Apart from its name, you might assume Monte Risaia serves Japanese food. Instead of tables, it has the ubiquitous long counter, left over from the previous tenant – an upscale teppan-ya. Like a sushi bar, it has a sashimi display box, albeit with only cherry tomatoes and shucked oysters peering out under the condensation.
Turns out that it’s Japanese-Italian, but the owners seem so afraid you can’t tell what it is that they play an incessant stream of cheesy tourist-centric trattoria music on loop – it’s like they hijacked the entire playlist of a Venetian gondolier. Monte Risaia is Italian. We get it. Please. Stop.
Otherwise, it’s a very sane place to have dinner. It’s the latest in the stable of katsuoboshi supplier Marusaya’s Japanese eateries in town, and this is its first foray into Italian food. Head chef Taizo Yamada, may be brand new to Singapore but is an experienced hand back in Tokyo. And since Japanese chefs have a way of beating other nationalities at their own cooking, our expectations are set.
There isn’t much of a menu – a three-course (S$68) set that works in an amuse bouche, antipasti and a pasta main, plus a meat to make it four courses (S$98). But there is an off-menu omakase for S$168, although the mild-mannered and very pleasant assistant chef says that they can do something cheaper if we prefer. But we stick to the higher price, just to see what fireworks, if any, the chef is capable of.
To start, we’re served the “signature” uni pudding – a pretty glass cup of savoury cream, whipped pale but still rather dense with enough blended uni to fit its description, garnished with little lobes of bright orange bafun of average quality, which just about describes the overall joy we get from it.
(Related: Fusion Sushi at Sushi Jin)
We’re more partial to the demitasse of hot corn soup that comes after – where the natural sweetness and pleasant graininess of blended corn hits the spot.
The pace at this restaurant can be described as languid. But to us, it’s very slow. You could potentially watch The Godfather without a toilet break, and Michael Corleone would have morphed into a confirmed mobster in time for dessert.
We want to lean forward and go “gimme, gimme” when what look like our already prepared plates of antipasti stay rooted to the prep surface instead of coming to where they belong – our hungry little hands. No. The chef emerges from the kitchen with a pan. He adds a little something. Re-arranges another thing. Maddeningly, he goes back to the kitchen. Wait. Comes back again. Existentialists wait for Godot. We wait for gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce. Finally, we get it. The food, not enlightenment.
A circle of substantial bites that don’t score top marks but stay in a strong middle ground. Shavings of San Daniele ham – salty, porky, wrapped around acidic strawberries that don’t balance it the way cantaloupe melon might have.
The shucked oysters from the wooden display case are fleshy but not at their peak, dressed in barely discernible sweet horseradish sauce and a scattering of ikura to distract you from the oyster’s shortcomings. Firm lobster chunks are the best, tossed in melted anchovy butter – salty, nutty, briny and, yes, “yummy” rhymes with it.
Two slices of duck breast are firm and succulent, made better by a rich-sweet drizzle of syrupy balsamic-enriched sauce. Next to it sits sea bream sashimi topped with a minced shallot dressing and in the middle, two perfect nuggets of chewy gnocchi – a vision in blue cheese sauce that deserve their own show.
After a bit of whining at the maitre ‘d – who looks intimidating but is inherently gentle and obliging – the pace picks up a bit. Truffle pasta arrives – announcing its presence before it appears, the nutty, fragrant French black gold shaved over a textbook cream-based spaghetti. The sauce itself hits all the right notes but the pasta doesn’t want to play ball, staying bland and impervious to the overtures of truffle and butter.
Helping the truffle to pad up the price tag is foie gras, layered French tournedos rossini-style on top of A4 Toriyama wagyu rump. The rump means it’s not the buttery bite we’re used to, but it’s not a bad thing since any extra fat you need comes from the liver, finished with a classic sweet, meaty glaze. It’s familiar, rich, tasty and a yawn all at the same time.
Even though we’re full by then, the sight of gleaming, steaming, vibrant tomato-enrobed lobster pasta tumbling out of its cooking pan invokes some serious FOMO. It’s a special order, we’re told, but they can do a similar crabmeat version because they’ve run out of lobster. On, we say.
After which our FOMO turns to major OBBM or “Oh Boy, Big Mistake”, as we wait. And wait. It’s not the chef’s fault – he may be the only one in the kitchen, fumbling to whip up a fresh sauce for the knee-jerk diners who hate Italian music. The result is a more than decent pasta – a potent combo of passata and fresh tomatoes, dashi and crabmeat, with a perky lift of shiso leaf.
Dessert is a deconstructed tiramisu – a parfait of whipped zabaglione, coffee ice cream, chunks of icy strawberry sorbet and a chewy pistachio macaron. Pleasant enough, in a haphazard way.
Monte Risaia hasn’t quite hit its stride yet, so we would hedge our bets and go with the set menus first before investing in the omakase.
There’s substance in here, but there are just too many niggly loose ends like a shaky identity, inefficient kitchen and unimpressive ingredients to deal with. These are easily remedied with time and a better understanding of the Singapore food scene, but in the meantime, like the Godfather, we’ll wait till Monte Risaia crafts us a menu we simply cannot refuse.
Monte Risaia, 59 Duxton Road, Singapore 089523. Tel: 6970 0067.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.