Hubert Burda Media

Garden State

Singapore Botanic Gardens' Corner House is introducing foodies to a new epicurean concept: Gastro-botanica.

Garden State

Wait a minute, gastro-what? My sentiments exactly when I was first introduced to the latest term to hit the Singapore food scene: Gastro-botanica. Coined by Jason Tan, chef patron and co-owner of Corner House, the concept describes contemporary cuisine where botanicals (or vegetables, to the layman) are regarded as more than mere garnishing.
An alum of award-winning restaurants Les Amis, Le Saint Julien and Sky on 57, as well as three-Michelin-starred Robuchon a Galera in Macau, the 32-year-old is particularly known for his zealous respect for quality ingredients. So it comes as no surprise that the 2008 Bocuse d'Or Singapore champion would want to introduce diners to the idea of gastro-botanica — no, not vegan, much less vegetarian cuisine, but rather dishes where vegetables are hailed for their lip-smacking potential rather than as accompaniment to meat or seafood.
Take the Carabinero Prawn starter, for instance. The sweet Spanish prawn pieces are delightfully complemented by tomatoes served in a variety of ways: With capsicum in a sorbet, marinated with plum or Thai basil, as a marshmallow-like cloud made with pure tomato water and topped with olive oil caviar, and as a confit with hijiki.
Such a concept is befitting of its surroundings. After all, Corner House is completely enveloped in nature.
Located within the sprawling Singapore Botanic Gardens, the restaurant opened mid-last year, taking over the space vacated by the Les Amis Group's now-defunct Au Jardin after a stellar 15-year run. The colonial black-and-white building once belonged to botanist EJH Corner (hence the name of the restaurant), who was the assistant director of the garden from 1929 to 1945. Corner House is inspired by the botanist's life and work, and new owners Tan and Renny Heng have made little changes to the overall architecture of the building.
From interior decoration to menu card graphics and the kitchen's selection of ingredients, nearly every element of the restaurant has been designed to pay homage to the man. On arrival, patrons are encouraged to sign in at a guestbook that details Corner's contributions to the botanical world before walking into a cosy living space (designed as if it were his own living room back in the day). Plant and botanical prints adorn the walls along the staircase that leads up to the second storey's main dining floor, which boasts an elegant, more contemporary scene to match the modern cuisine served there.
A signature item is Tan's Oignon doux des Cevennes, essentially a four-type degustation menu constructed around the humble onion and served up as one collective dish. Of the quartet, it is the oven-baked whole onion shell filled with sous-vide egg and onion puree topped with Manjimup black truffles that showcases the sweetness of the bulb. The onion tart (or rather onion confit on a filo pastry) as well as the dehydrated onion chips are light and crisp, making them deliciously easy to enjoy as a mid-course snack. Rounding off the dish on both a sweet and savoury note is the onion tea, which is an onion confit emulsion and caramelised onion broth infused with Earl Grey Tea.
Also sampled during my visit was the New Zealand Cod “Crispy Scales”, which comes surrounded by petit vegetables and savoy cabbage, and is uniquely served with fish scales still intact for an added bite against the soft, succulent flesh. Chef's Free Range Chicken also left a big impression. Chicken breast is not a preferred part of the foul for many because of the drier, coarser texture of the meat. But chef Tan has managed to keep the dish very tender and juicy by serving it up sous vide, and alongside a piece of pan-roasted chicken thigh, which has been compressed to be slightly tougher for contrast. In line with the restaurant's gastro-botanica theme, the chicken is complemented with trumpet mushroom morels and shaved black truffles.
Finishing off the meal, the Cocoa Pebbles, offered only in the degustation menu, is a work of gastronomic art. Spongy pieces of Alpaco chocolate mousse are filled with a lemon curd centre and shaped like smooth pebbles, while mushroom-shaped meringue and real shimeji mushrooms pickled with lemon syrup, as well as chocolate soil and twigs, adorn the dish to create a miniature garden on a plate, complete with a tangy mandarin sorbet.
Despite having some big shoes to fill after taking over the venue of the popular Au Jardin, Corner House has lived up to expectations and done a commendable job in serving up fine dining cuisine in a chic, laid-back environment. More than that, even those who typically shy away from their greens will have a delectably good time.
Corner House
1 Cluny Road, EJH Corner House, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Nassim Gate; Tel: 6469 1000; cornerhouse.com.sg