Tucked away in heritage alley Jiak Chuan Road in Singapore, only a stone’s throw away from other great venues such as The Guild and Cure, the two story shop house is the perfect setting for modern Spanish tapas restaurant Esquina, helmed by Chef Carlos Montobbio. The main feature of the ground floor is a ten-seater counter top from where to view the hot and thrilling kitchen action. Upstairs it’s a more traditional affair with simple, unassuming decor and table settings, made vibrant by the lively chatters of groups of diners.
Call me a monster but personally I never really understood the Spanish tapas concept of ordering small portions of food to share among many people. Doesn’t it always feel like there’s the one miserable piece of croqueta left on the plate and nobody at the table dares to eat it, ending up in everyone counting how many pieces of food they’ve had and deliberating who should get it? So cringe! I was therefore relieved to opt for Esquina’s 12 course tasting menu (S$ 118++ and an additional S$10 for the cheese course) so I could sample a large part of the menu and not stress over odd-numbered pieces of food with my dining companion.
The trio of appetizers sets expectations for the meal pretty high. The Tarskaya Oyster is one of the best dressed oysters I’ve had; the jalapeno ponzu and pickled ginger flowers pack a punch without being overpowering, while the salmon roe enhances the oyster’s briny flavor. In the à la carte menu these babies go for S$8++ a piece.
We’re told that the Smoked Atlantic Mackerel, served on a delicate corn tuile, has to be consumed in three bites. While tasty, trying to get the tiny pipings of romanesco and eggplant sauce, a caper and a piece of mackerel all in one bite while worrying about breaking the supporting vessel is quite an uneasy experience.
The Mini Spanish Breakfast is a total pleaser. The eggshell is packed with creamy scrambled egg, dense potato foam, mushroom sauce and savory chorizo bits. Dig in and dig deep for three spoonfuls of umami, comforting bliss.
Two dishes really stood out among the main courses: the Baked Sweet Potato and the Pork Jowl.
The former is an absolutely decadent vegetarian dish. A smoked quail egg balances on top of a sweet potato cylinder, all drenched in a dense overflow of the most delicious aji amarillo spicy sauce. The mini-tower is topped off with textures of crunchy quinoa.
The Pork Jowl is the show-stopper, redefining the meaning of “melt-in-your-mouth”. After biting through the flawlessly caramelized exterior, the pork melts away on the palate in a luxurious, rich mouth-feel. The generous chipotle mayo sauce adds to the dish’s richness with a welcome kick of spiciness and umami. The fatty taste of pork and mayo is cleansed off by alternating each piece of meat to a small bite of tangy pickled pear.
The variety of delicious sauces used by Chef Carlos is really what makes most dishes come together. This is especially true for the otherwise forgettable Grilled Sucrine Lettuce. Thanks to the creamy herb yogurt sauce this vegetarian dish makes for a delectable introductory main course.
The same is also true for the Octopus. The impeccably cooked and charred tentacle piece is accompanied by superb grilled corn and chimichurri sauces that manage to highlight the tender meat with just the right balance of sweet and salty seasoning. The colorful and simple presentation is beautiful too.
The last few savory dishes slightly lower the otherwise impeccable quality of the meal.
The Patagonian Toothfish is a miss. The various components of the dish don’t really come together in flavor and texture. A tiny piece of jamon seems to have tragically fallen in between the fish and the bok choy while trying to escape from this unfortunate course.
The Braised Westholme Wagyu Beef tastes nice, but it’s not a particularly inspired or relevant dish in my opinion. There’s nothing Spanish and original about this course, so it feels like it’s been been plugged into the menu to lift up the price tag.
The Tou dels Tillers cheese with glazed egg plant would make for a tasty snack starter dish for those who order à la carte, but at the end of a complex and momentous tasting menu it’s a bit of a let down in its basic preparation and presentation. I suggest not to add it to the menu as it’s an additional S$10.
After a bit of a set back, desserts finally come to lift up the spirits.
The Amalfi Lemon is a simple but perfectly executed dish with its light and refreshing concoction of all things tangy, enjoyed over the most airy and fluffy sponge cake.
Their signature dessert, the BBC, sounds weird on paper but makes total sense on the palate. Warm salted caramel is poured over the stout beer ice-cream, which is served together with different textures of banana – a banana whipped cream, banana bread and banana jellies. It’s a clean and balanced dessert that leaves me craving for a much bigger portion – from a dessert hater, this is a big compliment right there.
When I do end a restaurant meal with dessert, I’d usually pick something with chocolate, so I was pleased when we were presented with a quenelle of chocolate ganache over salted crostini bread as parting dish. Showcasing an interesting competition between savory, sweet and bitter flavors, the petit four confidently wraps up the tasting program on a high note.
As a small critique, while it was indeed a great way to sample much of the food offered on the regular menu, the tasting *experience* is quite underplayed – the selection of dishes is mostly a patchwork of items from the à la carte menu, no final prep (besides the pouring of caramel sauce on the BBC dessert) is made at the table. It doesn’t really feel like a unique food journey. Hence, unless you dine alone or in a couple, my suggestion is to go à la carte: you’ll still get to sample a variety of dishes and probably end up spending less.
In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed the straightforward Spanish ingredients and preparations, the balances of flavors, the use of sauces and textures in each dish, as well as the flawless pastry work. Esquina offers this hard-to-resist combination of tasty upscale bites and easy-going yet refined environment that gathers faithful crowds of regulars who fill up the restaurant on weekdays and weekends alike – and I’m now one of them!
Address: 16 Jiak Chuan Rd, Singapore 089267
Reservations here or call +65 6222 1616