Following the departure of chef-owner Sam Aibett from Whitegrass in December 2018, most of us never expected to see it open again.
But in late May, the acclaimed restaurant announced that it's unlatching its doors and welcoming guests to try the offerings of a new head chef, Takuya Yamashita. Instead of boundary-pushing, modern-Australian dishes peppered with Japanese flair by Tetsuya-trained Aisbett, the 40-seat fine-dining establishment now serves what Yamashita calls "La Cuisine Naturelle", where he prepares Japanese ingredients with French techniques to highlight their natural flavours. Sounds similar enough, but does it match up to the ghost of its former self?
Spectres of the old Whitegrass haunt the space. It retains the same interiors designed by Takenouchi Webb although the main entrance has been moved to the side so you're greeted by a waiting room bar that it's still in the midst of finalising. Then, more ominously, there are the old awards lurking on the table: the Michelin stars it clinched in 2017 and 2018 as well as the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants plaque among others.
If it isn't already apparent, Yamashita has a lot to live up to. And even if he didn't, a dinner that costs $168 for five courses and $228 for eight courses draws up expectations of its own. We opt for the five-course, which starts with a flurry of snacks, none of which make a good first impression. There's a peanut tart showered with shavings of comte, pandan toast topped with uni, oxtail tongue terrine and most confusingly, Kyushu squid stuffed with chicken liver mousse and an onsen egg.
The mains fare better, showcasing techniques that bear the hallmarks of a pro. Yamashita is, after all, a transplant from one-Michelin-starred Ciel et Sol in Tokyo, who perhaps just needs more time to understand the culinary diversity of Singapore and how the new Whitegrass fits into this picture. Because when he gets the French-Japanese marriage right, dishes like flounder prepared using the ikejime slaughtering technique, lightly steamed and served with pomme purée, bamboo shoots and sancho leaves, shine a spotlight on his talent.
It's also obvious that he takes great care in shipping over Japanese produce from farmers that he refers to as friends. It pays off in plates like oysters from Hyogo Prefecture, which are rich in minerality thanks to its close proximity to the mountainous rainforests. Yamashita blends land and sea, adding Granny Smith apples for a touch of acidity without overwhelming the natural sweetness of the plump, fleshy oysters.
That being said, there are plenty of French-Japanese restaurants in Singapore. And even more places that boast ingredients regularly shipped in from Japan. The spring-summer menu is a solid introduction to the new Whitegrass, but as it stands, we struggle to find a reason to return. Tick it off your list if you must, but beyond that, Yamashita has an unenviable task of proving that Whitegrass is still deserving of those awards on the table.