October 3, 2019

You know that little word, ‘serendipity’? I never used to believe in it, until my most recent meal at Whitegrass, which led me to discover the mad talents of Japanese chef Takuya Yamashita. 

Just to put it out there, my trip to the revamped restaurant wasn’t derived from personal motivation, but one that was spawned from a Marques de Casa Concha wine pairing activation. I shamelessly agreed to the “perfect match”, seeing that it was my chance to suss out the restaurant’s menu, sans the family financial advisor going berserk just before the month ends. And owing to these premises and the fortuitous show of factors, it allowed for chef Takuya’s work to shine dramatically. Here’s the lowdown.

Hospitality takes many forms. At Whitegrass, which reopened in May under the helm of new executive chef Takuya Yamashita, it manifests, rather aberrantly in the faltering run-down of the dishes by the front-of-house staff, who unfortunately suffered a “wardrobe malfunction” involving a single-cuffed sleeve and one too many pens in his shirt pocket.

The “wine pairing” was a single bottle of Marques de Casa Concha pinot noir, which I assumed was nimble enough to accompany the entire five-course menu. “The chef changed to the autumn menu just a week ago and most of the wine pairings are now no longer relevant. Hence, we chose the pinot noir to go with your meal today,” explains the wait-staff, visibly puffed up at his own improvisation skills. I nod in feign agreement. It’s the least I could do to show a modicum of respect for the free pass.

After the first assault of media coverage that acknowledged Whitegrass’s breaking of radio silence with its announcement of chef Takuya Yamashita taking over the reins in May, the once-beloved restaurant flew under the radar again for half a year with hardly a whisper coming from journalists or gourmands. And with just one dish served up from the shadowy depths of the unruffled kitchen, I let out a crazed yelp.

The acumen displayed in the Mackerel with Citrus Jelly is profound and impressive. I wanted to run helter-skelter into this new-found Japanese-French marriage, and perform some lewd #breadfacing with the warm focaccia pillow, the hysteria amplified by the reticent ambience of the restaurant. I’m not kidding. You could literally hear a pin drop in the dining room.

The meal started with a trio of amuse bouche—smoked chicken hearts and capers (a wonderfully meaty confit), Mehikari (or Green Eyes) fish fingers from Iwaka with anchovy sauce, and a hug mug of mushroom consommé that’s boldly seasoned with an umami flavour so familiar yet difficult to place.

Next up, bread. Focaccia in a peculiarly shaped bowl reveals its light, airy and bouncy persona beneath a shatteringly crisp crust. There’s also seaweed butter, making sure that this won’t be the only time tonight that the butter dish gets sent back clean.

An innocent-looking white parcel served in a scallop shell is submerged in cream froth. It’s heart-stoppingly good, so much so that one has to physically pause to process the intricacies of the flavour development—triple boiled garlic milk emulsified with scallop jus to create a foam with just enough starch from the potatoes to give it structure. This is a dish that makes a big claim in restraint, despite the big hit of flavours.

There’s continued success in the Amadai tilefish, perched on Japanese eggplant and ladled over with umeboshi and black olive sauce. The voguish approach to “La Cuisine Naturelle” is exemplified here, with little done to the eggplant or fish, except for the sauce that binds the dish together spectacularly.

A tiny plate of kebab with confit fowl thighs and pickled cabbage is the kitchen’s answer to minimum wastage. The appeal is as cerebral as it is epicurean. The bird’s breasts are brought out later, smothered in white mushroom asparagus sauce. I admire this in quietude, trying to soft-pedal my excitement. The meat gives way to the knife-like warm butter, the plate flogging gluttony and lust for bread, for which the warm loaf of black sesame brioche proved more than serviceable. Both dishes leave the stamp of their matrix on the path of chef’s Takuya culinary training—stints at one-Michelin-starred Etude and Les Enfants Rouges Bistro in Paris as well as Tokyo’s one-Michelin-starred Ciel et Sol.

For dessert is one of the prettiest puddings I’ve ever laid eyes on. Life goes full circle with sake kasu (sake lees leftover from sake production), combined with milk and cream for a cloud-like texture that’s paired with coconut, almond, white wine vinegar jelly and poached peaches. Finally, a nappage of fresh tomato foam, the shade of cherry blossoms, hugs its curves. It makes refreshing sense after the regrettably rich serving of fowl that was worsened with bread debauchery.

As I wipe the corner of my lips in satiety and make my way sheepishly to the kitchen in hope of catching a glimpse of the introverted chef, chef Takuya breaks through the reverential atmosphere like a welcome ray of sunshine, leaving me obsessed with Whitegrass’ dishes for the following week. Here’s hoping the restaurant makes a triumphant return. If only they would decide on a damn name change first.