At a particular shophouse along Jalan Besar is a signboard that simply says ‘Subrosa Private Dining’. Subdued next to a louder sign shouting ‘PONGGOL NASI LEMAK’, it barely catches the attention of most passers-by. But the venue embodies the name; ‘sub rosa’ is a Latin figure of speech that literally translates to ‘under the rose’, a phrase that holds the meaning of discretion and secrecy.
Underneath the windows painted a dark rose red, my photographer and I walk in through the unlabelled stained glass door to find ourselves in a cosy space that probably seats only around 20 people on the ground floor. A red serviette in the shape of a rose is accentuated by the immaculate white tablecloth it rests upon. We are introduced to the two brilliant chefs reimagining the best food they can prepare with the freshest ingredients to be found in Singapore, Chefs Steven and Francis.
They honed their culinary arts at different parts of the globe; Chef Steven brings a wealth of experience from his time working in Michelin-starred restaurants in London, while Chef Francis has been quietly working in Singapore for the bourgeoise as a private chef. Together, they bring two worlds of cooking into one fine restaurant.
After meeting the chefs, we sit down and await our first course with anticipation. A basket of Artisan Bread is served warm, just minutes out of the oven, barely cool enough to touch. Both brown and white buns with different toppings — with oats, sesame, or a light white dusting — can be eaten with a bit of truffle butter, which is made inhouse. In fact, one of the things that was stressed on while I was at Subrosa was how everything, from the butter to the other preparations, are all made from scratch in the kitchen.
Freshness is emphasized most nakedly in the salad named Fresh is Best. Small sliced and diced root vegetables have been fermented for at least a month to bring out the best flavours. Each piece is sweet, crunchy, and popping. As you eat the vegetables on top to the salty roe and scallops below, it’s as though your taste buds are travelling from land to sea.
The harvest from the sea continues with the next two dishes. The Cocktail is named after its inspiration, the shrimp cocktail, but in appearance it is anything but. The shrimp has been profoundly transformed into an airy orange foam layered over a shrimp-flavoured crumble. Underneath at the very bottom is a creamy foundation of sweet, hand-peeled, shredded crab meat. The whole cup is an explosion of sea salt and umami, but with a lovely variance of textures, especially if you manage to capture all three layers in one bite with your spoon. Fermented, skinless cherry tomatoes at the side provide a strong sour kick to cleanse the palate between the intensely savoury morsels.
The oddly named Quaking Cod That is essentially Chef Steven’s recreation of the steamed fish he had once in a Chinese restaurant. The cod is sous vide with a strip of seaweed replacing the fish skin to impart a bit of that sea saltiness. The result is soft and tender flesh that breaks easily when grasped with chopsticks. The cod acts as a smooth tabula rasa for stronger flavours to be added to; in this case, a a bit of ginger gel and a reduced duck consomme that is thick, earthy, and salty, a level of complexity above the simple soy sauce that usually marinates steamed fish. Shimeji mushrooms shyly peeking from underneath the fish is sharp with balsamic vinegar and mildly pungent with truffle oil.
With a menu of strong flavours already tasted, a palate cleanser shaved iced flavoured with mojito lime and mandarin orange is necessary to fully enjoy the courses to come.
Remember Mee is an unforgettably great plate of hokkien mee. Besides the addition of some grilled lobster acquired from a farm in Changi, this is the humble hokkien mee we know and love, but prepared to utmost perfection by Chef Francis. He told us about how he used to cook in the tough conditions of a hawker stall, where he honed his craft on this dish.
We move on to typical fine dining fare: Who Niu, ****another playful name for a dish with prime cuts of wagyu beef and foie gras. The beef is has undergone four hours in sous vide before a light torch. Chef Stevens opted for a slightly less fatty cut than usual to give us a chunkier piece of meat, cooked till medium and hinting of chocolate. The foie gras is fresh and buttery smooth, with a thin crisp crust. For sauce, salty gravy has been carefully poured into tiny cups of caramelized onions, and light brown shallot puree circles the plate.
A refreshing tropical fruit dessert concludes the marvellous food we’ve had today. Tropical Passion has a set coconut mousse, sweet and soft mango slices, a passionfruit sorbet, and a little dollop of lime, with a few coarse chocolate flakes ground to look like tree bark. It’s a refreshing end to a rich meal.
After our lunch, I had a brief chat with Chef Steven, who showed me around the kitchen. This is one of the privileges of private dining; you get to interact with the people who make your food. I could feel Chef Steven’s passion and excitement for Subrosa’s potential as he discussed their efforts to procure the best ingredients and prepare everything fresh, and their plans to make the restaurant even better. His enthusiasm bodes well for the future of this new restaurant. Its impressiveness might not be apparent on its unremarkable shophouse exterior, but perhaps that is what Subrosa’s name encapsulates: a place with wondrous secrets beyond the first glance.