There aren’t many Spanish restaurants and tapas bars in Singapore, but the latest to debut is Esquina, which means “corner” in Spanish. Indeed, it is situated at a quaint shophouse in the quiet corner at the intersection of Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road, surrounded by post-colonial buildings. It is a joint effort between local arbiter of cool, Singaporean hotel-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng and Jason Atherton – Michelin-star chef who’s worked with Ferran Adria, Marco Pierre White to help launch The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel, was Gordon Ramsay’s protégé for a good part of a decade, was the first British chef to complete a stage (internship) at the Spain’s famous El Bulli in 1998, and his own establishment, the Pollen Street Social in London earned its very first Michelin star after barely a year into business, and lastly is the executive chef at the highly-lauded Table No.1 in Shanghai.
Now that’s a hell lot of information – which definitely is unsurprising for one who has created waves in the local culinary scene with a new tapas bar.
Esquina has an urbane ambience and modern European vibe with quirky little antique knick-knacks, chosen especially by Loh Lik Peng, that dot the bar – long stainless steel bar, vintage bronze lamps, bottles of garishly hued Spanish vinegar, and avant-garde designer stools wrought from used car parts, tractors and various bits of machinery. It features a long communal bar and open kitchen that resembles chic European urban canteens. Yet with just 19 seats and standing space for 35, this intimate restaurant defies all preconceptions of what you might expect of a celebrity chef restaurant. However, what it lacks in space, Esquina makes up for in offbeat spiritedness and exceptional food.
Esquina is nothing like your typical posh nosh joint, neither is it a pale copy of authentic Spanish tapas bars. It is instead a platform for Atherton to show off his creative vision by putting spins on classic tapas and coming up with something entirely original. Its menu of the traditional Spanish grub is has been spiked with proliferations of cosmopolitan poises. It illustrates the modern culture, a welcome deviation from the norm.
After hearing that Jason Atherton would be in town on the 23 – 24th March, we headed down immediately on Friday night. We arrived at 6pm, seconds after they opened, only to see that a long line has been formed. We asked if it was usually this crowded, or is it only because the chef is here and the waitress replied, “It’s like this all the time, everyday.” Finally at 7pm, after an hour of restlessness and hunger, we managed to secure a space at the counter. However, we weren’t allowed to place our orders yet as the kitchen was still too busy with the earlier orders and thus had to wait for another 30min (SIGHZ. We were extremely hungry by then and a hungry man is an angry man. But that night, we learnt that good things come when we’re patient :)) We finally ordered, and waited eagerly with high anticipation for our food to arrive as we watched the chefs at work.
Then Atherton came up and we chatted for a little. Scrupulously polite, soft-spoken and sensible – entirely not Gordon Ramsay. Hard to believe that he’s been his protégé for a good part of a decade.
Iberico Bellota – a complementary from Atherton himself as an apology for the undesirable long waiting time. Jamón Ibérico is the pride of Spain like how Foie Gras is the pride of France and Wagyu the pride of Japan. The lineage of the unique black Iberian pigs that produces these hams dates back to ancient times where they ran wild in the Iberian Penninsula. These pigs, known as Cerdo Ibérico or “Pata Negra”, are believed to descend from the pre-historic wild boar that once inhabited the Mediterranean forests. There are 2 types of them – one that lives the life of a normal pig, feeding on grass and herbs, and the other that is free-range fed on acorns (bellota). The pigs that feed on acorns are the ones which are coveted to Bellota Jamón Ibérico hams – the finest of the Jamón Ibérico – infused with the flavor of the acorn (bellota) from a cork tree.
From the moment they are born, these special pigs destined for Bellota quality are treated as royalties. Up till their sacrifice, they live, sleep and forage under the open sky in specially maintained pastures and oak forests called “la dehasa” which are over 5 acres full of acorn. During the fattening season or montañera, the pigs feast on up to 20 pounds of acorns each day, allowing them to gain as much as 2 pounds of body weight daily. Finally, the pigs are ‘scarified’ and the hams are salted and hung up to cure for 36 months. Due to its exclusive ability to store larger fatty deposits, they are cured much longer than traditional ham, giving it a rich nutty flavor and tender texture above all others in its class. Also, longer curing and their entirely natural diet allows the Bellota Jamón Ibérico hams to contain over 70% monounsaturated fat, making it high in “good cholesterol”.
Indeed, presented right in front of our eyes on a wooden board are paper-thin crimson slices of Iberico Bellota, glistening with healthy monounsaturated fat. It was wayyyy over the top – incomparable tenderness, and intense and complex flavor with an unparalled note of sweetness.
And then we had another complementary dish due to some miscommunications in the kitchen – Baked bone marrow with snails, parsley & horseradish pesto. Bone marrow is the original Primal brain food. It is perhaps the first reliable source of large, fatty animal products our scrappy ancestors were able to obtain – before we became spear-using cunning tacticians – as they feasted on the bones, and what lurked inside, of fallen prey.
Bone marrow is especially highly caloric and nutrient dense – mostly fat with a little bit of protein. According to Loren Cordain, 3 ½ ounces of bone marrow contain 488 calories, 51g of fat (mostly monounsaturated though), and 7g of protein. That explains why even animals go for the marrow instinctively. For example, wolves given access to full deer carcasses gravitated toward those bones with “high marrow yields”, taking care to “destroy the epiphyses” where the marrow was most plentiful.
No doubt, meat, or any animal product, is the best, densest source of fat-soluble vitamins around. Liver, heart, brains, rib-eye are all prize cuts for their taste, nutrition, and the numerous bioavailable micronutrients that come loaded in every delectable bite. But marrow, is more than all these. It’s made of osteoblasts which forms bone cells using minerals, adipocytes (fat cells), fibroblasts which forms connective tissues, and osteoclasts which are responsible for bone resorption. But what’s more amazing is its taste which cannot be casually disregarded – sweet, extremely rich with a subtle creamy nuttiness.
You can eat it as part of a rich hearty stew to experience its incomparable delicious taste. But what’s even better is smearing it all over a warm toast and sprinkling it with a touch of salt for an even more robust flavor. Plus snails and a fresh-tasting pesto, this dish was sinful, but definitely worth every calorie.
Then there were the specials. Firstly, Pan-seared red snapper in olive oil with pesto and orzo ($25). The snapper was beautifully cooked. It was delicate and had a slightly sweet taste, which was definitely brought out by the flavorful olive oil broth. This dish was indeed pale in comparison as compared to the first 2 dishes in terms of its wow factor. Nevertheless, it was a simple dish prepared and presented perfectly.
Another special of the night was the Sautéed prawns ($18). I can’t remember exactly what and how the shrimps were cooked. Maybe because they were normal, probably the least exciting dish of the night. One thing though, look at how huge the shrimps are! They’re relatively humongous!
The last special we had for the night was the Green gazpacho with shrimp ceviche ($20). Initially, the waiter had just served us a bowl of shrimp ceviche and we were wondering: Where’s the soup? And then he came with a jug of green liquid and poured it over, encircling and finally covering the ceviche. Now that was totally unexpected! This was a refreshing dish after all the rich goodness we had from the previous dishes. The gazpacho was fresh and slightly thick, and it was acidic enough to bring out the sweetness of the shrimp. There were bits of crunchy apple and celery which provided a much needed contrast in terms of texture.
Slow-cooked egg, bravas sauce, potato & crispy iberico ($17). If you could have only one normal dish here – though I would not understand why you would be in such circumstances – this would be the dish. The perfectly cooked egg – jiggly yet firm on the outside with a runny gooey yolk which flows out so effortlessly – itself is so delicious. But paired with sweet tasty bravas sauce and finished with the ever-so-delicious iberico, this dish became an addiction. It’s simple and balanced in terms of everything – taste, flavor, texture, and even the presentation is so colourful! It was divine.
Aged rib-eye & chimichurri dressing ($33). Chimichurri is a traditional Argentinian sauce, often used as widely in Argentina as ketchup is used in America. It is basically a mix of herbs, garlic, vinegar and oil. The meat here was juicy and tender, with a slight springy firmness. The generous drizzle of the intense garlic and parsley-accented chimichurri sauce was definitely welcomed as it enhanced the natural taste of the beef.
Ox cheek oloroso, mash, caper, bacon, bonemarrow crumbs ($25). The ox cheek was basically braised in oloroso, a kind of sherry. It was tender but it was surprisingly dry on the inside and lacked flavor. What saved this dish was the creamy and silky mash, richness of the bone marrow and the savoury saltiness of the bacon. This dish was recommended by the couple next to us but it evidently did not live up to its standards and certainly needs some improvement. It needs to taste as exciting and attractive as it sounds.
Iberico pork & foie gras burger ($23.50). Foie gras – the pride of France – plus Iberico pork – the pride of Spain – sandwiched in between warm, buttery, fluffy scones, topped with pickled cucumber and smooth avocado mayonnaise, this bite-size treats definitely stood up to its expectations. The meat was moist and flavorful and the shortbreads were warm and definitely a warm welcome to the traditional hamburger buns. Though the flavor of each meat could not be distinguished, the flavor as a whole was definitely one of a kind!
Oyster & Vietnamese dressing (1 for $5). This is yet another addiction. Oysters on its own are irresistible. Eating raw oysters is a uniquely invigorating experience as no other food conjures up a taste sensation as strongly as an oyster – the essence of the sea in edible form. For many of us, eating oysters wake us up – our sense become sharper – as we enjoy the salinity and firm yet slippery texture of it.
Many oyster lovers mention the importance of ritual: the shucking of the oysters; the anointing with sauces; the lifting and tilting of the shells; the drinking of the liquor before, during, or after; and then the laying of the downturned shells back on the plate. Done properly, ritual still serves its ancient purpose—to raise awareness. Like the Japanese tea ceremony, a good oyster ritual has a Zen spirit. It allows you to mask the world and live briefly in the here and now.
And, like the Japanese tea ceremony, it is art as much as consumption. Its sensual pleasures go beyond taste. There are the soft purple, green, and pink watercolors of the shell; the need to read its geometry in order to open it easily. And once open, there is the absolute contrast of the oyster and the shell. Such softness within such hardness.
Art is something we experience not to fill any basic needs but instead to learn about ourselves and our connections to the world. Food is rarely art. We eat to fill our bellies. We eat to sustain ourselves. We eat because we must. Oysters come pretty close to breaking this connection. No one fills up on them. They are taste sundered from satiation. We do not eat them to satisfy any needs—except for our need to experience.