Photo: Shangri-La Hotel
The restaurant musical chair that had been going on at the Shangri-La hotel is finally over with the opening of Origin Grill last month.
The new restaurant is located behind the hotel's lobby on the ground floor, where Japanese restaurant Nadaman used to be.
Nadaman is now gone and another Japanese restaurant, Nami, opened on the hotel's 24th floor last year - which in turn was where Nadaman used to be back in the 1970s. And if you have been around as long as I have, you may remember the fine-dining French restaurant Latour on the lobby floor that was the pride of the dining scene here in the 1980s.
If you are confused by all that opening and closing, never mind. You just need to know this - the Japanese restaurant is now upstairs and the new grill is on the ground floor.
Origin is made up of two separate spaces - a bar just after the entrance and the dining room at the back. The bar, especially after it fills up, is more visually exciting with its backlit wall display of bottles and cosy cushions to lounge in.
The restaurant, on the other hand, is cold and bland. The monotony of the beige-coloured room gets little relief save for a couple of potted plants against the walls. The only design element seems to be the arched doorways leading to a set of private rooms and a similar row of arches coming down from the ceiling in the middle of the room. The overall look strikes me as a pared-down stage set for a monastery.
But perhaps that is intentional because the mediaeval European monks were known gourmets and the food at Origin could well be what would whet their appetite.
The cooking is robust and unpretentious. Call me old-fashioned, but I like that everything on the plate is instantly recognisable and every flavour detectable.
Australian chef Heidi Flanagan's menu has a good number of steaks, but non-beef eaters can find a generous selection of appetisers and other main courses to pick from.
So at my impromptu visit last weekend, that was what I do: pick from the different sections of the menu rather than just focusing on the steaks.
And it is a good meal overall, with the flavours immediate and the cooking confident.
The pan-seared Hokkaido scallops with fragrant chilli jam ($32) is a good example. The chilli jam, a balanced condiment of spice and sugar, hits the spot, while the sweet and plump scallops hold their own amid a blanket of pomelo, wing beans, holy basil and crushed peanuts. It is an exciting melange of flavours and the wing beans are a pleasant surprise as one seldom finds them in Western cooking here.
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Then there is the starter of summer asparagus, bottarga and creamy burrata ($28), where the salty octopus bottarga works so well with the lightly charred asparagus spears. And the blob of bottarga binds them together just nicely.
Spaghetti tossed with heirloom tomatoes and basil ($22) sounds rather boring on paper, but is not so on the palate. I'm glad I order it because, though simple, the dish is very good. The main reason is the fresh tomato sauce, with fruity flavours that the canned variety just cannot match.
The only starter I have reservations about is the octopus charred with smoked paprika ($24). It is not because it tastes bad. In fact, the spiced tomato jam and fava beans the octopus is drenched with is delicious. So is the dollop of eggplant puree on the side. It is that the octopus is chewy. I guess I am just conditioned to favour the tender sous-vided tentacles that many restaurants here serve.
For the mains, I pick only one steak from among the cheaper ones on the menu: the Rangers Valley Black Market 100 per cent Pure Black Angus striploin ($68 for 300g). It is good beef for the price, much better than meat I've paid more for. There is good flavour and it is tender without being laden with fat.
There are expensive cuts such as the snow-aged full blood wagyu A4 ($168 for 200g) from Niigata in Japan, but I will have to go back to try that.
Instead, I order other meats such as the slow-roasted crispy pork belly with aromatics ($38), which I am totally happy with. The crackling is crispy enough, but the flavoursome meat is what wins me over. It comes with Tuscan kale, roast apple and sauce soubise, which work but are not particularly noteworthy.
The Rangers Valley bone-in beef short rib ($48) comes with a Korean barbeque marinade, which sounds exciting. But it turns out to be too sweet for my liking. And the flavour just overwhelms the meat as well as the potato gratin and cabbage slaw that come with it.
I have only one dessert, passion fruit swirl pavlova and toasted coconut ($18), but it is so deconstructed that it is unrecognisable as a pavlova. It doesn't help that there is hardly any meringue to be seen.
What saves it are the chunks of fresh mango, which are ripe and honey sweet.
Origin is not the most exciting restaurant to open recently, but it is familiar and dependable. And those may well be what a restaurant needs to get people to return.
Lobby Level, Tower Wing, Shangri-la Hotel Singapore, 22 Orange Grove Road; Tel: 62134595
Opening hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm daily
Price: Budget from $120 a person, without drinks
This article was first published on The Straits Times.