This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
Now the swifts flit in common homes, where before
They flew round the halls of the Wangs and Xies of yore.
— Liu Yuxi (772 – 842)
It’s all very well to have a roof garden, as so many malls do these days, and it’s actually quite easy to figure out what businesses are best to put in them. Restaurants, of course! No one is looking out the window of a Daiso marvelling at the view, even if the view from Marina Square’s roof garden is pretty good – taking in the ridges and corners of the Esplanade, the Fullerton’s colonnade.
And since it’s a restaurant built to see and be seen, you might as well go the whole hog, which is what The East Bureau looks like from the outside – a lacquered Chinese dresser, doors with portraits of the Gate Guardians beside the actual glass doors. It does look, well, like it’s trying pretty hard. At one point during our tasting I notice that our table are the only locals. But dismiss this place at your own loss; there’s real quality, and also some very clever moves, at the East Bureau.
In a sense this pan-Asian place (no, don’t gnash your teeth) is a sort of cultural homecoming for Samdy, the chef and owner who has made waves with Supply and Demand. That the guy knows the European way of doing things is well established now, but Samdy’s family background is as solidly Asian as it is culinary; they ran, and he grew up in, a kopitiam. And now, years and restaurants and long travels later, it seems Samdy feels he can take on Asian traditions on his own terms, without feeling obliged to just replicate the familiar recipes.
So the philosophy of The East Bureau is not ‘East meets West’, but rather mashing together the variety that already exists in the ‘east’. It sounds like an approach that’s geared to people not from the ‘east’, but what we are presented with in the extensive starter course is tasty – and, even for people who can trace which tradition each component comes from, surprise-filled. For instance, the ‘drunken’ chicken, its alcoholic breath checked by its chilled springiness, is dressed in a savoury yet refreshing cucumber granita, a reinvention of chicken rice accompaniment.
In fact, the starters at The East Bureau all bear bold intentions; some of which make use of wrappings and skins for the element of surprise. Gyoza come out looking all normal, with a good splotchy char, but then turn out to be filled with kra pow moo – basil minced pork, Thai style. The filling comes out swinging with potent scents – basil, chili, fish sauce.
Spring rolls in a mug, meanwhile (‘give me a little sunshine and I rot’, heh) turn out to be a relatively less drastic tweak; the filling is pork and shrimp ngoh hiang, which is wrapped and deep fried anyway. But it is still a substantial ngoh hiang, with the mince coarse enough to give texture, and without holding back with the five-spice seasoning.
The savoury ‘panna cotta’, a riff on savoury tau huay which itself is not a thing here yet, is possibly the most polarising dish. Soy manifests both ways here – yielding lightness in the white pudding, and intensely umami, with a robust whiff of mushroom, in the earth-brown shoyu jelly on top. A sliver of dehydrated mushroom and, rather incongruously, a small abalone perch on top. I like it, because I’m a sucker for soy sauce and mushroom, but I can see how some might consider it weird.
Imagining vehement opposition to an idea like lor bak poutine is a bit harder for me. The intrinsically short life of cheese curds makes it difficult to have poutine where cheese isn’t made, so East Bureau has crunchy pickled radishes and egg whites; still it’s the chips and gravy that are key here. The chips are properly done, maintaining their crispness even when blanketed with a Taiwanese lor bak gravy and soaking up its depth and five-spice. The only gripe I have is that the lor bak doesn’t have enough of the fragrance of fried shallots and shallot oil.
The mains here come in very substantial portions, and cleave a little more to traditions – a little statelier, more andante, than the starters. The chef’s one concession to western ingredients is in the array of stir-fried pastas, which are very well handled, keeping their springiness and taking on some wok hei too. This, the Bureau Signature with precisely cooked prawns, is unapologetically Thai, from the complex, tangy spiciness to the wisps of lemongrass buried within.
The fried glutinous rice is a hybrid of Cantonese staples, and exhibits strong hybrid vigour. It’s got the smoke and energy of claypot rice, down to the crunchy bottom of burnt rice; at the same time, there is the texture of good glutinous rice, chewy but not too dense. More of the shiitake mushrooms and gleaming lap cheong slices round off the show.
We get two desserts, one of which is an extended riff on profiteroles that I was simply too stuffed to appreciate. The Dynasty, though, merits attention. It is served with a long introduction that verges on pretentiousness; each dessert represents one Chinese imperial dynasty is the gist of it. But the intro turns out to be a good primer for the tastebuds. The Qing Dynasty is a golden globule of genmaicha jelly, adorned with bursts of popped rice. The Han, heavily influenced by Taoism, is simple peach sorbet and tea-soaked goji, a dessert of non-doing. But the Tang at the centre is the most resplendent, cheesecake and slices of pear packed with the sweetness of almonds (actually the Chinese ‘almond’, sweet apricot seeds), evoking the Pear Gardens where Tang emperors held their concerts and recitals.
There seems to be something, a sort of determination, about the East Bureau that is admirable; hearing Samdy’s story and the motivation behind the dishes, it sounds almost like he intends East Bureau to be the fuller expression of his ability that he’s been working up to. And without disparaging Supply and Demand, I think he’s done it; his broad experience of Asian food has been distilled into something well worth trying. And it’s not just the ingredients and methods either; the sheer generosity of the portions mandates dining Asian style, with lots of sharing and shifting plates around.
I needed a long walk to get digestion started after this tasting, but if I had to start a long walk with something, dinner at the East Bureau sounds pretty good to me.
The East Bureau
6 Raffles Boulevard
Marina Square, #03-03 (map)
Sun – Thurs: 12pm – 3pm, 6pm – 10.30pm
Fri – Sat : 11.30am – 3pm, 6pm – 1am