Review: Curious Palette, Prinsep Street
The narrow cave barely allowed passage,
But after a few tens of paces
The world opened into spacious brightness…
— Tao Yuanming 陶渊明 (365-427), ‘On the Peach Blossom Spring’
It’s almost like they’re trying not to be discovered, the folks at Curious Palette. Along a stretch of shophouse bars and cafes with all the tried and tested lures dangling out – upper-floor signboards, greeters at the gates – they’ve opted for a waist-high blackboard with the shop name thinly chalked in, placed to the side of the glass door, half hidden behind a step. It’s almost like they’re hiding in shame, and it turns out they are, as I order the seven spiced chai latte and the svelte server is forced to divulge their terrible secret.
‘Um, our cinnamon hasn’t actually come in yet, so would you still like your seven (six) spice chai latte?’ Quelle horreur.
Well, every new restaurant needs a little while to get things in order, and Curious Palette is very new indeed. The fourth cafe by Ryan Tan of Papa Palheta and Strangers’ Reunion, its feel is more stripped down, adapted to the long, narrow space it’s taken over – skylights for abundant natural lighting, fishbowl lamp bulbs and strategically placed staghorn ferns. Inside, the long counter forms the centrepiece of the setting; where it’s sleek and unadorned, the dishes and drinks that issue from it are big, generous affairs.
I originally thought that the cafe’s name might have been a mistake, that it was ‘palate’ they were looking for; but in retrospect the focus on colours and composition jumps out – some dishes stark and muted, others jubilant and vivid. This extends to the plating too – no awful domes or bulbous bowls, but just look at the celadon saucer that comes with the chai.
The chai itself follows that tendency of Indian beverages to sit just between sweet and savoury, relying heavily on spice for their flavour; here each spice seems to have found its niche. The drink itself is a milky backdrop for resinous cardamom, the intense, slightly medicinal hints of nutmeg and cloves; the lighter spices reside in the foam, forming a gingery, slightly fruity aroma. In a sense I’m glad they didn’t have cinnamon; its warming woodiness would be a distinct addition, but it might have shoved its quieter roommates out the windows that way.
If that sounds a little rich already, the chai’s ambiguity is ascetic compared to what follows. We decide to give anything with truffles a miss, which takes absolutely nothing from the experience. Juicy mushrooms, swathed in a golden, granular crust, hold each other aloft above a little pool of aioli, liberally spiced with za’atar – that mix of dried herbs whose fragrance holds up half of the Middle East’s cooking. A burger mixes equally golden soft shell crab, whose crunch can be heard from across the table, with snappy slaw and snowpea sprouts, cushioning them with brioche buns. How nicely considered and composed, the pal says; and then the next thing comes, placing the burger firmly in the stark and muted category.
The Curious Breakfast is a study in colours, most of all red – the sun-concentrated brownish red of dried tomatoes, the fresher vermillion of a chunky onion and tomato gravy, vividly auburn bacon and the near black chorizo iberico. And if the colours are bright, the flavours keep up too, rush after surge, several different kinds of umami – bacon, tomato, chorizo, egg – counterbalanced with pickled artichokes and plenty of rocket. The sausage looks worryingly like Cumberland sausages, which I despise, but turns out to be a coarse-ground wonder, vividly textured, suffused with lemony Thai basil. It’s a great ensemble cast – no celebrity ingredient names, save chorizo iberico, but fitting neatly into something beautifully sybaritic; it’s something Monet might order so he could paint it. (Monet, specifically, because just look at the blue of that plate.)
‘Beautifully sybaritic’ describes their desserts too. The spiked affogato showcases their espresso, which stands its ground even when poured over vanilla ice cream, throwing jabs of acidity from behind the creamy sweetness as it pools in the bowl. It’s simple, as clear in its contrast, as chiaroscuro, and just as effective.
Chocolate panna cotta, on the other hand, ventures again into Impressionism, all bold strokes and liberal dabs, both simple and luxurious. The panna cotta hides a surprisingly intense and lingering chocolate flavour behind its smoothness, which seems to amplify its companions – teasing the buttery richness from salted caramel, making the particles of salt in the sable crumbs into tiny contrastive bursts. Berry compote – cranberries, blackberries and raspberries, and hardly any compensating sugar – is face-scrunching, lip-puckering, livening the dish. And dill with chocolate is a new combination to me, but it works – both are lingering, distinct flavours, and tangle in the mouth for a long while.
There are some clunkers here and there, of course. The iced chocolate, oddly enough, never quite comes together, syrup staying obstinately away from milk while the ice cream’s sweetness sits placidly on them both. The breakfast mix has a rosti at its bottom, covered by all its beautiful friends and sweating away, so by the time I find it, it’s a soggy pile of strands. But this is the sort of thing service is for, and service is excellent here – we are asked for feedback, chatted to by the model-cute, responsive staff, who are observant and quick without sticking too close. When I ask about the spices in the chai latte, the same winsome server says she will check, and comes back a few minutes later with a note, the spices listed in a scribble like the names of conspirators. I like her style.
Curious Palette, despite its newness, certainly bears the assuredness that comes from previous experience, from work and skill and focus. It knows what it’s trying to do – understatedness in the surroundings, vividness in all respects in the food and drinks – and takes to the task with such obvious relish that it’s hard not to respond in kind, to also be enthusiastic. And it’s encouraging that even with that nearly non existent signboard, they’re drawing a steady stream of diners already. It’s a richly adorned grotto with a tiny entrance, this place, a fitting reward for the observant.
64 Prinsep Street
Opening Hours: Noon to 9 PM daily