Writing Dear Babette means I’m somewhat obliged to chase new stuff – to dig around for what’s opening, what’s cool and what’s incoming. I’ll be honest here, though – Five Nines was not my first choice for a night out with good friends at Keong Saik. The place I wanted to go to (I won’t name it, that’d be churlish) wasn’t open on the only day we could meet.
So, fine, new place it is. And certainly it’s a confident place, this. Five Nines is a metallurgy term, used to signify that a precious metal is 99.999% pure. Which is why I’m sorry to say that, from my visit, it feels more like a mining operation in a place with both gold and pyrite in the ground.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Five Nines has wined and dined its share of bloggers, and the reviews and photos do look nice; as for the restaurant, well, it has the look. You know what I’m talking about. The walls are cladded in brick (I don’t think these shophouses have ever been brick). Filament bulbs in wrought-iron lanterns lend everything a golden hue, which at least is in keeping with the reference to gold in Five Nines’ name; there is a bar which runs the length of the dining space, giving a view of the cooking. None of it is bad. But I don’t really know how to describe it besides ‘the look’.
But it is not the decor that leaves me frowning and squinting; rather, it’s the menu. Five Nines’ main selling point is its price point, successfully keeping everything under $30, but the menu we get in exchange for that feel… well, charitably, it’s a ‘straightforward’ menu. Bluntly, it’s a cool menu from 2014 trying to pass for a cool menu now.
Neither does it inspire confidence when a simple question – what’s in the three cheese platter – stumps the staff, who hems and haws and goes off to check. Could a restaurant run by a well-travelled Japanese chef, with what seems like a tight operation in that open-plan kitchen, really have neglected to tell its servers which three cheeses are on the plate?
Then again, when the platter does come, I am unable to continue blaming the server. For the real stars of the cheese platter are the raisins – a slightly chalky sweetness and smoothness, giving the impression of lotus paste. I’d eat a whole bunch of them. The cheese? Brie’s correctly gooey, the smoked cheese is crumbly with a lilting aftertaste. Even as a turophile I have no impression of the third.
In contrast, the scallops – always a crowd pleaser – are pleasantly up to standard. Lightly charred and toughened on the outside, still evenly tender within, they don’t get much adornment, since they hardly need any.
The main courses continue the pattern of hits and misses, though I’m still torn on which one the lobster gratin is. Certainly it looks good served in the lobster shell, and the meat itself has not been overly pulverised, showing up in sweet chunks with the flavour of the shells baked in. And the portion is generous; I can believe the whole lobster has been stuffed in there. But the sauce itself – ideally a fine balance of smooth cream and grilled cheese – tilts a bit too far towards the cream here. It’s only around the edges that there’s enough charred cheese to count.
About the swordfish, there is no dispute. It lolls on the plate, obstinate and brick like; on a whim, the unfortunate pal who ordered it lifts the grill-marked chunk and drops it on the plate. When fish hits a ceramic plate and makes a ringing noise, there’s really nothing left to say. And inside it is the same story; most of the savoury juices have wafted or dripped away after a way overlong residence on the grill.
The same can be said of the spring onion stalk – having grilled it until the inside is bright and sweet (good), they then neglect to peel the scorched outer leaves (why?). It looks nice, but looking nice is secondary when it’s all chewy and fibrous.
But just as the swordfish is dire, the steak indicates that the Five Nines crew do know what they’re doing. Well seasoned and tender, it is a little on the soft and floppy side for me, but probably just right for the general local audience. And there is no complaining about how the rich, clinging juices have been coaxed from the marbled beef and mingled with oil from shards of fried garlic.
Having something so nicely done doesn’t leave us less perplexed, though. More, in fact. I think dining, even in restaurants that don’t have a ‘theme’, should be based around an internal logic that makes everything make sense. That’s why I find places like East Bureau appealing (logic: foreign twists on local stuff), and Dehesa (logic: sheer, simple, hands on, a la minute, finely executed work) excellent.
But here? The slate of dishes does change regularly, so variety is part of their theme. Fair enough. But what does it say about a team that can do steak better than I could ever do, and then give us swordfish worse than I’ve done before? This extends to the service as well; after the initial stumble, we are treated to a staffer with a lovely accent, upbeat and efficient. That’s great – but what does it say about how they’ve trained some staff as opposed to others?
The pals and I go out into the Keong Saik night silently, and the first thing one of us asks is ‘so when shall we actually arrange for Burnt Ends?’ Damn, I said it. It was Burnt Ends we were thinking of, but they were closed. I should feel apologetic about my churlishness, but I don’t.
29 Keong Saik Road (map)
Daily, 11.30am – midnight