36 Purvis Street
#01-03 Talib Centre
Tel: 6338-8955/ 9010-3075
Mon to Fri: Noon to 2.30pm and 6.30pm to 10pm
Sat: 6.30pm to 10pm
The Michelin boat has sailed off into the sunset and sadly, Gunther’s isn’t on it. Ours isn’t to question why – although speculation is free so we can do it anyway.
Maybe the old decor was too old, too dark and too last-decade for inspectors who couldn’t wait for chef-owner Gunther Hubrechsen to give his Purvis Street shophouse its much-needed makeover earlier this year.
Or could the restaurant be too long in the tooth (11 years) that it’s become the equivalent of visiting your grandmother when you’d rather be at the latest playground in town? Or, like us, did they get frightened when an enthusiastic server rushes up to us with a giant platter filled with his weight in wagyu, tuna belly, sea urchin, abalone, foie gras and Alaskan king crab?
As he extols the virtues and provenance of each prized ingredient, we feel our wallet shrinking rapidly in terror as it’s overwhelmed by this French version of a Chinese restaurant waitress trying to upsell her stock of abalone, shark’s fin and lips of a 200 kg grouper.
We later realise that the platter is the norm not an exception, as the entire dinner menu is built on them. But then, it has been years since we stepped foot into Gunther’s, partly because it has fallen off the dining radar and partly because, well, inexpensive hasn’t really been a word associated with him. But in recent years, he’s introduced one of the best value lunches (we’re told) in town starting at S$38. At dinner, though, his prices are still in high-end fine dining territory.
There’s a sense of deja vu as we step into the compact dining room, which is now repainted in a stark white with purple accents and chairs. Wooden strips creep and curl along the walls and ceiling like an almost sinister tree root formation that might reach out and snare you. But relax – it’s just “a contemporary interpretation of art nouveau woodwork”.
We’ve forgotten how much we used to enjoy chef Hubrechsen’s cooking back in the early days of his restaurant and when he headed the kitchen at Les Amis in another lifetime. The protege of Arpege’s Alain Passard is produce-driven and has a light hand with sauces, and is quite adept at mixing and matching flavour and texture seamlessly and almost effortlessly. Unlike his mentor, he doesn’t grow anything in the back alley behind the shophouse but picks from a global grocer, getting his seafood, meat or vegetables from Japan or Europe – whoever gets it to him freshest or bestest.
Dinner starts at S$148 for four courses which will be light and leave you room for a zichar supper later. The next jump is a six-course S$250 which is just a shade below a six-act meal at two-starred Odette. Or you can get the works with a nine-course menu at S$350.
Our six-course set is not a heavy meal, but it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s thoroughly enjoyable in a straightforward, well-executed way without the song and dance of an “it” restaurant. Chef Hubrechsen starts off with his signature cold angel hair pasta tossed in truffle oil and a whisper of kombu, and a dollop of oscietra caviar for a luxe finish of brine and shine. We ask for separate menus for two people, and he obliges with a pair of very fresh Japanese hamaguri (clams) topped with caviar for a simple, unadulterated treat.
Again, his feel for juxtaposition comes in nicely with a thin slice of tuna belly draped over a tiny pile of sweet uni and shredded leeks in a sesame dressing. Its counterpart menu is a simple sea urchin au naturale in its shell, with skinny but still rich lobes of flesh within.
Simplicity personified comes in the form of a tomato gratin – just a composition of super fresh French tomatoes steaming hot out of the oven, and a quick grating of citrus zest that immediately lifts the sweetness of the fruit. Tomato foam adds a different dimension, and salty salcietta sausage from Corsica gives you something else to chew on.
Alternatively, meaty slices of artichoke are grilled, drizzled with Hollandaise sauce, a dab of earthy grape mustard and a thin slice of Alsatian bacon. To get such generous slices from a stingy artichoke means that it’s a big fella, and not that easy to come by, so we savour it.
A firm cooked egg with runny yolk is deep-fried tempura-style, split,laid in a silken-sweet pumpkin sauce and served two ways – showered with shavings of nutty Manjimup truffles, and very thin slices of grilled meaty mushroom.
For the main, an Alaskan crab leg that’s been lifting weights to ensure a solid mass inside its shell is steamed and lightly smoked, its succulence nesting in an emulsion made from the smoky juices and butter. Its counterpart is a large Spanish Carabinero prawn, split to reveal its rich coral, skinny sweet flesh and a tiny blob of gutsy tomato rice spiced with Calabrian nduja paste.
As good old-fashioned tableside entertainment, a burner is set alight as sugar is melted and flambeed with liqueur for a satisfying show of flames. Fresh peach segments are braised in the candied alcohol for a hot, sweet finish. Floating island Gunther’s style has a dreamy cloud of coffee liqueur-infused sabayon, supporting an addictive island of chocolate lava cake.
Sure, Gunther’s doesn’t run in the same race as Odette or Les Amis, experience and technique-wise. The plating is quite basic and not designed for Instagram. But when it comes to making your stomach happy, and enjoying good quality ingredients, Gunther’s more than delivers. Maybe Michelin’s inspectors are pickier about French food since they know more about it than soya sauce chicken, but who knows, perhaps Gunther’s ship will come in next year.
This article was originally posted in The Business Times.