This was an invited tasting. Thanks to the hosts and fellow bloggers.
I arrive in Sprigs for the tasting about half an hour earlier than the appointed time, and am taken to the appointed table in an empty restaurant. So far, so normal. But then I start listening to the background music, which I don’t recognise until the main theme is reprised. It’s Bésame Mucho – no, actually, it’s jazz variations on the theme of Bésame Mucho. The music swirls out, trails an arc, and then comes right back to the old theme again.
In retrospect, maybe this was a sort of signal they were sending, consciously or not. The stuff we eat at Sprigs, which is pushing out its new menu, is a little like that music – each dish a different tune, but with similar motifs popping up here and there. The new menu itself was created by Shubri, the chef de cuisine (who’s been with them since the start, and with Gunther’s down the street before), with Titus, the co-founder who is in attendance at the tasting.
The other impression I get before anything hits the table is of the PR, which is pretty competent and thorough. They do part of my work for me, which I always welcome. I do like the 1.8m (metres, not millions) paintings of everyday objects. The high, black benches at some of the tables must be great for dates.
But customers don’t come in to read about the food, and neither did we. For starters we are first offered a ‘roast veal carpaccio’ with ‘tonnato sauce’ that is, of course, that northern Italian classic, vitello tonnato – thinly sliced veal smothered in a mayonnaise rich with tuna. It tastes good, a mild meat nicely roasted, nuzzling a tangy, muscly fish flavour. Well, of course it tastes good, or the Italians wouldn’t keep making it. I send my Italian friend (no, I don’t have just one) a photo, and as someone from around Milan he expresses horror at the colour of the sauce; it is supposed to be white. Eh, I don’t have an issue with that.
What I am perplexed by, though, are the additional ingredients. What is the point of adding gherkins and capers? What are the halved tomatoes doing, rolling around in there? Not to mention an egg confit, though I guess the yolks look pretty and that is important these days.
Grilled baby squid a la plancha has an even more alluring main ingredient, those tiny squid that zi char chefs fry into rich, cracking solidity. Sprigs’ rendition is arguably even better, the grilled squid just as crunchy, but also well seasoned and charred from the grill. But this time the additions are even more overwhelming and strange, because they are pretty much a dish in their own right. Give me the squid on a bed of salad leaves and I’d be very happy. Or save the squid and give me the bread salad (panzanella, basically) with lomo ibérico, the croutons soaking up pork fat, the ruby slices packed with umami, and I’d be so very happy too. Put the two together, though, and it feels like one or the other is sidelined, which is a great pity.
Of the main courses, the one that left the best impression was the Chilean seabass, splitting easily into big, tender flakes and sitting in a bath of sauce vierge, perked up with plenty of lemon and a bit of chives. And this time the thin slices of lomo ibérico – pork tenderloin cured in the same way as the more renowned jamón, naturally less fat – are used to great effect, their amplified oink resonating through the sauce. ‘Shaved squid’ are well timed and bouncy, but make little impression beyond that.
The dish where the oink is central, a generous pork chop, unfortunately falls a little short of its tablemate’s quality. The sherry glaze is well-rounded, but there’s too little of it to really show off its character. What amount there is, though, mingles well with the pork it coats. Of the lime butter promised in the menu, the butter definitely comes through more than the lime.
The desserts, however, quickly pick up the slack of the main courses. Tete de Moine (literally monk’s head) cheese, a product of Swiss-French monasteries, is brought in mounted on a girolle – a rotating metal scraper that turns the wheel of off-white cheese into lovely rosettes which are then served with a cube of bread and two compotes, one of gentle tangerine, the other of quince. It’s an assembly rightly centred around the cheese, each ingredient bringing out a different sort of flavour – but throughout the Tete de Moine’s pungency reaches eagerly into the nose. This is a fine cheese.
The other dessert was a bit of a contradiction, a frozen souffle. How exactly it was made, I never got to ask, but the result looks a little more like a very soft cheesecake, yielding to the lightest touch. It tastes a lot richer and fuller than the melting lightness suggests – I’m guessing there’s got to be eggs in there, or the name will be even less apt – but the tangering compote, and its own coldness, makes it much more refreshing.
At the end of the tasting, which was surprisingly quick, I wonder if a tasting of so many dishes might have served Sprigs less well than they thought. I do think that if you want a good meal you can find one here. But – to return to that Bésame Mucho issue – the serving of several courses also shows up certain repetitions and similarities between the dishes.
I have no problem with the use of lomo here and there, though it fits a lot better here than there. The tangerine compote, while it renders the two desserts tasting a little samey, is itself well-executed also. But with each main course comes chunky, butter-soaked potatoes that seem to have stumbled onto the plate and were not given further instructions. The garnishings, too, are mostly based on the cherry tomato, chives and jalapenos. Would I expect more care and variation in the new menu? Well, were it for two Red Yusofs or thereabouts, probably not. But almost all the main courses cost around twice that – at least. (Oddly enough that tete de moine comes in at $12, and it’s not a small rosette of the good stuff either.)
On the bright side, service is prompt (even for the tables that aren’t ours), and the drinks – which include a hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon – are enjoyable. So once again what I said at the start is true – this place is a great dating spot. Certainly, if you are paying, the prices will work out in your favour.
12 Purvis Street (map)
Mon – Sat: 12pm – 2.30pm (last order 2pm), 6pm – 10pm (last order 9.15pm)
Closed on Sundays