What’s in a name?

To Shakespeare, a name means nothing. When he writes, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” he is saying that it’s the essence of the thing that counts.
American playwright Tony Kushner would disagree. “Names are important,” he writes in a dialogue in ‘Angels in America’, “Call an animal ‘Little Sheba’ and you can’t expect it to stick around.” The essence in Kushner’s view, is the direct result of a name.

Whitegrass, in its first glorious incarnation, was a symbol for the unexpected and exciting. Chef Sam Aisbett, who quickly led the restaurant to a place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list and earned a Michelin star along the way, created food that transcended its Modern Australian roots with a preternatural combination of flavours, textures, and techniques inspired from his travels across Asia. The result was a cuisine that was uniquely his own, and each bite was a discovery.

Head Chef Takuya Yamashita (Image credit: Whitegrass)

Chef Takuya Yamashita, the restaurant’s new head chef, follows a different path. His deep, spiritual respect for ingredients guides him into creating dishes instilled with maturity and sophistication that belie his 32 years. Nara-born and Paris-trained, his cuisine is the sort of French-Japanese fusion rarely seen in Singapore, which may be due in part to how delicate and even austere this type of food can be. Chef Yamashita’s is no different.

And, yet, the restaurant is still called Whitegrass.

So, what does this mean for its rebirth? Will it be the essence of Chef Yamashita’s “la cuisine naturelle” that counts in the end? Or, in calling this restaurant Whitegrass, can we even expect it to stick around?

The answer, for better or for worse, lies somewhere in between.

The (In)experience

The most noticeable physical difference of the new Whitegrass is that the main entrance is not where it used to be. This means you are less likely to photobomb wedding parties using the white arches and columns of Chijmes as the backdrop for their Instagram posts. But for those who frequented Whitegrass before, this means you are more likely to wonder where you are. Just keep walking west from where it once was, around the corner, and you can’t miss it.

The interiors (Image credit: Whitegrass)

A welcome new addition is a lounge area at the front, awash in appealing shades of dark green, where you can sit in low-lying leather chairs and wait for your friends to arrive, while drinking whiskey or a glass of champagne. But not cocktails. No, you’re quickly told, when presented with the cocktail menu, that cocktail service at the new Whitegrass is not quite ready yet.

Nor is the main dining room, which some will remember as that wide-open circle, styled in pastels and green marble tables, with floor-to-ceiling windows letting in dramatic amounts of sunlight, but which is still undergoing renovations and is closed for the foreseeable future.

Nor, for that matter, is the service, which is often disjointed. The staff are friendly to a fault and wonderfully well-informed about the dishes, but they haven’t yet figured out how to work together with themselves or with the kitchen to provide a seamless dining experience to guests.

This will hopefully improve with time as they gain confidence and discover their rhythm, but certain mishaps – wine pairings being served after a course is finished if at all, or a party of three not being served their dishes all at the same time – might keep their target audience, who are used to something more refined, away.

A Classically-Constructed Tasting Menu

Chef Yamashita’s five- or eight-course seasonal tasting menu is classically constructed: cold followed by hot appetisers, a fish, a meat, and then dessert. But to get that far, you’ll first have to make it through the snacks.

Oxtail is compressed and compacted into a dark, deeply-flavoured and well-seasoned bite. Served atop a hollowed-out bone, it is like a hefty, jiggly brick of bullion, at once rich, textured, focused, and delicious.

The same cannot be said of other snacks. Pandan toast is a nice nod to the chef’s new home, but is no equal to the uni served on top, which was sweet to be sure, but so sweet that it overwhelmed the pandan and made for a mushy bite. Peanuts and comté cheese is a confusing combination that ate more like peanut brittle and might have made more sense as petit fours.

Once past these hurdles, diners might sometimes find bites to enjoy. Blue lobster, for example, appears as giant, meaty chunks swimming with asparagus in a creamy, comforting sabayon. It was a divine Japanese gratin that we defy anyone not to adore. Special mention should be made of the butter here, a bevy of Bordier: one smoky, one made with seaweed, and one with yuzu. Put any one on its own, or a combination of all three, on top of warm house-made focaccia bread that could easily pass as brioche, and find yourself reduced to licking your fingers.
The tales to tell

Also to be enjoyed are the stories that come with each dish. Much of what Chef Yamashita does well comes from setting his passions to a narrative – naming producers and farmers, drawing attention to terroir – so that diners have a clear understanding of what they are eating and why he has chosen specific ingredients for the meal.

When those stories are done well, they act like added layers of flavour. A chicken wing, steaming hot and stuffed with pistachios, mushroom paste, and rice, is just fine, but sip a spoonful of the intense consommé served alongside and let your imagination run wild when you hear about its 150-year-old recipe.

When those stories are not done well, they serve to oversell a dish. Oysters were selected from a precise point in Hyogo Prefecture where rainwater runs down from the mountaintop forests, and they are presented elegantly, with dill and thin discs of zucchini, on top of seawater jelly coloured green from Granny Smith apples. But those apples, rather than bring balance to the dish, seem instead to cower in the face of the oysters’ pronounced minerality, and their fibrous threads suspended in the jelly are a distraction.

Murata beef, named after the man whose family in Japan has spent generations breeding the cattle used to make this wagyu-hybrid, is indeed gorgeous, robust, and marbled just-so, but it is done a tremendous disservice by a cherry gastrique that is both too sour and too bitter to be on the same plate.

Sake Kasu (Image credit: Whitegrass)

Bitter also best describes the first bite of dessert – ice cream made from sake kasu, the solid lees left behind in the sake production process. Some diners will go no further than this first bite. Those that do, though, will find that bitter gives way to brightness, as sweet strawberries, hidden under a rose hip blanket, slowly but surely begin to assert themselves.

The Key Challenge for the New Chef

Chef Yamashita has obstacles to overcome.

Keeping the name Whitegrass was not a wise choice. Chef Aisbett ensured that Whitegrass became synonymous with moving the fine dining conversation forward. Anyone hoping to find a similar forward momentum in Chef Yamashita’s food will come away disappointed.

Which is not to say that the potential for a good, and possibly even great, meal is not there. Singapore alone has seen Bacchanalia, Jaan, and even Iggy’s in its pre-Michelin days, relaunch with new chefs and radically different concepts, all to great acclaim. And Chef Yamashita certainly has the confidence and articulated point of view to give Whitegrass a fighting chance at similar success.

His biggest obstacle, though, happens to be the best dish on his inaugural menu.

“Ikejime” is a slaughtering technique that kills a fish almost instantly and in such a way as to retain the vitality of its flesh, ensuring meat that is plump and better flavoured. Here, the fish is flounder and is served with peas and sansho butter. White, green; sweet, aromatic; rich, and with the gentle, numbing tickle of sansho always there in the background. It was simple, woozy, and wonderful. But our first reaction was that this dish does not belong in Singapore. Its flavours are so delicate and so graceful, and in Japanese, there are 16 or more ways to say “graceful.” This dish would therefore translate well in Japan, but in Singapore, where we are used to much bolder flavours, its nuances may go unnoticed, or worse, unappreciated.

If Chef Yamashita’s Whitegrass is to stick around, then his key challenge will be to connect his worthy vision to a hungry Singapore audience and to get them coming back for more. We think he is more than up to the task.

Opening hours:​ Tuesday-Saturday, 18:00-21:00

Recommended dishes:​ Oxtail, blue lobster gratin, flounder.
Price:​ 5-course Tasting Menu, $168; 8-course Tasting Menu, $228
Noise level:​ Solemn and meditative

Service:​ Awkward, but motivated and eager to please

Timothy DePeugh

Timothy DePeugh is a contributor to Lifestyle Asia Singapore. By day, he’s a crusader for the underdog in the corporate world, and at night, he travels around Singapore in search of the best nasi lemak. When he’s not lifting weights or playing with his cat, he writes about restaurants all over Asia. Follow him on instagram at @timtimtokyo.