Few tapas bars anywhere in the world come with the superstar credentials of Esquina, a whitewashed shophouse on the corner of Chinatown’s Jiak Chuan Road. It’s the latest venture from boutique hotel maestro Loh Lik Peng, who has had success with restaurants Jing at One Fullerton and Cocotte at Wanderlust. He has teamed up with British chef Jason Atherton, who is gaining such a reputation that he’s becoming known less as Gordon Ramsay’s protégé and more as the Michelinstarred chef behind restaurants such as London’s Pollen Street Social (winner of Best New Fine Dining Restaurant in Time Out London’s 2011 Eating Awards) and Shanghai’s Table No. 1 (awarded five stars by Time Out Shanghai).
Casual dining is Atherton’s signature, and the backbone of this narrow space is a long, bar-style counter that sits 12. The decor is rustic Havana meets industrial-chic, with worn tiled floors, a stainless-steel counter, and a host of curios ranging from Jules Verne submarine-esque bronze lamps to the Industrial Age tractor-seat stools at the bar. The music flits from old blues to indie-electronica à la Peter Bjorn and John, yet it somehow works.
The concise placemat menu, augmented by a counter of daily fish and seafood specials, is overseen by executive chef Andrew Walsh, a former Pollen Street Social sous-chef. The food is an interesting interplay of classic and playful. There’s a nicely textured but unseasoned Spanish classic omelette ($14), or a gooey-good slow-cooked egg with bravas tomato sauce, potatoes and crispy jamón ibérico ($16). Classic desserts like a firm Santiago tart ($13) are offset by the black olive Esquina sorbet ($12.50), which tastes like it sounds – that’s one dish we won’t be having again.
The highlights include a pull-apart ox cheek oloroso ($21.50), which is braised in sherry for eight hours and served with creamy mash, capers, crispy bacon and bone-marrow crumbs to form an exquisite combination of texture and taste. Even better was a bone-marrow special served in the bone with pieces of escargot.
A lot of the dishes combine creative juxtapositions of flavour. The ‘rock pool at low tide’ taste of the oysters ($10 for two) is injected with a subtly tangy Vietnamese fish sauce; the gorgeous, yielding tuna tartare with avocado and sesame dressing ($18) is shot through with wasabi; and bouncy scallops are served with a citrus salsa ($18.50). The only real disappointments are the aforementioned black olive sorbet and a meagre, unexciting confit rabbit and seafood paella ($21.50) in a ragù-like sauce.
The wine list is chosen well, with some good sherries ($12-$18). There’s also a range of Spanish beers, from Mahou and Sagres to Estrella Damm ($9-$12) – along with, fittingly, the limited-edition Estrella Inedit ($42) part-created by Atherton’s former mentor, Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame.
For hungry diners who might want to try four dishes, Esquina’s not cheap, and the service can be slow at times – if far from rude, an observation one commenter posted on our website. Overall, it’s a good concept well executed – casual fine-dining is taking over in cities like London and New York, and Esquina is a shining example of a trend we hope to see more of here too. Toby Skinner
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