Mature take on S'pore cuisine
10A Upper Wilkie Road
Open for lunch and dinner
Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 10.30pm Closed on Sun
HE'S back. Willin Low is the poster boy of modern Singapore cuisine - the go-to guy whenever the tourism board needs someone to bridge the cultural gap between bak chor mee and the Western world.
He's the one who turns exotica such as laksa leaves into Caucasian-familiar pesto, and uses his lawyer-enhanced vocabulary to extol the virtues of heritage cooking.
Even if you never bought into the concept of kueh bolu tiramisu made by replacing sponge fingers with the local snack (sponge cake is sponge cake by any other name), credit has to go to Low for pioneering the mod-Sin movement.
Now, after a brief hiatus and a bespoke overhaul of Wild Rocket's premises at the newly spruced-up boutique budget hotel Hangout@mt.emily, Low is back with renewed vigour and a tighter, more confident menu.
Previously, you could argue that Wild Rocket's cuisine walked the fine line between contrivance and genuine idea.
Where is the value in reworking a simple seafood porridge by compacting soft rice grains into a ball that sits in a clear broth, topped with an egg emulsion and fried shallots and charging $18 for the conceit?
Low is still prone to such literal translations, but less so now.
Most of the dishes reflect a maturity of thought and a clearer narrative - there's less of a slavish need to mimic original ingredients without actually asking why.
The result is food that tastes good and stands on its own, even without referencing the original inspiration.
Still, a first glance at the new menu might make you think Low has moved beyond mod-Sin towards broader spectrum mod-Asian, given the Thai, Cambodian and even Japanese influences in the limited range of dishes on offer.
One of them, pomelo salad with tiger prawns and frozen coconut dressing ($17), is not new, but is nonetheless an inspired creation that turns the Thai staple on its head with the ingenious idea of churning the savoury coconut milk-based dressing into an ice cream.
The frozen dressing keeps the salad components chilled, while melting to bond with the sweet and spicy melange of pomelo segments, mint, green beans, crispy garlic and dried cranberries. It's a circus of activity in the mouth, and totally enjoyable.
Of less interest is the garden-variety chilli crab pasta ($32) - which packs both familiarity and blaseness in the same tomato-ey bite - and the aforementioned existentialist seafood congee ($18), where a bite-sized rice ball ponders its reason for sitting in a tepid broth prematurely cooled by the amped-up air-conditioning, with skinny slivers of swimmer crab meat and shrimp.
Meanwhile, the salmon red rice and baby octopus donburi ($18) is a head-scratcher - chewy unpolished rice cooked in overly sweet teriyaki-like sauce, topped with pale thin slices of salmon sashimi, crunchy tobiko roe and fish crumbs. It's a victim of overthinking.
Where Low shines is with his omakase ($118) - a chef's menu served at the counter by Low himself, adding personableness and homespun story-telling to a roll call of mod-Sin creations.
One of the stars of the show would be Low's interpretation of salted egg yolk crab - a very well-executed panko-crusted crab cake with 100 per cent pure swimmer crab meat and no fillers, sitting on a bed of salted egg crumble that mimics the granular texture of cooked crab roe. It's a shining example of clever reinterpretation, as opposed to gimmicky rearranging.
The path of reinvention isn't smooth, but it sure beats sticking to the tried and true. If Low stays the course, and matches it with his endearing sense of patriotism - a Singapore culinary brand is definitely in the making.
THE BUSINESS TIMES