konbu dashi broth had a natural sweetness and beautiful depth to immerse the Japanese noodles in.

The mushrooms provided a nice, earthy tone to the dish and when combined, this soba dish is as comforting as a dish can get.

Jason and Benson

The two young men have a lot of passion and pride in what they are dishing out at Agnia. It has just started operating and the outlet is actually situated in a bar where there is also a selection of other small food joints within.

As a concept, Once Upon a Bar has a clever novelty. It is a pity that the crowd seems to be here more for the alcohol than for the food, and that itself does Agnia a disservice for the two chefs' ambition is to bring a more refined sense of cuisine to this place.

Still, they are constantly experimenting within their small kitchen and they will likely tempt the diners that do appreciate them with more interesting takes on classic dishes in the near future.

As to my opening statement about being a great chef, there is no point in digging up centuries old recipes or cookbooks and pretending you are a chef of some repute by slavishly duplicating what was being cooked years ago.

As with every art form, be it literature, music or film, greatness comes when you create new works. To simply recreate classics can lend you, at best, the title of being the great forger. To be an artist, you have to stand on your own works that others in the future will be influenced by.

Whilst I cannot label Agnia's chefs as great artists as yet, they do have the potential to be great eventually if they continue in their passionate pursuit of preserving classic heritage through reinvention and apply new ways to old food.

For now, it is simply exciting to watch them develop and grow in the next few years as they lead the way in this new direction of combining classic heritage food with a modern take and look.

Agnia in Once Upon a Bar
25 Church Street

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