You’ve heard of animals which eat their own young. Then you have Beppe De Vito, who kind of swallows his own restaurants.
That’s what he’s done with Art – his C-suite-serving restaurant in Raffles Place which closed down over six months ago due to landlord issues. Instead of hunting for a new location, he has decided to let it be absorbed by big brother Aura – chef De Vito’s flagship restaurant on the fifth floor of National Gallery Singapore.
It’s a smart move. By so doing, the chef-restaurateur kills two birds with one stone – he saves money on a new location, and he refreshes the dining concept of the nice-but-predictable Aura, all without even lifting a paintbrush.
Yes, there’s a little bit of confusion. As far as the National Gallery is concerned, you’re still headed to Aura right up till you get out of the lift, past the signage and go right to the door of the restaurant where you see “Art” in elegant typography.
It’s Aura on the outside and Art on the inside and at its heart is chef De Vito and his personal, almost instinctive approach to Italian cooking.
There was a time when we would describe him as a restaurateur who dabbles in cooking, rather than vice versa. Talk concept, decor and spending a lot of money on some pretty elaborate architecture and bric-a-brac and he’s the man. While perfectly comfortable in the kitchen, he preferred to find the right chef rather than being one full-time. But that’s since changed. In the past few years, the chef’s attire has become his wardrobe, and his vocabulary is now filled with milk from the Dolomite mountains, bottarga from Sardinia, grain and olive oil from his hometown of Puglia, and something about cryofiltration of raspberries – which sounds a little fancier that squeezing the juice out of berries.
Although he’d firmly established his chef chops with a Michelin star for Braci, we found chef De Vito’s cooking to be tasty but overwrought, a roller-coaster of ideas that won’t let you get off. Every dot and garnish goes through jet lag, quality check, maceration, freezing, slow-cooking, extraction and maybe an exit interview before it goes on your plate. Woe betide the lone ant that wanders on the tablecloth naked and without a resume.
But at Art, all that is in the past. Yes, all his ingredients have impeccable credentials and the roller-coaster that is the chef’s indefatigable enthusiasm, but – he exerts impeccable control over form and function, pacing, plating, technique and finally, the taste. There’s clarity in execution and passion in the way he pursues ingredients with provenance, sustainability and heart.
Our S$108 four course tasting menu begins with a string of starters that act as both an Italian food travel guide and a hint of his culinary philosophy.
There’s sweet radicchio with no hint of bitterness, dressed in crumbled Asiago cheese and honey made from bees saved from urban areas adopted by a kind beekeeper. Baby radishes with Sardinian bottarga have a long briny finish; and crispy hollowed-out sunchokes are filled with local burrata made with milk from the Dolomite mountains.
A simple raw prawn and caviar appetiser gets an understated twist with compressed pumpkin balls and a refreshing “juice” of very light prawn shell stock and Amalfi lemon juice for palate cleansing acidity.
Japanese tuna belly gets a double dressing of pesto and truffle cream with scattered autumn truffle slices and hazelnuts for a happy blend of rich fat and nuttiness.
The deceptively simple pasta enriched with a bisque-like sauce from the shells of scampi is elevated with the use of spaghetti made from an ancient grain sourced from the Italian Alps not far from the chef’s own home. Add the sweet flesh of the barely cooked scampi to round off this plate of luxurious comfort.
Mains are equally restrained and deftly executed. Buttery, tender-fleshed sucking pig rack, its mild flavour amped up with streaks of syrupy fig vincotto sauce. And Challans duck breast – fork-tender and matched with an intense duck jus enriched with Italian chinotto, a rare citrus.
The combination of hazelnut gelato, mascarpone cream and crumbly feuilletine is just enough to resemble tiramisu without the predictability of the real thing; while wine-poached pears presented to look like sliced grapes is a clever visual trick that’s also good to eat.
So yes, it looks like after riding the bullet train of ideas for the past few years, chef De Vito has finally stopped at the right station, and we hope he stays right at this spot.
Art Restaurant, 1 St Andrew’s Road, #05-03 National Gallery Singapore, Singapore 178957. Tel: 6866-1977
This article was originally published in The Business Times.