“How would you describe his food?”
That’s the question I get from Lynn Yeow De-Vito, the PR for Willow, the restaurant we’re at. It is lunch and we’ve managed to get the seats that were suddenly available to us three days ago.
“He described it as simple,” she continues with incredulity creeping into her voice. “Can you believe it? Simple, he calls it.”
The ‘he’ in question is head chef Nicolas Tam, who is right in front of us preparing the dishes for the lunch crowd. Tam tries to play it off, switching to another conversation track as a form of deflection. But Yeow De-Vito is right to feel irked: her job is to trumpet Willow, but how do you do that when your chef is sheepish about his food?
I’m digging the Hotaru Ika, a morel chawanmushi dotted with petit pois and black truffle shavings; whole firefly squids fill the dish. I’m not big on cephalopods but I’m savouring each spoonful.
The fires of the konro grill flare up before returning to manageable glowing binchōtan ambers. My main, a Wagyu striploin from the Tochigi prefecture, is served with a mushroom medley and a dab of kurozu; the subtleness of the sauce adds a finishing mellowness with a vinegary taste. The highlight was the Sawara dish: an aged shimi-aji fillet that’s smoked with straw before it’s served as an ochazuke, where the fish bone broth is poured over ochazuke rice porridge. Ask Tam the inspiration of this dish and he’ll reply that it is from the local Teochew fish ‘muay’.
But it is not just his magic, there’s also the rest of the team. I had the Pain Au Lait—a warm milk bun that’s flavoured by kombu and roasted nori bits. It’s good on its own but made even better when you eat it with the side dish of katsuobushi sabayon (bonito flakes mixed with an eggy sauce). That’s done by their bread expert, Ben Tan. Then there’s head pastry chef Soh Hui Shan’s dessert—a sour plum sorbet with preserved guava. This hearkens back to the cut guava fruit that’s usually eaten with sour plum powder.
Tam might be understating his ability as a chef. Sitting at the counter (and you should always sit at the counter when you have the chance) and you’ll witness someone who manages a line really well (no shouting, no snide remarks) and is mindful of letting the natural flavours of his ingredients shine. Like his restaurant’s namesake, Tam can bend but it’s his resilience against being flashy or letting his ego usurp the timbre of the restaurant that is welcoming.
“Simple”, yes. That is how Tam describes the food that he makes. But unassuming is more fitting, and lulls you into lowering your guard, to go in without expectations and with that first bite you’re launched into a unique culinary experience.
Willow is located at 39 Hongkong Street, Singapore 059678. Lunch starts from SGD148 and dinner from SGD198