Singapore - A Lunch at Le Saint Julien
For some reason or other, I'd managed to not go to Le Saint Julien since moving to Singapore five years ago. I was not trying to avoid it; I had no reason to. I had not read any bad reviews and I certainly don’t believe what I read on Singapore food blogs. But when I read that it would close its doors in January 2013 after a decade serving Singapore’s burgeoning gourmet class, I jumped to make a booking. There is no better way to force a man’s hand than to make him realise that he must act quickly or forever hold his peace.
When we open the door at the Fullerton Boathouse, we find ourselves in a kind of “purgatory”, a grey area between the concrete jungle and the dining room. Silence. There is no one there to greet us. There is an untended podium and reservations computer, and a private room to one side which, with its door wide open and guests visible, is anything but private. I virtually walk into the dining room before a waiter sees us and checks the roster for our reservation.
We are seated in a nice, quiet table in the corner of the restaurant. The view is great, of the Esplanade and the junction between the Singapore and Kallang Rivers. Below, hordes of tourists snap away at the various adjacent landmarks, but we are shut off from the hubbub in our comfortable dining room.
Bread is soon brought to the table, a choice between cranberry and whole wheat arranged in three rows in the basket. Morsels of cranberry stick out of the rightmost row, so I ask the waiter (I later learn that he is a “manager”) whether the two rows on the left of the basket are the same, because one is significantly lighter in colour. He says “No”. I then ask him what the third row is. “Like I said, whole wheat”. So they are the same, then? And he finally says yes. The cranberry bread is decent, served with Échiré butter.
As this is my maiden visit, I decide to order a la carte. I tell the waitress I will have the signature lobster bisque and ask what she would recommend for a main course. She says the lobster is good (S$78++, around US$75). I’m already having the bisque for my entrée, so I ask for a meat option. She immediately points to the wagyu striploin (S$120++, around US$115). Now maybe these were the best options and if I had chosen them, this post would read rather differently. But when waitstaff immediately point me to the two most expensive items on the menu, alarm bells start going off in my head.
Entrée: Signature Lobster Bisque with Garlic Aïoli, Gruyère and Croutons (S$32++)
Not bad. The gruyere’s nutty sweetness balances out the savoury stock, while the prominent aroma of flambéed cognac adds complexity. But it’s not the most lobster-tasting of bisques I’ve had, and it’s hardly worthy of all the fuss.
Main Course (Take 1): Roast Cod Fish with Sea Urchin Crust and Yellow Wine Sauce with Avruga Caviar (S$60++)
Sloppy. My first bite of the fish has a rather odd texture. I try cutting it down the middle and it won’t budge. It strikes me that the fish was probably poorly defrosted, so I ask out waitress if the fish was frozen. “No, sir”, she insists, “it is fresh”. I beg to disagree, so she escalates the matter up to the “manager”. I explain to him that the fish has a very odd texture. He takes one look at my fish and says “Oh, you are cutting it from the wrong angle”. I glare at him. “Please don’t patronise me. Can’t you see that I have already tried cutting it from the other side?” He takes it away. In a very computer game-like progression of increasingly tough “level bosses”, Lai-Bompard is up next, explaining in a rather sour tone that the fish was blast-frozen, as is all of their seafood, and that “we don’t have an aquarium”.
Ouch. Alright then, I ask her whether she would care to recommend another main course for me. “I don’t really want to recommend a main course to you because it may not suit your palate”. I can hardly believe what I am hearing, but to move the conversation forward, I ask about the venison, it being game season and all. “Oh, it’s frozen, from New Zealand, we don’t have any live venison running around”. Three innocent questions, three rude and defensive responses. At this stage, I should have left the restaurant, but still wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt, I stupidly order the frozen venison from New Zealand.
Intermezzo: An Apology
Lai-Bompard comes back to the table and says “We did an autopsy of the fish and we found that it was undercooked. Please accept my apology”. I wonder if anyone saw the absurdity of giving me all that attitude before even checking the fish?
Side Dish: Signature Mashed Potatoes with Échiré Butter (S$12++)
This is excellent, smooth, creamy and with the lightly sour note from the cultured butter. The colour is a beautiful gold also.
Main Course (Take 2): Roasted Venison Loin with Winter Spiced Jus and Red Wine-Poached “Wine” (sic) (S$56++)
The medium-rare venison looks rather anaemic, but I try it anyway. It’s cold. I touch it on its seared surface. I don’t feel any warmth from it, so it’s clearly sub-temperature. I call the “manager” over and tell him I think it’s too cold. I’ve allowed this farce to go on for one more act that I should have, so I ask him to please just bring the bill for my soup and my guest’s lunch set menu. But the upselling continues. “But can I interest you in dessert?” No, thanks. “A coffee?” No, thanks. He whisks the dish away and it is only a matter of time before Lai-Bompard is once again upon us. “I am sorry we could not please you today, so the meal is on the house”, she says with a tone that suggests that we are no longer welcome in the restaurant. I try to calm her down and ask her if the kitchen tested the venison. She simply replies “It wasn’t hot, it was warm. But if you think that is cold, I have nothing further to say to you”. Wow. I do a fine line in semantics in my professional career, but I clearly don’t have anything on Lai-Bompard.
I walk out, more in sorrow than in anger. As we re-enter purgatory and head back into the light, I see Bompard at the reception, his back turned to us. I am reminded that when I was working in restaurants, I was continuously admonished that when a staff member, be you chef, waiter or otherwise, crosses paths with a guest leaving the restaurant, you should always farewell them properly and/or thank them for their custom.
I think back to what just transpired. What did I do wrong that merited me being cast out of the church like some leprous infidel? Then it dawned on me: I made the fatal mistake of calling them out for serving me uncooked fish, unaware that their everyday guests probably just lap it up like manna from the gastronomic divinity that I mistakenly believed Bompard to be.
Regardless, I wish the Bompards all the best in their future ventures. I understand that through their work over the past decade, they have brought French cuisine in Singapore to a higher level. I only wish I was able to taste it for myself today.
LE SAINT JULIEN RESTAURANT
3 Fullerton Road
Ground Floor, the Fullerton Boat House
Tel: +65 6534 5947
Akated, you have me intrigued. I must admit I've never heard anything negative about Ms Lai. To the contrary, I heard only positive things, and that was partly the reason I was so disappointed.
I HAVE heard a few choice words about Edina, Emmanuel Stroobant's wife who used to work the floor at Saint Pierre, but I can't corroborate them because she has always treated me decently.
re: Julian Teoh
I think we can agree what happened above goes far beyond being a very strong woman, fiercely protective or even rubbing people the wrong way. Like I said, I don't know what happened but things have quite clearly taken a turn for the worse.
Edina has always been a prominent yet wonderful presence on my visits to Saint Pierre and I cannot say any more based on my personal experiences.
What an unpleasant lunch that must have been for you. I'd been to Saint Julien a few times - the last time, I called ahead and asked for a nice, quiet window table. What happened on that day was a comedy ... of sorts.
I turned up early, as I was meeting an important business acquaintance - the waiter, upon checking my booking, was about to bring me to one of the window tables when he was stopped mid-way (with me right behind him) by the restaurant manager. There was a bit of quiet discussion between the 2 of them before the waiter turned to me and said, "I'm sorry, sir, there's been a mix-up, the table was double-booked", and he proceeded to show me to one of the tables situated near the entrance of the restaurant. I noticed later that the "my" window table was given to 4 guys in suits who came in later. It was very obvious that the restaurant manager randomly chose to give *them* the table over me, since there was only to be two of us. I had called to book 4-5 days in advance. If it had not been a business lunch, I would have left the restaurant.
Needless to say, that was indeed the last time I went there.
It's odd, isn't it? I would have thought that if you are closing after 10 years, you'd want to go out with a bang and thank your regulars for their support. Granted I'm not one, but if your heart isn't even in it any more and you see it fit to borderline abuse your customers, why not just close immediately instead of tarnishing your legacy?
It's clear to me that whatever Saint Julien once was, it no longer is. I am tempted to say that maybe I caught them on a bad day, but one look at how the sea urchin crust was applied on the fish and you get the feeling that they are merely going through the motions.
That said, I think I'm now ready to tackle Danny at Sin Huat. Surely he can't treat me any worse than what I just went through?