A Sommelier's Great Singaporean Restaurant

You don't need me to tell you Iggy's is a great restaurant. Already much adored by food lovers all over the world, voted best restaurant in Asia by several publications and ranked 28 in the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list, 2011.

Iggy’s reputation is hard-earned over many years, seven to be exact, with a cosmopolitan clientele that has come to expect the highest standards of personalized service and a dining experience that pushes the boundaries of gastronomic exploration and culinary sensory excitement.

And yet occasionally I come across voices of discontent, those who have not enjoyed their experience or are a little underwhelmed with the food. Invariably these gripes are shallow and as much as one should respect individual opinion, I sense misinterpretation of the philosophy at Iggy’s and a bit of the tall poppy syndrome --that weird part of human nature where people just have to disapprove of those at the top.

It is fundamental that one grasp what Iggy's is all about and what makes Ignatius Chan tick. Primarily, Iggy’s is a place of culinary discovery and adventure like no other in the Asia region or the planet actually. You need to come here with an open mind, palate and wallet, and prepared to step outside of your food comfort zone and knowledge, no matter how much of a gourmand you are, even professional chefs and restaurateurs for that matter.

It is a university of gastronomy and cerebral cuisine right up there with the likes of elBulli and Fat Duck; the sort of restaurant that would be at home in New York or London in as much as it is in Singapore’s thriving metropolis at the crossroads of Asia.

Iggy’s however, is in a class of its own with the culinary creative-cutting-edge that is not the work of a celebrated chef but a sommelier and the most intellectual, intensely inquisitive and visionary gastronomic architect I know, yet equally the most humble, modest, jovial and friendly servant to the needs and pleasures of his diners.

As far as I am aware, there is no other sommelier in the world that could rightly dress in chef’s garb and have the respect among the highest realms of the art of cooking.

Even if you wanted to compare the innovative talents of sommelier Enrico Bernado at Il Vino in Paris, who has created a novel concept where you chose your wine first, then create a menu around it, as cutting-edge and enriching an experience as it is, the cuisine is orthodox French and the chef commands the kitchen.

Analysing some of the website consumer comments on Iggy’s, one senses most experienced foodies ‘get it’, with the random diner confused about prioritizing decor over food. But what makes me cringe is when I read professional critiques pointing to fusion cuisine and east meets west in reviews.

Fusion, or confusion as Tetsuya Wakuda says, is invariably deliberate and more a product of opportunist chefs in places like California who try too hard to dazzle and become the next celebrity chef catering to a TV audience.

In contemporary Australia, where immigration has not only created a multicultural society, freed them from colonial stodginess, and created perhaps the first wave of Asian influence over Australia’s cuisine with Vietnamese flavors through the arrival of refugees from the Vietnam War should be known as culinary liberation.

East meets west is a geographical misnomer that is overused (abused) by food writers to somehow explain the break from tradition or what is deemed to be unorthodox outside of the a countries customary cuisine. I always think of east meets west as best describing my wife (Chinese Malaysian) and me (New Zealander) jostling for culinary superiority and elbow room in the kitchen.

And if there is east meets east then should all of Singapore’s cuisine be labelled fusion? In a place like Singapore, at the crossroads of civilizations and cultures, there is an inherited understanding that cross-culture cuisines such as Nonya or Peranakan that combine Chinese, Malay and Indonesian flavors in the wok are a product of evolution, not fusion, and have an accepted authenticity.

And this is the essence and very soul of Iggy’s - authenticity. You can be assured that every dish is authentically and uniquely Iggy, created by Iggy and developed with his kitchen team, the menu driven by constant research and foraging for the very best local and imported ingredients, intrepid world culinary travel, inspirational experiences and painstaking attention to detail and execution from kitchen to table with the most professional and articulate service team in Asia.

Giving you a dish by dish account or attempting to deconstruct a menu at Iggy’s is a futile exercise, unless you think a 10,000 word thesis is useful. There are so many things going on in each dish; visually, technically, flavor spectrums, taste sensations, texture sensations, amalgamations of visual splendour, tastes and textures that have the olfactory senses and pleasure receptors computing at the maximum expanding your culinary intelligence with each mouthful and expanding and changing with each sip of wine.

Every dish is an original, even the simplest of classically inspired dishes has Iggy’s unique fingerprint on it whether it is technique, a sauce, infusion, garnish or presentation, and you can be assured there is no replication or dishes that are served in other restaurant.

Even if there has been inspiration from what Iggy has encountered in his travels and interaction with chefs and restaurateurs all around the world, there will be unique individuality to Iggy’s creation.

Take for example, ‘fresh oysters set in a sake aspic with flecks flowers’ presented in blue translucent glass plate, looking like a piece of modern art, served with a glass of sparkling sake, all enlivening the visual senses on opening up the palate.

This concept of spectacle is intrinsic to every plate and the total experience, the nucleus to Iggy’s culinary creations is visual excitement and he demands that every dish that appears before you has to stimulate all the senses before you even eat it, to get your olfactory senses stimulated in anticipation of what your palate is about to experience.

For example, ‘a salad of 34 different leaves and petals’, a kaleidoscope of color against a shiny black porcelain bowl with such an amazing melange of eye-catching color that you feel somewhat apprehensive in destroying this piece of culinary art. Nothwithstanding the mindboggling notion there’s that many different salad leaves and edible flower petals, the waiter has a mischievous look in his eye and prepared to rattle off all 34 of them.

The intellect and intense thought process that goes into some dishes is sheer genius, if not approached as a scientific expedition of marine biology and botany. For example ‘Chlorophyll – sea and soil’, a salad of leaves and plants from both the sea and land that would have any vegetarian in total awe of such innovative taste and texture discoveries. Indeed, Iggy’s is one of the few restaurants that cater so well to vegetarians with a dedicated menu always on offer.

Equally, a great deal of thought goes into the balance of the meal and with the menu set (there is no a la carte menu at Iggy’s) they do have certain control over this, Iggy preaching you should not feel overly full from the dining experience but comfortably replete. However the underpinning logic to their set menu is offering the very best seasonal ingredients and managing this with precision flow and balance of textures and flavors.

Enough said on the food, I’m sure you get the picture, but what needs to be said, audibly, is Iggy’s is actually good value with their Gastronomic Menu S$250 per person, plus GST (7 percent) and service (10 percent), Tasting Menu S$195++, Vegetarian Menu S$195++ and lunch, like many of the top restaurants in the world, a bargain, at only S$85 per person.

Yes, I know some will find these prices hard to swallow but it is all relative. We were in Paris recently and our L'addition at a two star Michelin restaurant was four times more expensive than our meal at Iggy’s, and nowhere near the equivalent experience. In fact the main course prices (euros) in many of the Michelin garlanded restaurants are the same as Iggy’s entire gastronomic menu.

Then there is the wine list or wine cellar I should say, which is unequalled in Singapore and a labor of love as you would expect of veteran sommelier. Iggy imports most of his own wine direct, but this is not an armchair selection purchased through a negociant (as others do here); it is personally nurtured selection of artisan Burgundy growers with direct relationships that Iggy has built up over years of visiting the Domaines annually to discuss the vintage and maintain intimate relationships, and more strategically allocations of the most sort after wines in the world.

This treasure trove of burgundies that have been aged and cellared perfectly means diners can choose wine with confidence that the provenance is excellent, but also drink mature wines at very reasonable prices.

Indeed on our last visit we liberated a Michel Lafarge Clos du Chateau des Ducs Volnay Premier Cru 1996 that has travelled from the Domaine to Iggy's cellar and not moved since. With his intimate knowledge of the cellar and how the wines are drinking, Iggy told us the "96s have been terribly stubborn, actually not giving at all with high acids and fruit locked away. But just recently I tried these wines, and they were amazing and showing wonderful complexity".

We paid S$345 for this bottle, which in a restaurant of this calibre and a Premier Cru Burgundy that had been cellared for 14 years, and drinking beautifully, is to my mind, excellent value.

Iggy’s passion for Burgundy and pinot noir is palpable, explaining he believes pinot noir works well with his food, particularly in the sense that as it breaths out the fruit becomes sweeter and tannins melt making for a harmonious food wine and always intriguing to experience the wine evolving in the glass.

That is not to say he does not enjoy Bordeaux and has an impressive collection. He says, “I like the upfront fruit and power of Bordeaux, but you have to understand that as it breaths out it becomes more savory and the tannins firm. You need to consider this when pairing to dishes".

He also enjoys discovering and serving new world wines and up and coming regions using his degustation menu paired with wines by the glass as an experimental playground. Equally, providing broad selection of wines by the glass gives plenty of options either side of a good bottle from the cellar.

On our visit we enjoyed a glass of Jurtschitsch Gruner Veltliner from, Kamptal, Austria, a wine that I like immensely and have written one, read more... http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/must-have-wines/jurtschitsch-gv-veltliner-kaferberg-2007-kamptal-austria/

Also, Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2008 from New Zealand was also among the offerings by the glass, which bought back memories of the most amazing evening of wine, food and fun when Sam Neill last visited Singapore. The Wandering Palate organized a dinner at Iggy’s with Phil Jones, Bass Phillip and Sam, to which there is an excellent account from Sam on his blog, indeed a really good read, visit http://www.twopaddocks.com/news-2011.shtml and you will need to scroll down to 9 July 2011, “Back To Singapore Back to the Future”

Iggy's is a good friend of Phil Jones and has been collecting vintages of Bass Phillip since his days at Les Amis, so there is a string of vintages and cuvees in the cellar, indeed a veritable museum cellar of Australia’s best pinot noir producer.

If you have read this far, then you won’t mind if I indulge myself on matters of some inane criticism I have gleamed from public reviews on restaurant review sites, dealing firstly with decor.

Critique of restaurant decor is arguably the most controversial and subjective polemic you can enter into, and I don't want to labor too much on the subject. However, I do feel some diners can get this out of context and one needs to decide what you want out of the dining experience, or the occasion, and ensure you chose the right restaurant accordingly.

Foodies generally stick to the adage ‘You can’t eat the decor’ and what's on the plate is more important to them than ambience or designer fit outs. That is not to say ambience and theatre is not strategic, particularly if it’s an important occasion.

I'm big on atmosphere and theatre myself but I make sure I choose the restaurant for the right mood and food that is required. If you were to ask me what is the best restaurant in Asia for a perfect balance between ambience and great food, my unequivocal reply would be Mosaic restaurant, up in the hills of Ubud, Bali. Lighting and tropical alfresco ambience sets the diner mood here combined with super-friendly Bali service and brilliant modern French, Balinese influenced cuisine.

I personally can't fault Iggy's new location in the Hilton on Orchard Road, with its modern, minimalist lines and intimate seating, the dining room seating only 28 people and private room for 10. Actually, I like sitting at their bar when there are only two of us dining; it’s more part of the reception adds an element of casualness that I like. You can also drop in for nibbles or dessert and a glass of wine at the bar, with an amazing bar snack menu, as you would expect.

They also like to move guests to the bar for dessert and arrange a totally seducing display of patisserie, chocolates, desserts and petits fours that arguably defines the menu at Iggy’s and the incredible amount of expertise and dedication to culinary art that goes in to a complete meal.

Service at Iggy’s is unparalleled in restaurants in Asia and if I hear anything to the contrary, I always put it down to misdemeanours that over demanding diners like to embellish and dwell on.

There is an impeccable standard here that never deviates from and a genuinely friendly, highly-skilled, highly-professional yet warmly personal approach, Iggy the intense and mildly eccentric conductor of this culinary symphony orchestra, the consummate host.

Sure the ambience is hushed and there’s a sense of formality and the theatre is more Shakespearean and cerebral. At the same time, it’s a very calm and assuring environment with an air of adroitness and competence that you experience in the best 3 Star Michelin restaurants in France.

And on that note, if I had any say in it, I would unquestionably award Iggy’s 3 Michelin stars. Iggy’s deserves its high status, yet perhaps is also underappreciated. This not a local issue, that is there are no qualms among the local diners and they are suitably proud of Iggy’s.

It’s more an issue of spreading this recognition globally and in true altruistic Iggy form; he is dedicated to making people more aware of Singapore as a unique dining destination.

So, to all those food lovers and gourmands, wherever you are and on a gastronomic pilgrimage, Heston Blumenthal may well be the undisputed Willy Wonka of gastronomy, but there is only one Iggy and the innovative vanguard in this part of the world.


(Curtis Marsh – The Wandering Palate, our veteran sommelier and independent wine and food writer, has more than 30 years experience in hospitality, wine and media.)