The Exchange, Shenton, Asia Square

Bankers and executives are the thirstiest people in the world. So many pubs and bars in the CBD area – what are The Exchange’s selling points? Let me count the ways.

The Exchange is a high-end casual dining gastrobar, suitable for afterwork chill-out or business meetings. The decor reflects this high-end casualness with an easy mix of old meets new. The old skool marble-top tables, Chesterfield benches, 1950s tulip chairs, mosaic floor, a whitewashed brick wall of black-and-white photos of a bygone era VS the new communal table, bar stools, and inverted lily pad lamps. The ambience: no elevator music, no jazz. A DJ plays at a corner, selecting a myriad of club hits from Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” almost like a club but with a much softer volume–so you can talk easily to each other–and a slightly slower beat. You’d think the dush dush dush dush club music would ruin such a gorgeous decor but strangely, the music and decor went well together, giving the restaurant a more boisterous, laid-back and convivial atmosphere.

A private room is available for 8 to 12 people with a minimum spending of $750 for lunch and $1250 for dinner, easily achievable if you order a bottle of chateau cheval blanc ($2288). Ouch. How big is the bottle? People have also booked this private room for their business meetings as there is equipment for you to plug in your laptop and screen your powerpoint.

The wine menu is re-vamped, different from other restaurants. Instead of grouping the wines according to countries, The Exchange groups them into the types of wine: Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, etc. Within each category, the wines are ranked according to their countries in alphabetic order: Australian wines come first (ranked according to price), then French, then Italian… So much easier to read a wine menu.

There are also 6 draught beers, a whole list of whiskeys, and classic cocktails. I had Sex on the Beach (not on the menu) because I wanted something sweet and the bartender decided for me. It was good, not mindblowing good but not disgraceful either. What I really want is a Cock Sucking Cowboy ($12, bailey’s and butterscotch, is it legal in Singapore to name a drink like that??) but then again who doesn’t want a cock sucking cowboy? I wish I knew how to quit you, Ennis Del Mar. Such a good movie.

Instead of ordering from the starters, it is recommend to order from the Nibbles menu, meant to go with alcohol. Smoked salmon mousse cornets ($15) with sour cream and lemon tasted overly salty on first bite and the wafer wasn’t crisp enough. But always to take a second bite. The cornet was cracking like a fault line lightning-ing across a precipice and the hero/villain of the movie falls into the abyss. Ok, not the most elegant metaphor in the world. So I stuffed the entire cornet in my mouth. This is the correct way of eating. No dainty bites, just dump into the mouth like a cock sucking cowboy. (nailed it! the metaphor, I mean.)

The favors transformed and improved drastically like the before-and-after makeup of certain girls. Eaten as a whole, the saltiness of the smoked salmon was cushioned by the wafer; the wafer in such a big bite became more crispy. The silky texture of the mousse contrasted the crunch of the wafer; a little salty, a little salmony, a little sourish, a little lemony, and a little hint of rosemary. A whole lot of appetizing and would go very well with beer.

When the 6 sticks of Chicken and Rosemary Skewers ($12) were served, I thought, “Wah piangz, so colorless, konfirm no taste one. Somemore I love the heavy flavors of yakitori, how can this compare worx?”

OMG. It was soooo good, so tender. Grilled so excellently. Can you tell from the photo? Taken off the grill 30 seconds earlier, the chicken would be too raw; taken 30s later, the skin would be too tough. The timing for the grill was perfect. It was moist and the fragrance of the rosemary was very…er.. fragrant, permeating through the meat. Then there was also a linger of lemon, giving it a zest.

I asked the chef later when he came out, “How do you manage to embed the rosemary just under the surface of the chicken?”

He replied, “Nothing, just herb, white wine, marinate and leave it overnight.” Such a simple yet stunning dish.

Not many Singaporeans order the 150 days grass-fed 220g Hanger Steak ($40). I usually take tenderloin, sirloin or flank because they are the least fat, most tender and most expensive although they may not be the most flavorful (flank is flavorful). The chef explained that the hanger steak is the part of the cow between the diaphragm and the loin that hangs from the body, like saggy boobs.

This was another OMG moment. It was amazing! It tasted almost like a subtle char-siew taste. The “marinate” was glazed and absorbed onto the cooked part of the steak while the raw part retained its original beefy taste so when you chew both parts in your mouth, the two tastes interacted with each other.

The steak was good enough on its own but you’ve a choice of one of the three sauces: (1) spiced butter, (2) bearnaise (pronounce “bee-ARGH-niece”) or (3) black pepper sauce. But since this was a food tasting, I was lucky enough to try all three. I don’t have a favorite because they are all my favorites. (1) The spiced butter (unsalted butter with bits of herbs) brought out the richness of the steak.

(2) Bearnaise was intense, man! I had it at a fine-dining restaurant before–is it Les Amis?–I didn’t expect to find it here. It tasted like hollandaise sauce (my favorite sauce) with vinegar (my favorite too!). I asked the chef what ingredients went into the bearnaise and he replied, “Vinegar, egg yolk, clarified butter and noisette (brown butter), and tarragon reduction.” Reduction is when you cook beef and you leave it to settle (you have to leave steak to cool so the favors can sit in), and the juice flows out. The flavorful juice is called reduction, which is used to make sauces. So when I didn’t know what bearnaise sauce was, I actually guessed it correctly, many ingredients of the hollandaise sauce are used in bearnaise. My tongue is a rockstar, kam xia. The bearnaise made the steak sooo addictive.

(3) However, my tongue let me down for the third sauce. I usually hate black pepper sauce but this one tasted like curry with black pepper. So I asked the chef, “This is curry right? You just added black pepper to it.” He said, no. This is more appropriately named “sauce mignonette,” and he used “the heart of pepper” to make this. The heart of pepper is curry?? Mcdonald’s, take note please, if you run out of curry sauce for nuggets for the third time, you know how to make curry. Don’t turn the dearth of curry sauce into a national crisis – again.

The steak also came with french beans and mashed potato or fries. The french beans are stir-fried with a spicy spice, onion and salt, tasting almost like a less spicy version of Chinese stir-fried belachan french beans. The portion for the mashed potato was gigantic, like two bars of butter. The taste was unique; you won’t find it anywhere else. It was much saltier than normal mashed potato but the salt brought out the sweetness in the potato, making the mashed potato very creamy, almost cheese-like. This has to be one of my top 3 mashed potato in Singapore.

At this point of the meal, I was introduced to sous Chef Kenneth Tan. (There is no executive chef here but there are two sous chefs.) He has worked at Saint Pierre, Picotin and Les Amis. This meeting was very interesting because it was a meeting of two bengs: me, gay beng VS he, angkong (inked) beng. And we hit it off immediately. He is so knowledgable and so passionate about food that I was inspired by him. We talked about the steaks we had eaten. He taught me so many things. If I ever strike lottery and open a fine-dining restaurant, I will poach him.

I asked him, “How do you marinate the beef? It’s so tasty!”

He replied, “Just butter, salt and pepper.”

“Don’t bluff!! How can it be??”

“It’s just proportions. You must strike a balance between them.”

He asked me if there was anything negative I wanted to say about the meal so far. So I thought for a while and since I die die must say something negative, I said, “I don’t know whether I like the striated texture of the steak. Is the texture the reason the steak is rather chewy? It could be more tender.”

He replied, “Actually, I can make the steak tender by roasting it slowly. But you know the customers here, they want it quickly, quickly so I have to cook faster.”

“You mean what? You cook the meat from scratch? I thought chefs will usually cook a bit and leave it aside. And when a customer orders, the chef will resume cooking. That’s why restaurants can churn out dishes so quickly.”

He said he emphasized on freshness and quality and he cooks only when he receives orders.

As parting words, I told him, “Usually when I go to fine-dining, out of 3 courses, there is always a bad course. Let’s hope I can have three amazing courses here.” I jinxed myself. Me and my big mouth.

If this were not a food tasting and I were to receive this warm chocolate and cherry cake ($12) with vanilla ice cream at other restaurants, I’d send it back to the kitchen. The ice cream, made in-house, had that shards-of-ice texture and tasted too sweet, too milky, too little vanilla. The cake was also overly sweet despite being made of 64% cocoa. Sat in the oven for too long, the exterior became crust-like, hard to dig in, almost biscuit-like quality, and the chocolate didn’t flow out. The cherries were overpowered by the chocolate.

I asked Steve the Manager to taste it, and he agreed and he invited the other sous chef, Chef Hairani, out. At the first look, Chef Hairani already knew it was overcooked. The warm chocolate cake is their best seller and mine turned out to be an anomaly because, Chef Hairani explained it, he was in reservist and the kitchen ordered the wrong brand of macerated cherries. And different ingredients interact differently and require different baking time. Fair enough.

Service: It is difficult to gauge the service at food tasting but I have to say this is the best service recovery in Singapore so far. Steve and I had a misunderstanding and he invited me down for a food tasting. I said no several times because it is inconvenient for me to travel down and because I was apprehensive it might turn out to be another food imbroglio. I don’t want to be infamous this way. But Steve was resolute so I agreed. We had an amicable chat and cleared up our misunderstanding. When I eat, I usually reserve judgment of the food until the second bite. It is the second bite that shows whether the amazingness of the food continues or, if it is bad, whether the food grows on you. I should apply this theory to life: reserve judgement until I truly experience the restaurant. So I’d like to apologize to Steve for causing any undue distress and unpleasantness. In the wise words of our dear ex-deputy Prime Minister Mr Wong Kan Seng, “It was an honest mistake… Let’s move on.”

This service recovery isn’t because I write about food. Steve has also invited patrons who dislike the restaurant back to the restaurant and experience it again.

Other information: Their opening hours are as long as lawyers in CBD area. They serve breakfast at 8am. There is a set lunch menu that changes with the seasonal ingredients and is very popular with the lunch crowd. 3 courses, $35++. If you want only 2 courses, you can pick any two from the starter, main and dessert, for $30++.

The restaurant also employs a barista just to make exquisite coffee. It is said that the restaurant asked the coffee supplier where to find a good barista and the supplier recommends this barista who is the one curating the coffee beans for the supplier. True story.

I almost, almost wanted to proclaim that this is my best eating experience in 2012. To answer the question of The Exchange’s selling points: Great unpretentious place, relaxing after a hard day’s work, wonderful food, a concept well-thought out and best of all, they accept feedback and improve for the better. A superior gastrobar with high standards.

For directions to Asia Square, see the end of the entry on Extra Virgin Pizza.

The Exchange
Asia Square Tower One
8 Marina View
Singapore 018960
T: 6636 1201

M-T: 8am-1am
W-F: 8am-3am
S: 12pm-3am
Closed on Sundays

Rating: 3.891/5 stars

PS: RERG thanks Steve and The Exchange for hosting the food tasting.

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