There was an article in BT on Saturday about how Singaporeans should try to get away from what Andrew Tjioe of Tung Lok (in a truly inspiring turn of phrase) described as a "nasty discount culture", in order to promote Singapore as a world-class epicurean centre.
Christophe Mengel of the Ritz Carlton contributed, "People are still not used to expensive food, the wine, the whole ambience. They need to understand the difference, that it's not about the taste, it's about the whole dining experience."
Be that as it may, it's a lot easier for them, as chefs and culinary executives, to talk about a discount culture hampering the growth of Singapore's food industry. After all, they're not the ones forking out hundreds of dollars for a sit-down dinner. It's nice to have ambience and all, but atmosphere isn't edible.
However, I feel that, once in a while, when you come across a really good restaurant, which gives you the whole package, paying that extra premium for "the whole dining experience" is well worth it.
The trouble, of course, is that there are very few restaurants that can deliver; and everytime you're forced to pay exorbitant rates for substandard food and service, it's perfectly understandable that you'd lament not having gone to the hawker centre for a $2 bowl of noodles.
Once in a while, though, you come across that rarity of rarities, the restaurant worth paying for. The Gordon Grill, at Goodwood Park hotel, is one of those restaurants.
Apparently the Grill has been around since the British, and some of the waiters looked like they started their careers serving clam chowder to old colonialists in safari outfits. It's been revamped though, and while there is still a certain amount of old world charm, their food has been updated to include the modern fascination with elegant presentations and little tantalisers.
The first thing you notice when you walk in is the service. Only in the very established eateries do you still find this level of crisp attention to detail. Dressed immaculately in white jackets, the waiters were oldish, but much more attentive than the young upstarts you tend to see now. Your chair is held and pushed in for you, your napkin unfolded into your lap, polite inquiries are made as to your drinks, a menu is produced without delay and you are respectfully asked, at intervals, if you've enjoyed what you've just eaten.
You can be sure they won't be mixing up your orders or interrupting your conversation.
Waiters so regularly know nothing about the food they bring you, that it was a pleasant surprise to be served by old hands who probably knew more about the wine than all the customers put together. Admittedly, the stiff upper lip sort of service, professional as it was, felt a little anachronistic, and you sometimes got the feeling the waiters were looking down their noses at some of our more questionable behaviour (like taking photos of the food); a far cry from the well-heeled British patrons that they probably remember fondly. Still, service this incomparable should not be under-appreciated.
The decor looks redone, but quite tastefully so. The lighting is muted and the artwork subtle, and there are no garish colours nor piped music to detract from your dining pleasure. Even the mandatory flower decorations opted for a spartan approach, making it even more dramatic.
I have a theory that you can tell a lot about the restaurant by the bread they give you. No restaurant ever got famous off Delifrance bread. Thankfully, the bread from Gordon Grill was very nice, even if it wasn't white bread.
I was expecting their food to be quite traditional; cream and mushrooms all the way, but was pleased to find that they even served a complimentary amuse-bouche. It was an asparagus and truffle custard served in chilled egg shells. Quite artfully done - just large enough to whet the appetite and bland enough to titillate the taste buds.
The downside, of course, is the extra cost involved. Normally I'd balk at a $14 mushroom soup, but I was very glad I ordered this one. It was far and away one of the best mushroom soups I've had (5/5). They give you a generous amount too, so you don't feel shortchanged. The soup was bursting with the flavour of mushrooms; even the foam on top tasted like mushrooms. I suspect this was partly due to the generous helping of truffle oil, but the soup itself seemed composed of extremely earthy, wild mushrooms that I've not come across before.
Sister felt in an indulgent mood, so she decided to have the terrine of foie gras, which came rather elegantly presented on a clean white dish. Told you they'd updated their food.
Normally $28 is a hefty price to pay for even the pan-fried variety of foie gras, let alone the terrine version. Though I don't much care for terrines, this one was quite good (4.5/5), very smooth texture that melts away as it slips down your throat, unlike many of the denser, firmer terrines you sometimes encounter. Still quite pricey, but they do give you a sizeable portion.
Of course, the main reason to go to Gordon Grill is, obviously, to have food from the grill. Like the other steakhouses, the Grill wheels out whole slabs of meat and cuts them in front of you to your desired weight and thickness.
They even wheeled out a whole smoked salmon to fillet in front of the lady who ordered it. I have never seen a whole salmon being brought out to fillet. It was most impressive.
But back to the grill. Sister felt like having steak, but not a big piece (why have steak if you can't have lots of it?). The steaks cost $2.40 per 10g, so expect to pay upwards of $50 for a big steak, but she only wanted a smallish one, about 150g. I decided to have the grilled lamb cutlets ($44) and chose a bearnaise sauce to go with it, because I wanted to see how a proper bearnaise was supposed to look.
Sister's steak came out looking very nice, and was undoubtedly juicily meaty. She said it was also full of rosemary flavour, but I'll have to take her word for it.
Looking at her tuck enthusiastically into it though, it really did look most appetising. Especially with a generous portion of mushroom sauce.
Usually lamb would cost, max, $35, so I really expected something good. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed (4.5/5). The lamb was amazingly succulent, tender and had a robust flavour without being gamey. The bearnaise sauce was a good match; the tang of the tarragon vinegar complementing the lamb very nicely. I was surprised by the colour of the sauce at first, until I discovered their cunning trick of adding some Dijon mustard to give it a little extra kick.
Last came dessert, which was a crepe suzette that we shared. Again, at $14, pricey, but it's worth it to see the waiter prepare it right by your table.
It's very dramatic really, flames everywhere and his intense look of concentration as he makes sure the crepes come out just right.
They did come out right though (4/5), the orange syrup was very rich and the alcohol had flamed off nicely, but I thought it could have done with a little more ice cream.
So in the end, was the meal worth overcoming my innate discount culture and forking over the extra money for accoutrements that were not, gastronomically speaking, part of the meal? Even though some items were a bit overpriced, even for the general price level, I'd say on the whole, it was worth the bill. Indulgences like this though, should be on a very remote basis, for a very special occasion, else it loses its lustre.
Gordon Grill (French, Grill)
22 Scotts Road
Goodwood Park Hotel
Tel: 6730 1743
Overall: A worthy splurge, for special occasions.