Inventive plates, mod Aussie genius, and an unexpected dessert that works
Tuesday night is a relatively quiet night for the restaurants along Boon Tat Street, but over at Cheek by Jowl, Chef Rishi Naleendra and his culinary team is forging ahead at full throttle. Taking over the space where Sorrel (now shuttered) once used to be, Cheek by Jowl might be barely three weeks old, but Naleendra's magic touch seems to have diners coming back for more.
Naleendra, the former head chef over at modern European restaurant MACA, is the latest chef to join Loh Lik Peng's stable of restaurants at the Unlisted Collection group. This time around, Naleendra's dishing up Modern Australian fare — a familiar territory for this Sri Lanka-born Australian. After all, he has sharpened his knives at Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne, as well as Yellow by Brent Savage and Tetsuya's in Sydney.
Before heading into the culinary world, Naleendra had previously trained to be an architect, which could explain his strong conceptual chops when it comes to menu creation. It's hard to distinguish between a key element of a dish and its accompanying flavour sidekicks for they work in tandem to produce plates masterfully unified in a sharp marriage of flavours and textures. Take for example a slab of ocean trout, which he torches ever so slightly to lend a smoky edge to a dish layered with cucumbers — compressed to intensify its flavours — along with whipped buttermilk, and a touch of yuzu.
Naleendra isn't a chef that relies on truffles to amp up his dishes. His mastery of vegetables is used to elevate many of the plates sent down the pass. Barramundi is paired with white onion purée, a delicious charred scallion sauce, and pickled turnips spiked with burnt lemon powder, while the gamy edge of venison is hushed with zucchini purée seasoned with wasabi, an invigorating shot of fermented plums, fried capers, and a bright touch of shiso leaves.
Needless to say, vegetarians are in for a real treat with his roasted pumpkin dish, which he serves with a spiced cashew nut sauce, kale scorched in the pan with sesame oil and sesame seeds, and crushed pumpkin seeds toasted with Sri Lankan spices. It's a dish that echos the genius of Yotam Ottolenghi and something that even non-vegetarians could get behind.
Dessert came with a warning. Laksa leaf ice cream paired with green chilli sauce is apparently not everyone's idea of a sweet ending — but I loved it and would return for seconds. Give it a chance and you'll discover that the laksa leaf ice cream pairs beautifully with coconut semifreddo — a winning combination sweetened with fresh, crunchy bursts of pomelo, and given a spicy kick with green chili sauce.