It seems that every.new restaurant has a head chef that boasts a CV that reads like the St Pellegrino top 50 list. With names like Noma, the Fat duck, Alinea and the like automatically drawing attention to a chef and his new establishment. And perhaps there is no restaurant that generates quite as much excitement as el Bulli. The restaurant commands and aura of exclusivity and secretism that is only exacerbated by the fact that you will now never be able to dine at el Bulli. Those who have missed their chance will probably grasp at any opportunity to be a part of the el Bulli ripple effect, to savour and be part of the widespread zeitgeist of modern gastronomy fame that the restaurant seems to have pioneered. Catalunya opened its doors on mid July with much of this el Bulli hype, before I even knew the restaurant to be ‘Catalunya’, I knew it as ‘the restaurant run by the el Bulli team’, that was impression I felt the media was trying to drive home when I had read an article about its imminent opening at the beginning of this year. Finally managing to secure reservations.for dinner at 9pm on a Sunday, my family and I entered the restaurant with an open mind but high expectations for the food.
The only dish we had on the night that would have been on the el Bulli menu, circa 2009(I think), the same year we went, although this wasn’t on our menu. The omelette is deconstructed into three main components, the potato foam, onion confit, and egg sabayon. The potato foam had a surprising amount of body and intensity of flavor, it was more of an aerated, fluffy mash potato than a foam. The onion confit was expertly caramelized and provided a hint of smokiness with a refreshing sweetness, I would’ve liked the diced onion to be a little bigger in side though. The sabayon was silky and rich, it retained the creaminess of the yolk and carried the egg-y flavor well. The dish is served in a martini glass with 2 main layers, the sabayon on the bottom and the foam on top, the diced onion confit embedded within the sabayon, you dug all the way to the bottom to ensure that you were getting a mixture of all layers with each bite. This is truly one of the most well thought out (and delicious) deconstructed dishes I have ever had the pleasure of having. How much credit should go to the kitchen team for this? I’m not sure, but I’m glad there is a place in Singapore where I can get a well made rendition of this el Bulli classic. Good-Very Good
Pa Amb Tomaquet – An iconic Catalan dish, bread with tomato and olive oil
I remember having this at many small eateries throughout my trip in Spain, this was quite a nostalgic dish for me. The bread was slightly over charred for me, but it did carry an assertive smokiness. They did not scrimp on the quality of the olive oil, and the tomato was fruity and sweet, with no hints of acidity at all. I would’ve liked the tomato to be rubbed a few more times to balance out the smokiness of the bread. Okay-Good
A celebration of the best ham in the world, this dish should have been destined for greatness but it fell flat. The bechamel was too viscous and gummy, almost paste like(too much flour?). The flavor of the iberico wasn’t assertive enough, this was the most mediocre dish of the night. Okay
Cod fish “Esqueixada” – Cod served with olive dressing, tomato, spring onion and olive paste
This was the most surprising dish of the night for me. I usually hate bacalao because of its intensified fishiness and saltiness, but rehydrated and desalted, it can easily be turned into a real treat. The one I had at L2O stands out for me, and this dish doesn’t fall short either. The unctuousness of the oil elevated the natural oils of the codfish, the astringent raw onions cut through that oil, the olive paste seasoned the dish and added a slight hint of smokiness. There were a lot of flavors going on, but they all came together beautifully. Very good
The grilled peppers were so soft you could cut through them like butter. The taste of the foie was a little lost in the dish, as was the smoked eel. It seems that the grilled pepper seemed to be the only thing I could really taste and I’m not sure if this was the intention of the dish, although to be fair I didn’t have a very big bite of this. The apple puree worked nicely with the dish, as did the balsamic reduction. Okay
Traditional suckling pig “Segovian style” 2-3 pax
This was the star of the entire meal. The maitre’d enthusiastically told me to come over and try cutting up the pig, I obliged with a smile on my face, but in actuality I really just wanted them to do it so I could dig in. I kid, who doesn’t love cutting up a sucking pig with a plate? Thats right, the pig is hacked apart by a plate, a true testament to how soft this pig was. The skin was crisp to the point of shattering, the the meat took on a texture of soft, melting braised meat, a cooking process that I can only guess would be slow roasting. A lot of the fat underneath the skin, as well as the connective tissue in the meat, had both melted down into oil and gelatin, keeping the pig incredibly moist as it is being cooked. The meat was flavorful(full of pure pork flavor, no fancy spices), unctuous(from the rendered fat), and it had a rich, almost sticky flavor(from the gelatin), a wonderful and delicious combination. Did I mention the skin was unbelievably crisp? Crisp enough that you could hear the crunch when you could bite into it. This was everything that I had hoped Ibu Oka would be, Im glad I got to experience porky heaven. The dish is served with a delightful pork jus, with a consistency that is just right, and a few springs of thyme. There is something therapeutic about eating this, pulling thyme flowers off the sprigs, pouring the jus over the moist pork, and digging in, its the kind of dish you wish you could eat with your fingers, but you quickly realise you are sitting in a posh restaurant floating above a water and quickly hold back, bummer. Superb
This was a side dish that we ordered along with the pork, the aubergines had more of a soft braised texture than a fried one, it was perfectly cooked for me, silken smooth, with a tapenade smeared over it to act as seasoning. The sweetness of the aubergine and the saltiness of the olive paired well together. Good-Very Good
Smoked mashed potato
This carried a good amount of butter flavor, not too heavy and thick like the infamous Robuchon one. The addition of the smoky flavor did seem to make the mash feel ‘heavier’ or more substantial. The texture was smooth, almost like a sauce. I’ve achieved a similar consistency of mash using Blumenthals method of making mashed potatoes(ricer + tamis 2x), I especially liked the addition of the roasted hazelnuts, it added a surprising crush when embedded within the mash, actually most of what I ate during the dinner was a surprise because the restaurant was so damn dark and I couldn’t really see what I was eating. Good
Wood roasted pineapple
When this came, I had high hopes that it would be similar to the pineapple dish I had at Chateaubriand, however, this was nowhere near as good. The pineapple came in big chunks, which I appreciate, but they were cut a little too close to the rind. The pineapple could have taken on a little more spices and aromatics for me, although there was a red spice that had a strong pepper taste but a lingering pleasant berry aroma that I particularly enjoyed. Okay
“Torrija” with milk ice cream – Fried milk bread with spices served with smoked milk ice cream
The caramelized coating of the fried milk bread made the dish for me, it was thin enough that it shattered when you bit into it, and that crisp shell contrasted the soft, almost custard like texture of the bread pudding, the fact that the bread pudding was very moist didn’t hurt either. I loved the pairing of the nutty, slightly bitter, slightly smoky taste of the caramel with the milk bread. I wasn’t too crazy about the smoked milk ice cream, I would have preferred it to be made with less sugar so that the taste of the milk is a little clearer. Very good
Warm creamy almond tart
A bit of a misnomer with the title, this is hardly a tart. I actually thought they had given us the wrong order until I had a bite of the ‘tart’, wrong dessert or not, this dish is staying. It turned out to be a almond-caramel based lava cake. The texture of the cake was ethereal, the softest and fluffiest lava cake that I’ve had. The caramel wasn’t cloyingly sweet either, which I greatly appreciated. I enjoyed the pairing with the orange sorbet, it had a very assertive citrus aroma, almost lingered on the border of being slightly bitter(use of peel?), the bitterness paired well with the taste of the almond, and the caramel cut through all of that. Lovely. Good- Very Good
A cheese cocktail, made by a mixologist, which is a pompous term for ‘bartender’
Catalunya has generated a lot of hype due to its ties with El bulli. As far as i know, only 6 members.of staff were from the original el Bulli , not all of whom are chefs. Whether or not the decision to draw this comparison was a decision by Catalunya staff, or the media; its a comparison that should quickly be shaken off- Catalunya stands firm on its own and doesn’t need to stand in the shadow of el Bulli. The restaurant seems to recognise this that doesn’t fall into the trap of doing too many el Bulli replicas, all of which I’m sure would sell very well. There is a strong sense of back to basics about the restaurant, roasted peppers, roasted pig, smoked mashed potatoes, and at the core of it all, the dishes work. The food isn’t over complicated and flavors are strong, crisp and clear, yet the food still retains the ability to surprise, the addition of crunchy hazelnuts to a mashed potato, the pairing of a sorbet with a molten cake; perhaps this is the best characteristic that Catalunya should adapt from el Bulli.
That isn’t to say that the restaurant is perfect, while service staff was very friendly, the dining room could have used a few more wait staff, it was a little tedious trying to catch their attention at times, we were given a gigantic table big enough to hold a reunion dinner for 3 generations worth of a family, that is simply over excessive for a party of four. We were eventually only moved when some dubious liquid started dripping onto our table from the ceiling. And the darkness of the place, my goodness the restaurant was dark enough that even Bane would have felt uncomfortable having dinner there, and he was born in the darkness so don’t doubt my exaggerated description. The confusing thing about this, is that the management clearly knows about the issue with the luminance of the restaurant, since they provide mini lamps so that diners are able to read the menu. These issues aside, Catalunya serves some of the best food I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting in Singapore, the dishes aren’t innovative in comparison to many Singaporean restaurants that I’ve been to, but they don’t have to be when they taste this good. I might have just discovered my new favorite restaurant.