This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
It tends to be a good sign when this friend of mine is intrigued, and he most certainly is when he has a bit of the pineapple pork curry at CATO. ‘I’ve never tasted a curry like this before,’ he says. ‘It tastes of salted fish.’ And so it does. More importantly, it actually enhances the ensemble.
In CATO, facing Sri Mariamman temple on the edge of Chinatown, the sense I get from this dish and several others is of ambition. They want every dish to make like that pineapple curry, make people’s eyes go wide. Inevitably, they do not completely succeed. But there is enough to make for several pleasant surprises.
Which is just as well, because the way the place looks doesn’t exactly scream innovative and cool – or it does, but in the same way as all the others. Wooden tables, weighty chairs, wrought iron ‘lanterns’ overhead – which brings us to the lighting. The thing about dim lighting is that it should be judiciously used – dark in the aisles, bright on the tables. Then the other guests seem far away, while your companions – and your food – are vivid and warm before you.
At CATO there are no puddles of light, just the de rigueur dim filament bulbs. The Purkinje Effect kicks in, therefore, and the colours of the food are dulled and narrowed. Pile on the music, which is barely on the right side of loud, and it feels like they’re deliberately selling themselves short.
The menu here is divided into small plates, for the sharing and drinking, and big plates for the diners; it is occasionally updated, we are told, and its shortness seems to prove that. And some of the small plates are pretty appealing, too.
Fried baby squid is lively and bouncing, the batter splintering into little crunchy nodules. The advertised Thai glaze is kept in the background, which is a good idea – too much of its savoury-sweetness, with a hint of lime leaves, would have become cloying.
Another dish of grilled octopus on a hot plate, on the other hand, is a blunt rush of flavours – the aromas of onions, paprika, sun-dried tomatoes and plenty of sooty heat. Slices and chunks of octopus are piled on the pleasantly soft mass of onions, taking on their companions’ flavours but still keeping their own mild, marine character. Along with floury slices of potatoes, this could well be a meal on its own.
Despite these highlights, the tasting only gets into its real groove in the second half when the big plates come up. Strips of pork cheek are steamed, then grilled, and have the best of both worlds – pleasantly charred outside, the inside just cooked and springy. The inclination towards mixing cultures comes in here again; the pork cheeks rest on a package of steamed vegetables, but the dish comes with a mild and persuasive wine mustard sauce.
If the twisty dishes are good, the best of the big plates are still the ones that keep to a certain tradition – such as the owner’s family. In this case, a Kerala-style curry gravy, intense with tamarind, is drizzled on vegetables and a pan-seared fillet of barramundi, its skin rendered and crackly. The dissonance of seeing fish head curry ingredients, all cooked and sitting separately, is brought back into harmony by the saffron gravy – a clever trick to liven a well-executed classic.
Another curry dish – this time of Eurasian origin, from the owner’s partner’s family – is the abovementioned pineapple pork curry, served in the pineapple as a baked rice dish. That fragrance that surprises the pal turns out to be prawn paste, its flavour vast and buzzing without getting in the way of the mild spices and the solid ingredients, soft chunks of pork and pineapple whose sweetness is thrust to the fore by the belachan.
Tea-smoked chicken, a play on the stronger, gamier camphor-tea duck, rests on top of soba noodles that pack a surprising, back-loaded hit. And yet the slightly acidic, woody fragrance of the chicken still manages to hold its own, though I’m not entirely convinced that it means the two make a good combination. The chicken itself does very nicely for me.
I’ve never really been one for risotto, but a string of recent experiences have been changing that, and the lobster risotto is one of those – sauce velvety, rice al dente, though the advertised tom yum flavour has been buried under creamy, crustacean and butter notes. But since those notes are more in line with risotto anyway, I don’t consider it a loss. And the lobster tail is substantial and satisfying, firm between the teeth but splitting into fine, juicy fibres.
So what exactly is CATO on about – are they a restaurant where the drinks flow easily, or are they a bar that happens to have some very clever main dishes? Having tried just about everything on the menu, I’m inclined towards the latter – but even the big dishes have actually been designed so sharing is possible, and so there’s no reason why it can’t be both. Sure, CATO’s offerings don’t always hit their targets, but that’s the whole point of ambition – to execute, if not perfectly, in interesting ways. For a night out, this is definitely a place worth exploring.
237 South Bridge Road (map)
Tues – Fri, 5pm – midnight
Saturday, 5pm – 1am
Closed on Sundays and Mondays