Is it just us or are the small dishes that precede a multi-course tasting menu the real stars of the meal?
Case in point: This meaty Tsarskaya oyster served with a drizzle of ponzu (citrus-infused Japanese soy sauce) sharpened with the heat of jalapeno peppers and pickled Japanese ginger flowers. It was cool, hot and crisp all at once – a slippery, briny mouthful that made us want to raise our hands and call for a dozen more.
The oyster is but the opening act in Esquina’s new 11-course tasting menu (S$108++) that showcases the restaurant’s signature dishes and several seasonal ones. What follows the oyster are immensely delicious snacks like a toasty corn tuile balancing dabs of grilled miso eggplant and roasted bell peppers purees, alongside petite squares of smoked Atlantic mackerel ($6, a la carte).
Since Barcelonian chef Carlos Montobbio took the reins of Esquina’s open kitchen in 2015, its menu has taken a distinctly Spanish direction. It is apt, considering the restaurant’s name translates to “the corner” in Spanish. In that time, Montobbio’s evolution as a cuisinier has been on obvious display. His earlier, somewhat ungainly dishes, like a thick slice of roasted red pepper set atop salted cod paste to resemble nigiri sushi, have given way to smartly contemporary offerings that eschew novelty for finesse.
Some of these new offerings were developed through his Tasting Room initiative where guests pay a smaller fee to dine on his experiments and provide feedback and ideas on those dishes. One that has made it to the tasting menu is a lovely composition of beetroot (S$14) – first pickled in red wine vinegar before roasting for three hours – served with smoked walnuts, horseradish ice cream, raspberries, green shiso and beetroot gel. On the plate, it was pretty in rich shades of plum; in the mouth, the mix was bright, cool and lush.
The tasting menu is a generous one for its price, with dishes like a middling Barcelona fish broth swimming with carabinero prawns, octopus and salted cod (only available on the tasting menu); a decadently fatty pork jowl (S$14) served with chipotle mayo and pickled pear to cut through the richness; and a slab of Spanish suckling pig (S$32) with crisp, snappy skin.
Satisfying as these were, it was the charm of the lighter dishes that surprised us. A wedge of sucrine lettuce (from the Romaine variety; not available a la carte) was charred all the way through, highlighting its sweet green flavours that were enlivened by an herb yoghurt sauce and cider vinegar glaze.
A plump George’s Bank scallop (S$28) was pan-seared to medium rare, served on a bed of nutty Jerusalem artichoke puree and drizzled with an incredibly tasty sauce made from burnt onions and vegetable broth.
By the time the palate cleanser of a sangria sorbet rolled around, we were ready to call it a night. But there was dessert and a petit four of silky dark chocolate ganache served with a trickle of grassy olive oil. These are things you just don’t walk away from.
Esquina, 16 Jiak Chuan Road. http://esquina.com.sg