This was a bit of a foodie adventure from the start. “Where is it?” We arrive at the stated address but the restaurant proves elusive amongst the rows of shophouses. The actual entrance requires some sleuthing to uncover and turns out to be tucked away in the back alley of Gemmill Lane – but it is well worth the effort to find this hidden gem.
We come across a nondescript industrial iron door, inconspicuously blending into the evening glow of the alleyway. A discreet metal sign and a row of potted plants in an outdoor area hint to the entrance of the restaurant. It feels akin to an intriguing private passageway to the unknown, reminiscent of secret supper clubs in London and Melbourne.
We push past the heavy door and are rewarded with an alluringly gorgeous enclave with raw dark wood and edgy exposed brick walls. The juxtaposition of the back lane against the inviting warm lighting of the cavernous restaurant reins us in. Gigantic brass lamps hang from the exposed industrial ceiling. A bustling open kitchen at the heart. Rows of bottles line a wall of distressed wooden shelves. The whole place evokes a sensually sleek underground vibe.
Welcome to the world of Maggie Joan’s.
Opened four years ago by Glen and Daniel Ballis, a father and son duo from Australia, the restaurant is affectionately named after both Daniel’s grandmothers and has been transformed from what was once the back of a Taiwanese porridge place. Having already made their first foray into the Singapore dining scene with Moosehead in 2013, their concept behind Maggie Joan’s was to offer discerning diners something distinctive, a hidden laneway experience.
The menu is modern European cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal-based produce. The restaurant is confidently helmed by the talented and innovative Chef Seumas Smith. Having previously refined his flair in the esteemed kitchens of Michelin-starred establishments in UK, namely Lords of Manor and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, he arrived in Singapore to join Esquina as a sous chef. As head chef at Moosehead, Glen and Daniel’s first venture, for the past four years, he took on a wider role as Group Executive Chef in 2018 to head both Moosehead and Maggie Joan’s with his personally hand-picked team. Here, they change the menu regularly depending on the sourcing of the best seasonal supply available to optimally create each dish. While most of the produce is sourced and flown in from artisanal producers overseas, some ingredients used in the cooking are closer to home such as the milk which is locally sourced.
For the next hour or so, we are taken on an iridescent gastronomic experience of sorts. The food is kaleidoscopic in textures, hues and flavours. Every dish is a sublime visual feast, exquisitely presented with meticulousness and thought. Each plate is Instagram-worthy and ready for the limelight, skilfully commanding the diner’s admiration.
Upon our arrival, the friendly waiters dressed in smart black attire presented our table with a warm loaf of crusty house-baked sourdough, soft and pillowy inside. The bread is proofed three times before being freshly baked every morning. The quality of the butter signals the notable attention to detail by the chefs to the meal ahead. This is miles from any standard slab of generic butter – it is a hearty portion of smoked beef fat butter served with a miniature wooden paddle. Tasty trimmings of O’Connor beef are patiently smoked in a charcoal oven over roasted wood chips, then smoothly churned with salty, creamy French butter, packing a satisfying offering of intense flavours.
Dinner begins with a rustic ceramic platter of duo starters of Shiso tempura and bonito rice cracker. Each whole minty Japanese Shisho leaf is lightly sheathed in the crispiest puff of tempura cloud with generous drops of whipped spiced pink salted pollock mentaiko roe blended with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, and nori seaweed with lime. Every nibble of the bonito rice cracker infused with yuzu shimichi, dotted with ikura salmon caviar, dill and fresh crème fraiche is a startling burst of tangy mint and umami savouriness.
The next dish arrives at our table on a bed of toasted buckwheat in a humble wooden rectangular box. It is a genius combination of crisp wafer-thin concentric almond sable discs with foie gras ganache generously layered with compressed pistachio apple and verjus caramel, topped with grated frozen green Granny Smith apple. It is sweet and salty with a gratifying bite. Astounding effort and care goes into the immaculate execution of this dish. Foie gras ganache is made by simmering shallots with madeira, brandy, red wine, port and thyme till reduced like a jam, then combined with cream, salt, sugar, and blitzed with French goose liver into a smooth paste. Thinly sliced red fuji apples and pistachios are simmered for an astounding eight hours before being baked. The compressed apple caramel is prepared by whisking butter, verjus and apple juice, then the mixture is infused with fennel seeds and star anise.
This is followed by a colourful course of the prettiest portrait of Japanese hamachi yellow tail crudo, red ogo, wakame, buttermilk, mirin-infused trout roe, edamame and mint. The silky, velvety consistency of the Japanese hamachi is contrasted against the freshness of crunchy edamame and the welcoming bite of the wakame, which has been pickled with white wine vinegar, black mustard seed, star anise, clove, and bay leaves for at least two days before its plate debut. While this dish is clean and pristine, the almond buttermilk sauce feels a tad too subtly thin to extend further flourish to the dish.
A stand-out dish that leaves us wanting more is beetroot, smoked crème fraiche, pomegranate, candied sweet walnuts and burnt honey. Bejewelled, seductive, shiny slivers of glossy ruby-red beetroot coins are prepared two ways – barbecued in a INKA charcoal oven and pickled in red wine vinegar, wine and sugar for a minimum of two days. The French crème fraiche is smoked over hickory wood chips and seasoned with Scottish heather honey. The Scottish heather honey is from Prince Charles’ Mey Selections, which sources ingredients and products from within 150 miles of the Castle of Mey. The dressing is made by heating the honey over the stove till it nears the peak of caramelisation, then a dash of tangy red wine vinegar and wine are added to add further depth of piquancy.
The star of the meal, and the Chef’s personal favourite on the menu, is succulent Hokkaido scallop with miso beurre blanc, dulse and miniature Australian Russet potato crotons, all housed in a half shell resting on snowy white coarse rock salt. Every element is balanced and implemented to superb perfection. The luscious miso beurre blanc is made by emulsifying butter, white wine, fennel, shallots and white miso. Dulse seaweed, sea lettuce and chives are added a la minute. The thick milky blend of miso is so irresistibly scrumptious that we finish it to the last drop. Juicy pearls of fresh pomelo add a sweet citrusy burst of refreshment on the palate. It is worth visiting this place just for this delectable dish.
Another heady offering is the main of earthy spiced lamb loin, French asparagus, morels and wild garlic, adorned with tiny vibrant white flowers. Australian lamb loin is generously rubbed with a mix of toasted and ground sumac, cumin and dried coriander then roasted in charcoal. It is perfectly pink and moist in the middle. The mouth-watering lamb sauce is made by simmering the bones with red wine carrots, shallots, garlic, rosemary and thyme. The soft, sweet French morels are indulgently cooked in a fusion of madeira and melted butter. Charlotte potatoes are added to the resulting broth. The wild garlic emulsion is a mix of English wild garlic, corn oil and mayonnaise made in-house.
We are provided with an invigorating palate cleanser of smooth, zesty Amalfi lemon sorbet with refreshing blood orange granita, then it is onto a dessert of blackberries, meringue and yoghurt sorbet. This is a meringue nest encased with house-made Greek yoghurt sorbet, elegantly piped with rings of blackberry puree yoghurt, studded with fresh blackberries and sat in the deep crimson shade of blackberry puree coulis. While the thin shreds of green Shisho dusted atop served as a courteous garnish, they didn’t heighten the already excellent dessert and could have been left out.
We end our meal on a high with petit fours of delicate spheres of salted hazelnut sable with indulgent raspberry chocolate praline freckled with raspberry fragments, cheekily encased in a metal cigar box of buckwheat.
The whole menu is impeccably executed and brimming with bold adventure and fascinating blends of flavours. The thoughtful team behind Maggie Joan’s are to be applauded. This underground rendezvous nook emits enthusiastic gourmet creativity and quiet confidence, assuredly holding its own amidst the abundance of contending restaurants in the vicinity. No small feat.
This place undoubtedly merits a visit and seems to have already been sought out amongst those in the know, judging by the tables filling up as we head off into the night.