As a lobby restaurant of Hotel Vagabond at the gentrified Jalan Besar area, 5th Quarter is decorated like a set from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge: red tables, gold trees, and chairs with elephant heads carved into handles. I hoped the food wasn’t as histrionic and empty as the movie.
The simple menu at 5th Quarter, only 12 items at $10 a plate, is dramatic because descriptions are sparse like “crab, buckwheat, and sea urchin (above).” You won’t know what to expect: will it sing? Or will it sink? When it arrived, we recognized it as a crab risotto. The first bite is ambrosial; the sea sweetness of the crab umami-bombs the mouth, like riot police launching tear gas into a small room. It’s party in the USA.
But when the energy subsides, the testa of buckwheat stubbornly refuses to disintegrate no matter the number of times I chew. It slips irritatingly between gaps of teeth like a fly buzzing around your head. And where is that sea urchin? Probably made into air, into foam. But my idiosyncrasy about sea urchin is that if the menu states it clearly, it should manifest in a solid form. Why do many restaurants of late violate my sensibility?
But I overlooked the flaws of the crab risotto because the delicate taste took me by surprise. It made me jubilant. And when I bit into the pork jowl (above), I was ready to proclaim 5th Quarter the restaurant of the year. It is the best thing I’ve put into my mouth this year. It looks like a solid hunk of meat but it evaporates into air upon contact with the mouth. It is handled in such a respectful way that it becomes a longing, a memory that you want to revisit.
And then the food went from amazing to very terrible very swiftly. Well, that escalated quickly. The wagyu beef (above) is so tough that my companion questioned if it is truly wagyu. (“It’s probably the cut. Restaurants wouldn’t lie about such things,” I said.) It is also superlatively, extremely, super salty. I scraped the salt off the top, and still it remained salty. And so is duck (below), salty as something-that-rhymes-with-duck; it tastes more like a very very salted smoked duck than a fresh one. I believe the restaurant is sponsored by a salt company; salt is free for them .
“Shall we order more? I’m still hungry but my apettite is ruined,” I asked my eating companion.
“Dude, cut your losses and run, man. Why do you want to throw money at them when we have had such bad food?”
What a pity. 5th Quarter could have been legendary. The extremely affordable price is a good introduction for those who want to try fine dining but fear it.
Banana, earl gray, and sesame
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I looked around and suddenly 5th Quarter turned tawdry when at first it gleamed sensuously like a campy musical. The burgundy velvet drapes, relict from early 20th-century stage, would collect and trap dust; the gold trees are tinsel and gilded; the red tables are cheaply laminated like McDonald’s. Food has an uncanny way of altering perspectives, and my perspective has changed with the courses we ate. All that is sacred becomes profane; all that is solid melts into air.
We spent $60 for two persons.
5th Quarter Singapore
39 Syed Alwi Road, Hotel Vagabond, Singapore 207630
T: +65 6291 1936
12pm-2.30pm, 6.30pm-10.30pm, closed Mon & PH
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.