At Mag’s Wine Kitchen, the recipe for success doesn’t have to be laced with expertise. Andrew Leci champions the art of making a mess
If there’s one thing I learnt at chef’s school it’s that if you want to be a good cook, you don’t have to go to chef’s school.
All you need is the passion for food, receptive taste buds and a cheerful predisposition to making mistakes. A certain amount of ability helps, of course, but if you truly embrace the third of my prerequisites, it won’t matter much.
As any great chef will tell you, creating the perfect dish is all about trial and error, and the more errors you make in the creative process, the better the end result is likely to be. There are several different ways of getting something right – in all disciplines and walks of life – but making mistakes and learning from them is probably best. A formal training may well enable you to make fewer mistakes by helping to hone techniques and telling you what to look out for, but there’s nothing quite like experience and simply knowing what tastes good, and what doesn’t.
Meet Magdalene Tang, chef-owner of Mag’s Wine Kitchen, the latest incarnation of an eatery that has established a reputation for producing redoubtable food for those who like to know what to expect. Which is pretty much every repeat guest at a restaurant.
Mag, as she is known to almost everyone, is a banking industry escapee. 23 years ago, she decided that it would be more fun slaving over a hot stove than a cold balance sheet and opened a restaurant on Circular Road. It was usually full of finance industry types and anyone with an expense account, really. Over the years, Mag garnered an avid and very loyal following – suffering only from the vicissitudes inherent in that much-loved term ‘foreign talent’.
People flocked to Mag’s because they always knew that their expectations would be met – not simply in terms of a menu that seemed too shy to change in front of anyone, but also with respect to quality. When you went to Mag’s, you knew you were going to get a good meal (with good wine) because you knew that recipes were tried and tested (and then tried and tested again), and that consistency was mantric.
Mag’s Wine Kitchen 2.0
Mag’s new place is as quirky and convivial as Mag herself. Who doesn’t want to walk through the kitchen when taking a seat to dine? The ‘open kitchen’ concept is alive and kicking, and at Mag’s, a diner could be just a couple of feet away from a sous chef doing his (or her) mise en place. It’s good to watch head chef Ryan Tok putting the team through its paces, as it is to watch Mag herself taking a break from having a glass of wine with a guest to get involved and demonstrate her execrable technique with a ladle.
She’d have been thrown out of my chef’s school, and that’s my point. You get the impression that Mag learnt to cook by herself – although she will admit to “helping” her Peranakan grandmother in the kitchen when she was a child.
With no formal training, Mag relies on her instincts and love of food to create good recipes that never fail to please, and she’s getting a little more adventurous after 20 years in the business with a slew of new dishes that will be working their way onto the menu in the weeks and months ahead.
One of which, Cold Soba, uni, dashi broth, could be a signature in the making – excellent texture, utterly fresh and not too pungent urchin, and a delicate liquid that would have taken a while to perfect, but then that’s what Mag does.
Good too is the Hamachi Bowl (with kosho – a Japanese seasoning made with chili, yuzu and salt – avocado, spinach, yam chips and bonito.) It’s a textural masterpiece, so it’s lots of fun to eat, and taste buds will go into overdrive with an explosion of saltiness, sourness, sweetness and umami bringing quite the best out of each other.
In terms of the big guns, there’s a whole braised duck that goes through a number of cooking processes before being served up – I gather advanced notice is required for this one, as the procedure is lengthy. Again, there is a taste melange, but it’s subtler than most and enables the main ingredients to speak for themselves. This is characteristic of Mag’s culinary philosophy. Good ingredients, like well-intentioned people, can be misunderstood, when all they want to do is be themselves. Mag seems very adept when encouragement is needed.
If I had to offer an ounce of criticism, which I do, of course, it would be that the Beef Tenderloin can be a tad salty. Now bear with me. The meat itself is perfectly cooked inside and seared to perfection on the outside, but the sear is seasoned. So, when it meets the veal jus that displays that wonderful tackiness of a sauce reduced to within an inch of its life with its inherent salinity, it can be a bit much. Both elements in the dish are fabulous, but there’s a slight danger of overkill on the salt front. It’s such a minor thing, and most people will absolutely love it, but I have to say something negative otherwise this will begin to sound like an advertorial.
No one, I imagine, will have a bad word to say, however, about the Boston Lobster Risotto with asparagus and sage butter. It is, quite simply, a triumph. The lobster is beautifully cooked – retaining taste and texture – and every single ingredient in the dish would say such nice things about the others – so, complimentary and complementary. The choice of carnaroli rice as opposed to arborio is such a good call. Firmer and slightly starchier, it helps to make the creamy masterpiece one of the best I have ever tasted.
Mag’s offers good food and good times in an atmosphere for which the word ‘convivial’ seems to have been invented. And with a new playground within which to get creative, every new menu item promises to bear the hallmarks of precision cooking and balanced flavours for which Mag has become renowned.
It’s difficult to imagine how much food has ended up ‘on the cutting room floor’, to borrow an analogy from the world of cinema. But when it comes to getting things right, trying and testing and then doing the same over and over again is the way to go. Eat Mag’s pudding if you want the proof.
Mag’s Wine Kitchen
55 Keong Saik Road
Tel: +65 6438 3836