Well, you have to give credit to them – the meal that I had at Saveur Art really made me think. And not just me – all three of us think about the meal, really hard, while strolling from ION to a nearby fast food joint for some soft serve ice cream to cleanse the palate. We mull in long silences. We posit and postulate and reminisce. Were we still as well-versed in econometrics as we were in university, we’d be drawing graphs on paper napkins.
But let’s backtrack a little, to clarify the first premises of our discussion. We were not, like some underfed, cranky jury, debating fiercely among ourselves about the merits of the meal; the point of contention was never its quality, or its lack thereof. Rather, like investigators at a gruesome crime scene, the entire debate revolved around the causes. How? Why? Where did it all go so spectacularly pear-shaped? Had there been earlier signs?
In retrospect, perhaps the very location was a sign. It’s one of the few things we thought was positive, a central location. But when Saveur – a group that’s built its reputation on the affordability of its French and Italian food (the latter via Concetto at Cathay) – opens at ION Orchard, one of Singapore’s largest display cases for Things You Lot Can’t Afford, you have to start wondering if the restaurant chain doth protest too much, if it was a decision made to justify charging two or three times the price of the non-arty Saveurs nearby.
‘But we’re already using better ingredients, even getting in the sous chef from Jaan to head the kitchen,’ I imagine the counter-argument. ‘Surely the quality of the cooking and the food will be its own justification?’ Evidently the counter-argument wasn’t entertained.
Saveur Art is quite pretty, in any case – paintings on a clean, white mosaic wall, plenty of light and leather and plush chairs – and the initial service is prompt. What’s on the menu makes us chatty, which is a good sign – on paper, it all looked intriguing but plausible, with things like slow-cooked salmon (sous-vide, and why not) and the French classic, duck confit.
It all seemed so plausible on paper; it all seemed so reasonable. And then it hit us. Egg confit comes in a deep wooden bowl, scattered with interesting sights, halves and quarters of macadamia and the off-white foam of the truffled potato mousseline (it looks a lot less foamy than in other reviews, though). I’ve only heard of egg yolks being given the confit treatment, poached in oil until they hold their shape precariously, waiting to burst at the slightest provocation. What we have here is a slow cooked egg, and the white is everywhere, pooling with the potatoes, streaking over the yolk, so it looks more like one of Ya Kun’s finest, squeezed in with all the trappings, tarted up for an awards ceremony or something.
How does it taste? I don’t know, because truffle oil has been dropped like a boulder into the dish and driven all before it – the mousseline, the white, even the runny, rich-looking yolk. Only the fried shreds of… potato(?), and the macadamia nuts, survive as hints of grease and crunchy nuttiness.
The pal’s angel hair pasta, a signature dish at Saveur, also looks the part, piled high with sakuraebi and bits of chorizo. I love chorizo – love its mix of paprika with the intense, concentrated essence of meat and fat, love its oily, cheery fragrance – but the chunks here have a waxy, unpleasant consistency; if they’ve been fried beforehand, allowed to contribute their fat to the dish, we don’t know. Neither do we really know what the sakuraebi and chopped grilled prawns add to the ensemble, other than texture.
In retrospect (and after a hard look at the menu online), things were already going askew here; if a restaurant is a performance, then the menu is the script, but we are already veering into improv at the starters. The menu says chilli oil is in the pasta, but all we smell is truffles. The menu says kombu… was it there? The intention of the dish seems so admirably marine, but all the elements are adrift at sea, washed out by that earthiest of ‘high-end’ ingredients. Well, either that, or our olfactory bulbs are utterly scrambled. We press on, apprehensive.
The veering continues with our main courses, each served in a differently-designed plate; but at least one dish shows a glimpse of promise. Bavette steak – cut from the lower loin of cattle, fibrous but flavourful – is well treated here, plenty of smoke on its outside, giving way to a chewy, deep red centre that speaks to its being well aged. Shallot compote wafts caramel and vinaigrette. But then our nemesis truffle (garlic and herbs, says the menu; I see the herbs, but… no, seriously) makes another appearance, springing out from the mousseline and spilling out over everything else; the mousseline itself has no discernible traces of butter, and is battered to within striking distance of becoming gnocchi.
It’s a masterpiece, though, in relative terms. Duck confit has a ream of skin round the edge that’s never seen the hot side of a pan; more to the point, the drumstick bone is broken, presenting just a sharp shard. Taste-wise, it’s a single, salty-fatty note, mostly reminiscent of that Cantonese claypot favourite, lap ngap (preserved duck’s leg) . And there’s nothing wrong with that – except we were promised Gascony, not Hongkong. The roast potatoes, meanwhile, are truly woeful – reanimated via the arcane technology of the microwave, leathery outside, starchy and bland within. The most mystifying dish, though, has to be the slow-cooked salmon, through no fault of the salmon itself – poached sous-vide until tender, it is a refined slab of fish, gently nudged into displaying its natural, rich sweetness. But why is it keeping such poor company? Romanesco and cauliflower florets are so underdone the pal gives up completely. Clams and mussels look reasonable, but are reported to be rubbery, perhaps overdone. And then, digging too deep, the pal finds a green puree to go with his salmon and winces. We try it. It’s bitter – sulkily, pointedly bitter – and utterly devastating to any flavour the salmon has. We’re convinced at first that it’s pureed Brussels sprouts, but the menu doesn’t mention that at all. So what was the puree? It could be the watercress, though why would you go to trouble to find watercress that tramples over your food like this?
Look, I could go on, but perhaps it’s better to just consider – as we did over post-meal chicken sandwiches – where the fundamental flaw is, the iceberg-shaped hole in the operation. Is it the actual cooking? Well, there are gaps there, but the kitchen knows how to do things. They can grill a steak and do it well; they can time the salmon nicely, even if the angel’s hair is at least a minute past al dente and, uh, see above for the confit. Is it the provisioning, the sourcing of ingredients? Again, with possible gaps, probably not. The Angus bavette is a rich mouthful of meatiness; the wine that the pal orders, a Burgundy pinot noir, is a smooth, sultry beauty.
So if the parts aren’t broken, then it’s down to how the machine was put together. Here the evidence is a lot stronger. Each dish should be an ensemble of stimuli, but here the ‘ensembles’ are awkward, even baffling. Why, after the trouble of making confit de canard – a dish that’s all about the duck’s own fat, heavy with salt, light with herbs – would you then serve it, high and dry, with lardons? Why, when you’ve teased a block of salmon into a smooth, gleaming reminder of the sea, would you throw in something so overwhelmingly bitter as whatever on earth lay pureed beneath the cream sauce? Where does the chorizo fit with the rest of the pasta, what business do macadamia and rice crisps have sitting on a delicately cooked egg?
This not-coming-together extends to the service as well. We’re a little vocal with our opinions (among ourselves, may I note), and at the end – when we rejected the very notion of dessert – the manager told us, while clearing the unfinished plates, that he had heard what we were saying about the food, and asked if we worked in the F&B industry. What did that statement, that question, even mean? Had I still goodwill left then, it fled screaming after the remark.
And we flee too, though we refrain from screaming. We mull, posit, ponder and ruminate. We try to make the point that, even in its premium form, Saveur isn’t that expensive – we average about $50 a person, though without desserts and with just one wine. Perhaps they were restrained by the price point – you could either have something showy, or something substantial, but not both. Well, assuming that’s true, it’s clear which path Saveur Art’s gone down, though even then I can’t really see the showiness. The truffle oil, perhaps? Well, Europe’s truffle hog wranglers thank you, Saveur Art. Then again, maybe not; truffle oil often hasn’t got truffle in it.
After we part ways, I discover that the restaurant actually has a motto, taken from the title of a Christian hymn. ‘How great thou art’. Well, I don’t know. I’m more inclined to describe the meal with some Shelley – ‘Look on my works… and despair!’ Or, if we’re sticking to scripture, maybe something from 2 Samuel – ‘How are the mighty fallen…’
2 Orchard Turn, #04-11 ION Orchard
Hours: 12 pm – 9.30 pm daily