Esquina – A Showcase of Contemporary Catalan Cuisine
The F&B industry seems to be to lawyers what a pot of honey is to a bear, an irresistibly sweet temptation that quite often leaves one with a sticky mess on their hands. Many in the profession have hung up their robes and made a mid-career switch from the courtroom to the kitchen, either as a chef or restaurateur, with mixed success. Perhaps no one who has succumbed to this gastronomic allure has achieved as much success as lawyer-turned-hotelier-and-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng. His umbrella brand, the Unlisted Collection, boasts some of Singapore’s finest and most well known restaurants, such as Burnt Ends, Cheek Bistro, Pollen and Nouri. However, one of the uncut diamonds that might soon become one of the jewels in his crown of restaurants is the modern Spanish restaurant Esquina.
Tucked away in a shophouse in the corner of Jiak Chuan Road (just off the restaurant haven of Keong Saik Road), Esquina occupies two storeys, with the first level largely consisting of bar seats around an open kitchen, where one can see Barcelona-born Chef Carlos Montobbio and his team work their magic up close, and some tables set-up outside for alfresco dining. The second level houses full indoor seating.
We dined in for lunch on a Friday afternoon, and were seated at one of the bar counter seats. We (on hindsight, regretfully) opted for the à la carte menu over the tasting menu, which at SGD 128 (exc. GST) for 10 courses, is a steal.
We began our meal with a couple of appetisers (or “Snacks” as it appears on the menu). The first was the Sea Urchin Toast ($16 per piece). The piece of toast came laden with three small mounds of uni, each perched atop a healthy dollop of burrata, with generous spoonfuls of oscietra caviar ladled in between. The toast was delightfully crunchy, and crumbs soon decorated the table. The buttery, briny uni surprisingly complemented the equally creamy burrata perfectly, with the mild saltiness of the caviar bringing the dish together.
Next up was the Chorizo Ibérico Croquetas ($8 for 2pc). The two gloriously golden brown bite-sized pieces arrived at our table piping hot, and were lavishly streaked with a bright orange sauce of sweet piquillo pepper roasted and blended with mayonnaise. A bite into the croqueta was met with a creamy if somewhat gooey filling that was textured with small pieces of chorizo. While satisfying, we wished that the piquillo pepper mayonnaise could have been a bit stronger to give the dish a spicier kick.
On to the mains, our first (and probably most anticipated) order was the Lobster Paella ($34). It didn’t disappoint. The artistically plated paella was served together with a plump, juicy head of prawn that we were instructed by our server to squeeze over the dish. We duly followed orders, and were pleasantly surprised to see the crustacean ooze copious amounts of juice that belied its small size. As we dug into the paella, our tastebuds were greeted with the strong, flavourful taste of the ocean, with the prawn juices adding an extra oomph. The rice was cooked to perfection, having soaked up the rich lobster stock, and even had crispy bits of socarrat that added a crunch to every bite. The paella was littered with bite-sized lobster chunks that were firm yet smooth and soft to the bite, with the dollops of saffron-infused aioli and avocado purée providing another flavourful dimension to the dish. The crunchy sugar snap peas added a final touch of colour and texture to this already umami laden dish.
The next main that arrived at our table was the Grilled Spanish Octopus ($28). This dish was a palette of bright colours and evinced some collective “oohs” at the table. The plump and succulent pieces of octopus were wonderfully charred and were cooked to perfection – juicy and fork tender. The chopped pieces of tentacles sat on a sweet corn purée, topped with chimichurri, with spicy chorizo oil drizzled over as a finishing touch. The corn purée paired surprisingly well with the octopus, with the chimichurri adding some welcomed spiciness to cut through the sweetness of the purée. It was undoubtedly one of the best cooked octopus that we had eaten, and along with the Lobster Paella, this is definitely one of the “must order” dishes at Esquina.
Another main we had was the Cannelloni ($36), a classic dish that we were told is made during the festive period at Chef Carlos’ hometown in Catalonia. Served on a heated plate, the cannelloni was filled to bursting with a delightful blend of braised Black Angus beef, Ibérico pork and foie gras. Crowned with slivers of black truffle, the dish offered a gratifying amount of mild truffle power that enhanced the dish without overpowering the meaty flavours of premium ingredients that made up the filling. However, we felt that the accompanying bechamel sauce could have been stronger in flavour or replaced by another sauce that could have cut through the richness of the cannelloni.
As a complimentary pre-dessert treat, we were presented with a dish simply named Bread. It was essentially a quenelle of Guanaja chocolate set atop a thin slice of crisp bread, sprinkled with sea salt and topped with extra virgin olive oil caviar. The sweet and salty combination served as a refreshing palate cleanser and set the stage for the soon to come dessert.
We rounded off the meal with Esquina’s signature mainstay, the BBC ($15). This unique dessert is composed of malty beer ice cream served with banana textures (comprising actual bits of banana, banana cake and banana purée) and drizzled with a warm salted caramel sauce. Even for non-beer aficionados like us, we soon found ourselves locked in a battle of spoons in the bowl, each eager to heap another spoonful of the delicious concoction into our salivating mouths. The mild bitterness of the beer ice cream was exquisitely balanced with the sweetness of the trio of banana elements and the slight savouriness of the salted caramel. With the differing textures and flavours, it was altogether a wonderful flavour bomb with every bite.
The fare at Esquina was definitely further along the scale of deliciousness than what one would find in most Spanish restaurants here, with the creativity of Chef Carlos shining through in the strong flavours and sophisticated platings of his dishes, elevating them beyond traditional Spanish cuisine.
With fine dining quality food at wallet friendly prices, Esquina is definitely value for money and should be on the bucket list for anyone looking for a taste of Spain with a modern take.
16 Jiak Chuan Road