Singapore - Garibaldi, Classic Modern Italian
I first met Roberto Galetti, Garibaldi's owner and executive chef, at a World's 50 Best Restaurants dinner in late 2011. Despite having lived in Singapore since 2007 and written about its restaurants for an even longer period, I was embarrassed to admit to him that while I had visited his KL satellite (also named Garibaldi), I had never visited his cherished first-born, arguably Singapore's best and most famous Italian restaurant. Rated Asia's 7th best restaurant in the 2008 Miele Guide, winner of a swag of World Gourmet Summit best chef / restaurant / winelist awards since its opening in 2003, it has been coasting under the radar of late. A decade is a long time in the life of a Singaporean restaurant, and I was keen to see how it had survived the test of time and a notoriously fickle and trend-driven market.
Garibaldi is an oddly-shaped restaurant. Think of a capital "M" resting on Purvis Street. The rightmost "prong" is a very sophisticated bar and wine cellar (its Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning list features an exhaustive vertical of Sassicaia and over fifteen wines under $100 per bottle), with the other two prongs forming two separate dining rooms. Three private rooms sit in the furthest corners away from the streetside. Tonight, the restaurant is packed with over 100 covers, and Roberto tells me he has only five cooks in the kitchen (including himself). If he was trying to manage my expectations, it didn't give me any particular comfort.
All tables are given a complimentary welcome drink of fresh watermelon juice, watermelon liqueur and a shot of vodka. Upon realising my wife was pregnant, the staff happily replaced it with a little glass of orange juice, crushed ice and grenadine, rather Singapore Sling-like but far better than the original. Toasted sundried tomato focaccia and a lovely herbaceous extra virgin olive oil is served and constantly replaced throughout the meal.
First Amuse Bouche: Spinach and Ricotta
Subtle, and the bitterness of the spinach cleanses the palate for the meal to come. It is not the perky, often acidic and tastebud-jolting welcome that you often get, but I appreciate the nobler intention behind it.
Second Amuse Bouche: Tomato and Bay Leaf with Olive Oil
For my wife, they brought this beautiful little tomato half, with another splash of that lovely olive oil.
First Entree: Pio Tosini Prosciutto and Black Fig (daily special, $32++)
A quick glance through the seasonal specials showed a couple of dishes featuring black fig, so it didn't take a genius to conclude that black figs were in season and the restaurant was quite keen to show them off (the normal a la carte features Pio Tosini prosciutto with "traditional Romagna fried dough"). I'll confess I didn't think the world of the prosciutto; eaten on its own, it was fine, but the flavours jangled in combination with the figs. The figs on the other hand, were jammy, honey-like bombs of sheer deliciousness, a great showcase of a seasonal product.
Second Entree: Steamed Octopus with Chick Pea Puree and Spinach (daily special; $32++)
The wife liked this a lot. From the little she would spare me, the octopus was sweet and tender, and the spinach was a gorgeous hue of lively green. The portions here are very generous, in true Italian tradition.
Intermediate Course: Housemade Pappardelle with Wild Boar and Porcini Mushroom Sauce ($26++ for a small portion; $36++ for a full portion)
You don't get pasta of this quality very often, and it's textures and flavours like these that justify any carb guilt. Cooked beautifully, with a good chew to the bite. The sauce is fresh enough to liven up the wild boar; the porcini are elusive but chockful of that distinctive minerally earthiness.
First Main Course: Signature Osso Buco Veal Cheek with Bone Marrow and Saffron Risotto ($58++)
I look at the staff quizzically - osso buco "cheek?" Oh yes, they reply, we do it with veal cheek, but we give marrow also. Right...well, again the technique and cooking is spot-on. The cheeks fall apart at the suggestion of a knife and the rice grains are distinct, al dente and creamy. A wobbly, oily tower of gelatinous wonder, the marrow comes in a clean length of shank, which makes me wonder where the meat has all gone (staff meal, a ravioli somewhere, perhaps?). The dish is generally underseasoned, but it's nothing a little salt can't fix.
Second Main Course: Classic Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms (S34++)
You are probably getting the idea that Galetti excels at classic preparations, and you would be right. This is another excellent risotto, and the proliferation of porcini keeps every mouthful interesting both taste- and texture-wise.
Dessert: Molten Lava Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut Gelato & Raspberry Coulis ($18++)
When I seek guidance on the eternal question of tiramisu or chocolate cake, the manageress is straight to the point. "Chocolate cake", she says without hesitation. "My favourite dessert on the entire menu". And it is excellent, with a genuine lava-like centre. I have a bad habit of sprinkling sea salt on chocolate puddings (if you haven't tried it, please do so and let me know what you think), but this tortino demands my utmost attention and respect. Sizable chunks of hazelnut are interspersed throughout the accompanying scoop of gelato. A superb version of a tired and far-too-often-repeated dish.
As I leave, Galettti gives me an express tour of the restaurant, showing me some of the wines that he imports specially from Italy a few times a year, including rare large formats of various Gaja vintages. "I want to provide something different for my customers", he says, lamenting the ubiquity of the large industrial brands that dominate the mainstream wine market. I see a 2006 Lamaione from Frescobaldi, a gorilla of a Super-Tuscan (100% merlot) that I vividly remember from a Frescobaldi wine dinner a few years back. The cellar is also home to various private collections which the restaurant stores for its regulars; the owners' names are embossed on brass plates nailed onto the wine shelf. Garibaldi is the kind of restaurant that inspires such fierce loyalty; sure the food is very good, but Galetti's very warm and personal approach to hospitality is undoubtedly one of the prime reasons for this. A few times throughout the night, he leaves the kitchen to serve his regulars, taking a few moments to entertain their children so they don't get bored with the whole humdrum fine-dining thing.
My one letdown was the fact that they could not provide gluten-free bread for my wife, even though they had over a week's notice of her allergy. Restaurants in Singapore are becoming more alive to such issues, Les Amis and db Bistro being two prominent places where alternatives such as buckwheat or potato bread are provided. But I cannot accuse Garibaldi of being blind to the issue; after all, Galetti came out to guide the missus through the menu and alert her to possible allergens in the dishes, a very nice touch.
Food of this quality cannot and doesn't come cheap; a three-course meal for two will cost upwards of $210 nett plus drinks (three-course business set lunches go for a friendlier $39++). Nine bucks for my (admittedly good) caffe latte stretches the bounds of reasonableness, although it does come with two dried fruit and almond cookies to cushion the blow.
Garibaldi does not seek to reinvent the wheel; its ambition is to serve good modern Italian food at a reasonable price, with what must be Singapore's (and perhaps Southeast Asia's?) most comprehensive Italian wine offering. In this, it succeeds admirably.
GARIBALDI ITALIAN RESTAURANT AND BAR
36 Purvis Street, #01-02
Tel: +65 6837 1468