41 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 9236 6368
Open for dinner only
Tues to Sat: 7pm to 10.30pm (Reservations online at www.restaurantZén.com)
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…no, Stockholm…in a little house in Bukit Pasoh. Soft lights twinkle in the window; Swedish dala horses share mantel space with Christmas berries and candles; and it looks like a Nordic design magazine has emptied its contents all over its impossibly stylish three floors. You’ll even see people huddled in blankets, because the temperature has been tuned to tundra levels.
Welcome to Restaurant Zén, where Swedish fine dining has landed and now, Singaporeans may never eat the same way again.
Singaporeans have always been cynical about big named Michelin stars that open on our shores. Not without good reason, when you think about how many have opened with a big bang – only to crash and burn feebly when they can’t adapt to our picky idiosyncrasies regarding flavour and pricing.
Zèn is the offspring of Frantzén – the only three Michelin starred restaurant in all of Sweden. Now, unless you’re Swedish, you’re not going to be very excited about that feat, especially if you’re not sure if it says something about Frantzèn’s quality or the general standard of cooking in that country.
So the big question is – is Zèn destined to be another high-profile casualty, or will it deliver the kind of performance that might make it, well, the only three Michelin-starred restaurant in all of Singapore?
All we can say is, we’ve been to both Frantzèn and Zèn and this is a rare case of the kid almost upstaging the parent. Because it does one very special thing – it doesn’t try to reproduce the original Frantzén wholesale in the way that fellow stars may do so in the name of authenticity and pedigree etc.
Instead, it retains its DNA while adapting to its new turf. Which means it adapts to the local palate which has always been at odds with the European penchant for salt and acidity. It finds a happy balance by amping up the umami to get flavours that are intrinsically tasty on its own. The flip side of that is that non-Asians may not agree, but hey, when in Rome…
In any case, they can do that in Zén because Frantzén’s cooking is already derivative in the first place – a kind of Japanese-inspired, modern French-Nordic cuisine – which really means anything goes.
Still, if Sweden hasn’t been on your dining radar, a little bit of background may be in order.
Frantzén in Stockholm is named for its chef-patron Bjorn Frantzén – ex football jock turned hospitality whiz kid with his talent for pulling together multiple influences and ingredients together into impressive packages, delivered in a heady mix of military precision and warm conviviality in its three-storey designer premises in the city centre.
The key USP here is experience. From the moment you step in, you’re treated like both VIP and good friend in a totally inclusive, unintimidating setting. You’re served pre-dinner drinks and snacks in the living room, proceed to the counter-style dining room for the meal, and then end off with dessert either on the roof terrace (when weather permits) or back in the cosy living room in front of the fireplace.
It’s a unique experience where the physical space plays as big a role as the food, which is why Zén – which has totally transformed the space that used to belong to Restaurant Andre – would not work in any other location in Singapore. Maybe they sprinkled some mood-altering powder into our welcome juice of pristine tomato juice with frozen plum ice, but it feels like we’ve left Singapore and entered a Nordic parallel universe.
Our meal unfolds in the following fashion: the ground floor lounge is where you hang around chit-chatting with the hosts and hostesses – which always threatens to be quite contrived when you’re forced to make small talk. But here it feels spontaneous and unscripted – especially after you recover from the eye-watering prices on the menu: S$450 for dinner, plus S$250 for a full wine pairing; S$175 for a mixed alcohol and juice pairing; or S$125 for pure juice.
But this is not a time to count pennies. You need to come in with the full knowledge that this will be a very expensive meal, but by the end of it, you will find the money very well spent.
In fact you can see where the money goes just by the meticulous detail that goes into this production – starting from the series of extremely well thought-out juices that are designed to match your food in the same way that the wines and sake are curated; and the sheer number of staff needed to to create the intricate morsels that follow.
And there are many of them: a crisp tart filled with meticulously shredded beer-poached Alaskan king crab topped with salmon roe (not perfect quality but more than acceptable; an addictive Frantzén import of crispy, cigar-shaped potato wafer filled with a savoury roe-enhanced cream;and another tart of creamy whipped foie gras jazzed up with preserved truffle, oats and sweet nutmeg for a delicious jumble of taste and texture.
In time, you’re beckoned over to the open kitchen where your ‘basket’ of ingredients awaits. As you sip on a dreamy, foamy onion veloute with bits of unagi and crunchy walnuts finished off with a liquorice accent, you’re introduced to the house brand caviar, Japanese uni, live blue lobsters still shuffling on their ice bed, mushrooms, scallops, unagi, preserved cloudberries – every ingredient and its provenance explained to you in detail.
You’re then led up the stairs to the dining room where throughout the meal we can’t stop gawking at the number of restaurant staff they have serving barely 20 people – serving, plating, explaining – all with the practised ease of a choreographed dance.
First up is a tartare of red deer, finely minced, smooth and silky, topped with its special caviar and perked up with finger lime. The blue lobsters we saw wriggling downstairs are turned into a delicious sushi-inspired mix of succulent flesh, crispy rice and a rich ginger butter emulsion.
Chawanmushi is reintepreted with aged pork broth instead of dashi for more oomph, studded with little bits of unagi and topped with ikura and lobes of uni.
Hokkaido scallop is prepared table-side, with creamy vin jaume miso beurre blanc carefully warmed and ladled over, covered with a furiously shaved shower of Autumn truffle. The Miyazawa beef is another major production, carved in front of us and topped with a bouquet of almost raw chives (the only minor misstep) that are stringy and hard to eat.
And of course, there is the Frantzén signature French toast – not so much the breakfast treat but elegant rectangles of crispy sourdough toast filled with parmesan custard, another heavy shower of Autumn truffles, and a Chinese restaurant-worthy clear oxtail consomme to wash it down.
The show doesn’t end with dessert – an inspired take on Japanese kakigori where a rum raisin semi-freddo is covered with a pillowy snowball of shaved frozen foie gras that, amazingly, takes on a new identity as a dessert topping. You will continue to enjoy more sweets on the third floor – from grilled pineapple tarts reminiscent of Chinese New Year, to a beautifully composed fruit platter.
All in, Frantzén’s head chef Marcus Jemmark – transplanted here for the first three months – and executive chef Tristin Farmer – have pulled off a worthy menu. When you pull apart the layers you will not find anything conceptually ground-breaking (don’t expect anything like Noma or Fat Duck) – but it is food cooked at a very high level with some tricks of its own.
There’s a lot going on in a meal at Zèn that can’t all be covered. While you can separate components like food, ambience and service in other restaurants, here they are all interdependent – there is no one element that surpasses another.
Long-term sustainability is always an issue and we don’t know have a crystal ball, but for now, from a dining standpoint, Christmas has come early.
This article was originally published in The Business Times
Photos: Restaurant Zen