September 17, 2020

If the core value of The Masses is to attract a wide appeal, then its location alone sets the tone. The Bugis precinct has been known for its transvestite activity during the 50s to the 80s, but has since reconditioned itself to form trendy eateries, cheap hot pot restaurants and old-school joints dripping with charm.

The Masses plays off on the vibe and energy of the neighbourhood, but the true star power lies in the neo-bistro’s ability to marry classic French cooking and Asian flourishes. In fact, the restaurant is a gastro palace amongst foodies. Right when I uploaded an Instagram Story to mark my presence, I got a DM from a French sommelier, who works in one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, eager to suss out the new menu.

There have been many attempts to humble French bistro cooking, from duck confit in hawker centres to steak frites in cheap establishments to satisfy hungry students. But The Masses takes it a step further by introducing familiar flavours, which is why it is still going strong four years later.

The restaurant first came to my attention during the circuit breaker. However, instead of bagging the usual uni and oyster treats, my first taste spanned several continents: ramen complete with fatty pork belly, Asari clams, bamboo shoots and all. French techniques were incorporated into this staple—evident by the richness of the duck fat, which added a ‘je ne sais quoi’ smokiness. Then there was the signature C&C&C&C pasta (crabmeat, chorizo, caviar, confit lemon, lobster sauce) that was pristine, which showed chef Dylan Ong’s commitment to keeping even the tiniest piece of garnish from falling out of place. Other Michelin starred restaurants could learn a lesson or two.

I pass quartets of diners sitting out on the patio, just like one would imagine on the Parisian sidewalks. The glass doors swing open to reveal an unpretentious fit-out, fadish wine bottles lining the walls whetting taste buds. The fun soundtrack and decor that’s mad for neon signage do feel hipsterish, but I shall let the food speak for itself.

I knocked back New Zealand oysters garnished with lemon gel and popping sea grapes before sipping on a more light-hearted version of the French onion soup—poured from a carafe. Instead of browning the onions, Ong adds milk for a velvety mouthfeel and the mocha-coloured puree fraternises with a tumble of morel mushrooms, confit egg yolk and chervil. Little encouragement is needed to finish every droplet.

The Hokkaido uni and deep sea crab on a crumpet is a polished act of deliciousness. Despite my slight adversity towards uni, for the most part, this came together beautifully. There’s more to fall in love with—but the pork jowl pithivier gets a lukewarm smile from me. The dome-shaped puff pastry casing with the traditional spiral markings is textbook-worthy at best. Underneath its shatteringly crisp roof, therein lies a mix of homemade five-spice marinated pork, savoy cabbage, smoked bacon and granny smith apples. It’s inspired by char siew bao and has good intent. However, what is lacking is a gelling agent to tie it all together. The pepper-crusted tomahawk also falls short; the pomegranate salsa, red endives and beetroot puree acting as a cover-up to hide its dryness.

Thankfully, the threadfin, poached and then pan-seared and served with XO sauce, olive and bergamot jelly for flushes of acidity, is a moreish delight. The vibrant bowl of macédoine—local veggies from jicama, radish, French beans, green apples, okra, fennel pollen mixed in with an anchovy chicken-based eggless mayonnaise—deserves commendation too for its complexity of flavours.

The Maine lobster gets a nod of approval for the way it was grilled and flanked by crisp-edged cuttlefish, braised leek and fermented black beans. True happiness lies in the rivulets of shellfish cream that spill out (never mind that it’s a loose play on Homard à l’Américaine), it’s French gastronomic showmanship at its best.

Despite the grand showing of expensive ingredients, the flavours are assured and composed. More importantly, the prices are affordable with a philosophy of  “pleasing people by simply doing the best they can.” I strongly reckon dining here at least once, if not more.