The tables are turning, fast. Thanks to a rising standard of living, a growing income gap and – judging by the firm webprints set by restaurant-reservation sites like Chope – the demand for dining out as an activity has ramped way up. Perhaps we have finally stepped into the vestiges of an early New York City. The diner proving the point: Open Door Policy (ODP).
Tiong Bahru is where society converges – a gentrifying estate occupied by both the elderly and younger sophisticates who sit on opposite ends of the income imparity, it’s fast gaining special interest. That is not to say ODP’s food or decor aren’t worthy of the attention. Two weekends would have to pass before a table for five is available for dinner at the city’s latest dining treatise. The strategy is to divide, and Reserveit.sg.
The low, glass-fronted entrance looks in to a flurry of bright activity – a coffee bar (ODP’s partner and neighbour, 40 Hands, has brought in another Synesso Syncra) and an aquarium-style kitchen on the right pushes out dishes to diners lined along the deep, narrow walls of this pre-war shophouse originally commissioned by the British in colonial times. Portuguese-inspired tin sheets form the upside-down brick road that leads to a glass-roofed vestibule at the end. A number of features lend the interior the look of a Mexican cantina: a chalk board, warm, worn woods, red bricks, heavy iron tables, a cactus, and new and vintage stripped-wood chairs and stools whose rickety, steely structures are given a rainbow of paints.
But there are no tacos to be found, only salsa; and plenty of attempts at diplomatically balancing modern, not entirely molecular ideas on the regularly changing menu. To whit: resting on the crisp, evenly roasted skin of the salmon is a tart mélange of cubed peppers and cucumbers in vinaigrette. Its sourness prickles, but the generous hunk of pale pink fish more than satisfies with its buttery giant flakes ($25). It’s easy taking to this main, although the panzanella, a Florentine bread-and-tomato salad, is a soggy, hollow addition.
The 48-hour-braised beef cheek with mochi potatoes, carrot purée and snow-pea tendrils ($29) is the reverse: while the flavour of the beef is as clear as the freshly cut grass it took in, the natural, brawny textures are lost completely, as is the use of the knife. The surrounding elements are better planned, in particular the crunchy baby carrots smoky with the flavour of the grill. The beef is left to savour in its natural tastes, but the dish retains traces of its fiery preparation. It’s a shame that the fluffy, melting mochi potatoes made with Japanese modified starch would be better on their own, in an updated gnocchi dish perhaps, with the accompanying light carrot purée.
As with policies, the beginnings are always the most promising: the cornflour-battered chicken ‘wings’ make the ideal starter, playfully plated with a big dollop of curry sauce presented to look like an egg yolk topped with yoghurt ($15). Is it the slightly sweet deep-fried crust of the tender, boneless reconstructed wing-shaped bites that comes first, or the airy, curry sauce that looks dense but is light on your tongue? It matters not: evolution has been achieved, and the flavours meld well.
The steak tartare ($19) is improved almost as well: a saucier version, this ring of miniature-scallop-sized ground beef, mixed up with tomato sauce and truffle mayonnaise, carries only a hint of Tabasco. Served slightly less chilled than we’d like, the fresh ground is laid on a wooden chopping board, with grill-marked bread chips on a spike and potato chips that help keep the munchers at bay. No bread or butter are offered, however.
Of the 45 international bottles – $13 by the glass – the house white makes the best climax to the meal. A 2010 Quinta da Aveleda vinho verde from north-west Portugal ($12 per glass), it never really found an ally with any dish, not even with the enjoyable desserts. But it’s a crisp, centre-bitter, young wine that cruises through the outskirts of the meal.
Meals here are ceremoniously smooth and friendly. Two dinner seatings flew by us; the portly man at the corner of the reunion table of six who warned against the lacking portion of the duck confit was swiftly replaced by an expat couple with their in-laws, who had made casual but significant plans for supper.
While we do miss the spontaneity of being able to walk in to a restaurant unannounced, it seems only prudent to give it up here. After all, even our older, pickier dining companions with more traditional palates opened up. Celine Asril