When I chatted with Paul Pairet – the celebrated Shanghai-based French chef who presides over Mr & Mrs Bund and Ultraviolet – in 2012, he had then just dined at Tippling Club. Pairet indicated that the restaurant ranked amongst the best he’d had in Singapore.
Prior to that exchange, I’d visited Tippling Club only twice during its first two years of operation (between 2008 and 2010). On both occasions, the dinner theatrics had left an impression but less so with the food.
I knew I had to return to Tippling Club and its recent move (in December 2013) from the wooded reaches of Dempsey Road to the heart of the business district provided the perfect excuse.
Perched along the gently winding Tanjong Pagar Road, Tippling Club’s new digs occupies three units of double storey shop house space. Whilst the upper floor R&D lab cum 12-seat chef’s table (minimum spend of S$490++ per head) was not ready during our visit (it only opens in March 2014), the ground level green-swathed space – comprising a lounge, a dining room and a private dining area - was dazzling and more alluring that any restaurants I’ve visited in recent times. Aside from its soothing-green palette, I was drawn to the generous use of recycled wood, the lovely green tiles, the handsome bar counter with a lavish display of inversed bottles taken lock-stock-and-barrel from Dempsey and its quirky mishmash of hanging lamps.
But, most of all, I adored the 9-seat marble-topped counter illuminated by metallic table lamps. It was here that I witnessed the savoir faire of the show kitchen camaraderie led by chef-patron, Ryan Clift, otherwise known as the “enfant-terrible” of avant garde cooking in Singapore.
In the lion city, where the latest culinary trend has morphed from inventive to fancy schmancy farm-to-table, Clift remains in the vanguard of experimental cuisine. He has been fearlessly pushing the boundaries on his unorthodox style of cooking since he started Tippling Club five years ago and still does. One only need peek into his spacious stainless steel-clad open kitchen to witness his ‘toys’, be it the distiller, evaporator or sound wave sonifier.
While his approach remains playful, Clift’s cooking has evolved in refinement and ambition. At a recent dinner where we feasted on the Gourmand Menu (S$265++ without pairing, S$415++ with pairing), every single course that Clift fielded – including eight snacks, eight main items, six pre-desserts plus two desserts, yielding a total of 24 items – reflected a perfect match of taste and texture. And save for a pre-dessert cheesecake “tablet” dispensed in a prescription pill container, none of the dishes were anywhere near gimmicky.
There was an ethereal quality to the parade of amuse bouche that kept me on the edge of my seat: Clift’s sly take on “bird’s nest” represented by a spoon of cedar wood-smoked quail’s egg surrounded by deep fried kombu “nest”; a familiar shot of “Singapore curry” pureé with curry leaves and puffed rice; his take on Japanese “tempura” of charred smoked peppers served alongside a glistening disc of shoyu-wasabi dipping sauce; and light as air beef tendon “cracker” (distilled from tendons that were first boiled, dehydrated and deep fried). They were all brilliant.
A glass tube of clear gazpacho with basil oil refreshed the palate for the main meal that featured even more show stealers.
First, a slab of liquefied and restructured omelette (with the texture of tofu) blanketed with smoked eel and crispy shallots flanked by a leaf of onion cupping a shot of chive’s oil. This was followed by Clift’s modern spin on mum’s cauliflower dish - cauliflower doused in a cheese sauce infused with sound waves and topped with a trio of fungi (porcini, shimeji mushrooms and black truffle shavings). Surf and turf ensued, and they were all outstanding – snow crab with whipped jamon fat followed by Iberico pork belly with luscious lobster and leek. Most enticing was the pan-seared A5 wagyu that stood out for the bursts of umami from the thin sheets of kombu air-dried wagyu that crowned the slab.
For the cheese course, Clift served an á la plancha comté and gruyere cheese sandwich with more black truffle shavings. I devoured it wholeheartedly.
More decadence followed with a succession of six pre-desserts, all bite size wonders, like the intriguing mandarin “meteoroid” and the utterly refreshing celery on coconut sorbet. If the concluding desserts of “textured nuts” and “gluhwein chocolate aero” were a tad disappointing, it was merely because their appearance signaled the beginning of the end.
Tippling Club may have quieted into oblivion over the past years with the cadre of celebrity chef openings taking the local spotlight but now that the frenzy has calmed, it’s time for this comeback kid to bask in its much-deserved glory. Yes, I am convinced that 2014 will be a comeback year for Clift.
Photos © Alex Ang - firstname.lastname@example.org