The menu at Whitegrass doesn't open with an inspirational culinary quote or lofty message from the chef. Instead, it draws your attention to the supporting cast of actors — ranging from olive oil suppliers to ceramic craftsmen — whose contributions play a key role in orchestrating the dining experience you're about to receive. And there's lots to tune your senses to. Botanical centerpieces showcase lesser-known flora while whimsical murals by local artist Tan Zi Xi (better known by her moniker MessyMsxi) reflect chef-owner Sam Aisbett's love for nature. Standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling mural flanking the entrance to one of three dining alcoves set within the historic walls of CHIJMES, I spied with my little eye a gnome-like forager (apparently Aisbett himself), free-falling deep sea divers, smug woodlands animals, and a sleeping cat resting just above the door frame.
Designed by architectural and interior design firm Takenouchi Webb (the same people who decked out The Black Swan and Potato Head Folk), the handsome light-filled space sets the stage for Aisbett's first foray as chef-owner of a restaurant to call his own. It might be Australia's loss that the former head chef and right-hand man of Peter Gilmore's Quay — one of Sydney's most celebrated restaurants — has chosen to set up camp right here in Singapore, but diners in Singapore can now look forward to sampling his take on modern Australian cuisine. For a fine dining scene saturated with Japanese, French and Modern European players, Whitegrass is certainly a breath of fresh air from down under.
But what exactly is modern Australian cuisine? How does one even begin to define a culinary history shaped by waves of immigrants the world over? If we take the menu at Whitegrass as a starting point in Aisbett's exploratory attempt to define modern australian food, it would mean a gesture towards Australian-grown produce and an openness to culinary influences from a diverse mix of cultures.
One of the joys of dining at Whitegrass is the continual expansion of your taste vocabulary. Muntries, little berries that taste like apples, find their way onto the plate, as with lemon aspen, a tart fruit which tastes like a cross between grapefruit and lime. Take for example the light curls of fiddlehead fern that lend their earthy crunch to a masterfully slow-cooked slab of Mangalica pork — its richly fatty profile lifted by an acidic touch of fermented cabbage — paired with an umami-rich seaweed and pork broth.
Aisbett's dishes also lean heavily towards Asian flavours. The delicate profile of raw yellowtail Amberjack is given the chance to shine with an aromatic drizzle of nori oil and white soy dressing. Thin discs of salted egg yolk not only add a burst of colour to the dish, but also a measured hit of salty licks. Then there's Australian Wagyu with a marbling score of 9 — tipping the decadent end of the scale — that sees beef tendon and tongue cooked down in a mother stock mixed with toasted wheat. Pickled Chinese artichokes provide a necessary balance of acidity while shiitake mushrooms ground the dish with steadying notes of umami.
While most chefs wouldn't dream of introducing a century egg into fine dining territory, Aisbett appears to relish the challenge. He pairs finely diced cubes of this pungent ingredient with toasted nuts and seeds to form a bed for his butter-poached quail breast. It's a dish that has savour for days and showcases his talent in turning unlikely bedfellows into harmonious flavour couplings. Above all, the dish illuminates his role as a master of texture, where Aisbett takes an almost architectural approach to textural play. Thin sheets of roasted milk crown the dish, providing a delicate crunch that plays off against the tender flesh of the bird and velvety sweeps of garlic puree.
When it comes to dessert, Aisbett treads more conventional ground. Milk chocolate mousse draped in a coat of dark chocolate is shot through with white chocolate. It's a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, but less memorable than the tropical bowl of coconut mousse, jackfruit ice cream, and ginger cake.
It's still early days for Whitegrass, but if the dishes we tried are a prelude of what's to come, Aisbett's interpretation of modern Australian food is a promising blueprint for this ever-evolving corner of the culinary sphere.
Whitegrass. #01-26/27 CHIJMES, 30 Victoria Street. Tel: 6837 0402