Restaurant Review: The new tasting menu at Spanish tapas bar Esquina

Esquina restaurant Singapore

Dig into dishes that’ve made it past tasting room sessions and well-loved classics at this spanish restaurant on Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore

The last time I went to Esquina, it was during of one chef Carlos Montobbio’s Tasting Room sessions. The sessions, held roughly once every month, sees a select group of diners perform the role of guinea pig for Chef Montobbio where he experiments with new dishes that may or may not make it to future menus.

While Tasting Room sessions primarily focused on seeking feedback from guests, I couldn’t help but wonder what Chef Montobbio is like when he’s not experimenting.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long for the opportunity, since Esquina has recently launched a new tasting menu (S$108++) showcasing its past, present and future.

The menu features no-longer-available classics from when Chef Montobbio took over the reins at Esquina a couple of years ago, fan favourites from its current menu and the final forms of items from previous Tasting Room sessions.

But it should only be fitting that one of the first items I tried in the amuse-bouche quartet was Spanish Nigiri, last seen several years back. Presented like a piece of akami nigiri, the ‘tuna’ on top is actually a piece of lightly grilled red pepper, with the ‘rice’ below a salted cod-and-potato puree. While I’d have preferred the pureed potato/cod to have a little more starchiness for a meatier texture, I wholly enjoyed this.

What followed was even better. The sea urchin sandwich, a product of a Tasting Room session, saw sea urchin and caviar perched on a small mountain of stracciatella di bufala, atop a sliver of crispbread. Garnished with some spring onions, this was a triumph. The cream texture of the cheese melded with the sea urchin and caviar to produce palate-filling richness, offset by the milkiness of the former.

Then came the first course: grilled sucrine lettuce brushed with a cider vinegar glaze. Resembling a tiny romaine, it has the same crunch (even after grilling), with an exceptional amount of natural sweetness. A romaine reduction, if you will.

I must confess to being slightly startled at how sweet it was, but not in a bad way. At any rate, the herb yoghurt and lime zest made went a long way in cutting the sweetness. A great harbinger of things to come, perhaps.

I wasn’t wrong, and there were few missteps in the rest of the six courses, barring the inclusion of two pork dishes in the menu and Beetroot, which saw sliced beetroot and beetroot paired with horseradish mousse over (again) stracciatella di bufala.

I have no major misgivings about Beetroot itself – the horseradish prevented the cheese from being too overbearing, with the raspberries and smoked walnuts further balancing the richness.

What I do question is basing an entire plate on stracciatella and the repetition of ingredients with the sea urchin sandwich. And it’s this same repetition that dogs the pork jowl and suckling pig. Having two pork mains out of three is quite a bit too much for one to take.

Again, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the pork jowl (with chipotle mayo, shichimi-togarashi, plus slivers of pickled pear as a palate cleanser), nor the suckling pig (with a gluhwein reduction sauce, and rhubarb/apple chutney), because on their own they were excellent.

By the time I got to the suckling pig, however, I was already full up on pork for the day, which saw me pushing the crackling to one side.

On the bright side, the pork dishes were bookends for Suquet, a Catalan seafood stew, and a Tasting Room alumni. I hold a chef who can do a good seafood stew in high regard, because while deceptively simple, using anything but the freshest ingredients can see it go horribly wrong.

Think of the difference between the smell of the Mediterranean on a cloudless day with a brisk wind blowing and the stale, dank air of a Changi mangrove swamp at low tide. While both carry scents of the sea, one is far more desirable than the other. Thankfully, Suquet falls firmly into the former category.

And it’s probably only appropriate that the meal concluded with another ex-Tasting Room experiment, Mandarine. Spanish mandarins are boiled, the flesh is scooped out, blended and stuffed back into the peel before being frozen whole.

Sliced into ‘segments’ with the peel intact, served with fresh cheese foam and freeze-dried raspberries, it’s brilliant. Both to behold and to partake of.

And this to me is where Chef Montobbio is at his best – meticulously engineered simplicity.