Celebrated a belated Mothers' Day with the family at Le Papillon, a newly-opened (as of last week) French-inspired restaurant helmed by Anderson Ho, chef behind the gorgeous book Asia Degustation.
Le Papillon is located in the Red Dot Traffic Building, itself brimming with style and potential. Formerly Singapore's traffic police headquarters, the renovated colonial building is now home to advertising and design companies, as well as the red dot design museum. When we arrived on a quiet Monday evening, workmen were still busily whitewashing walls and grinding floors at unoccupied units, but venture a couple of steps further down and you'll encounter well-heeled yuppies sipping martinis at Skin, followed by a small curtained door that leads the way to Le Papillon.
Unlike recent new openings such as P.S. Cafe and the Rochester Park area, Le Papillon hasn't opened to much fanfare (although it surely deserves to - more on the food later). Coupled with the fact that it was Monday night, and the restaurant was understandably quiet - our table of 4 was the only one that evening aside from another group helmed by Edmond Ho, photographer for Asia Degustation.
My first impression of the restaurant was, unfortunately, not a good one. The lady manager who greeted me upon my arrival (I had, in a rare moment of punctuality, arrived 15 mins before everyone else) had a decidedly snooty air, perhaps excusable at an established 5-star restaurant but unfortunate in a newly opened restaurant that should be making customers feel welcome.
Given the availability of tables, she asked if I had a seating preference. Seeing a booth tucked away with a window into the kitchen, I thought it'd be a great opportunity to catch Chef Anderson and his team in action, and so requested that, upon which I was told that in order to sit at that table the entire group had to order set menus (as opposed to a la carte). Wondering what was the big deal, given that the next table was only a foot away and thus also possessed of a kitchen view, she pointed to an earthy brown curtain surrounding the first booth, and explained that the curtain would otherwise be drawn to prevent other diners from looking in to the kitchen if they didn't wish to take set menus. The concept is mind boggling at best, pretentious at worst.
Since we had decided, prior to coming, that we would try the degustation menu anyway, I settled on the curtained table. Then the dreaded question came, my biggest pet peeve of Singapore dining:
"Would you like a glass of champagne to start your meal?"
Maybe it's no big deal and perfectly acceptable practice, but I personally find this question very rude, together with its sister question: "Would you prefer still or sparkling water?" In order to avoid a $100 water bill - this has happened before - you're left to reply that no, iced tap water is fine, following which you inevitably sound cheap. A no-win situation. And yes, that question did come up subsequently. Philippe's preferred response to the champagne question is usually "Ah, a complimentary glass of champagne? How nice!" accompanied by much batting of blur-foreigner eyes, leaving the flabbergasted hostess to explain that no, actually sir, you have to pay for the champagne. (If he's in a good mood, he'll add with a grin "oh, in that case, why did you offer it to me then?")
The service glitches continued fast and furious. After all the fuss about having to order the set menu, I inquired as to what the set menu consisted of. Our server rattled off a bunch of dishes, then concluded with "well, at least that's what's been served the last few evenings. I don't know if the same will be served today". Sigh, so what's being served today? "Hang on, I'll check with the manager".
Manager comes back. "Oh, it's whatever the chef has chosen for today. I can't really tell you."
When our group had all arrived, we repeated this exercise once again. Eventually we explained that we couldn't choose the set menu if we didn't know, for example, even what choice of meat would be served, and on our fifth request, we finally got descriptions of the individual dishes. We are now qualified to be interrogators at Abu Ghraib.
The final hiccup of the night came when we asked to move from our precious table. Despite it being hard-earned, it was directly under an air-con vent and Sa was freezing, so off to the opposite end of the room we went. Five minutes into the meal and the spotlights began flickering sharply and incessantly, like an 80s disco. A quick wave to the staff and an elaborate experiment with the lights began. Eventually the problem appeared to be solved and we continued eating, only for the flickering to begin again 5 minutes later. When we waved again, the solution of choice was to turn the lights off and leave us eating in near darkness. Sigh. At risk of being the most unwanted customers ever, we requested a final table change.
Surprisingly though, the rest of the night was smooth sailing. Chef Anderson's perfectly executed, classically inspired dishes were flawless. Even the staff stepped up their performances a notch when the food was served, displaying no small amount of pride in the quality, flavours and colours being brought to the table.
Here's the six course degustation that we had:
Amuse bouche ("this is fish roe" said the first server)
Foie gras ("and that's all you need to know" the second server thought to herself)
Apple slices below. Perfectly cooked, firm on the outside, creamy in the middle, and a fairly generous portion. Fyi, this is when they turned the lights off on us, hence the dark photo.
Goat cheese and pesto on watermelon (the manager is more helpful in her descriptions)
Great balance of flavours. I'm not a big fan of goat cheese but this really worked.
Crab salad with honeydew puree
Again, a very fresh tasting, albeit classical combination. The fruits in each dish are like mini-palate cleansers, ensuring you never feel jelat during the onslaught of courses.
The dish with no introduction
Prawns in a seafood broth (the broth is actually studded with loads of little clams). Another classical dish whose familiar flavours you can easily take for granted - it's only on hindsight when you realize, oh hang on, that was pretty good.
Beef tenderloin and oxtail parcel with asparagus and mashed potato
The manager came back for this dish and informed us that the beef tenderloin is currently the restaurant's most popular dish. While it was flawlessly medium rare and exquisitely soft, the highlight was really the oxtail parcel (the thing that looks like a giant guotie). My first reaction was to echo Xiaxue's to her duck with pasta at San Marco - machiam spring roll! But the oxtail meat was velvety tender, richly flavoured and the filo pastry so crisp that you really do fall in love with it. The mashed potato is also heaven sent for any mashed potato fan, having clearly been lovingly strained to leave only lump-free, unadulterated creaminess.
(An aside though - while Tam and I enjoyed the tenderloin perfectly, my mom apparently suffered from a bad cut of meat that was simply inedible. To their credit, the staff offered to replace her dish twice, albeit at the end of the meal when everyone else had cleared their plates. Later, after having paid the bill, I was mildly disappointed that we were charged full price for my mom's meal, I'm still not sure whether to accept this as part of Singapore's general lack of initiative when it comes to customer satisfaction or whether to be genuinely annoyed. Any thoughts on this? I was also a bit surprised that, given it was opening week and we were, by this time, the only occupied table at the restaurant, that the chef never came out for a quick hi. We're so unloved!)
In addition to the 6-course degustation, Le Papillon also offers a 4-course set. For the curious, the 4-course consisted of the below Caesar salad, the earlier crab salad, a main course of lamb shank (below), and the same dessert. I didn't eat them, so no comments on my part. Pics courtesy of Sa.
Warm chocolate cake with strawberries and whipped mascarpone, and white chocolate mousse with raspberry puree
Nothing you haven't tried before, but solidly executed.
Vanilla macaroons topped with Earl grey tea leaves
My love-hate affair with the manager continued with her declaration that "only two of you are having tea, so really we should only give you two but we've given you four."
We left Le Papillon rather confused. There had definitely been opening teething problems with the erratic service, which hopefully will be rectified soon, but had nonetheless been a distraction through the evening. The food itself had been perfectly executed, with charming combinations of flavour and colour. Aside from my mom's dubious tenderloin, quality was definitely not an issue. In a word, the meal was... enjoyable. The one thing that seemed missing was inventiveness, a flash of inspiration, a spot of daring, that would really have cemented Le Papillon at the forefront of Singapore's dining scene. We caught a glimpse of this in the oxtail parcel, which was simply brilliant and hinted of greater things that were achievable.
All in, as long as there's the oxtail parcel, I'll be back, bearing hopes that better service and new dishes will escalate this restaurant from merely very good to great.
28 Maxwell Road
#01-02 Red Dot Traffic Building