“What’s the best restaurant in London?” Terrible question. It all depends on budget, who and how many you’re going with, personal preferences, time and place. Such a query is a lazy one, and I try to avoid giving a direct answer.
“Which restaurant do you wish was in London?” Now that’s more interesting.
Partly because it doesn’t require the stamp of ‘best’ – ‘best’ restaurant in the world, ‘best’ wine list, ‘best’ dish, ‘best’ light bulb, blah blah blah. Subjective experiences can’t be classified in this way; our obsessive compulsiveness about food and restaurants is unimaginative and constricting.
But mostly because I think I have the answer. Or my answer.
It is Burnt Ends in Singapore. A restaurant that would slot so neatly into Soho or Shoreditch, you wonder if the fact it’s a 13 hour plane journey away actually makes it more accessible – so long would the queue or reservations list be.
Picture this: the same set-up of a 4 tonne double cavety wood burning oven and an open, pulley adjusted grill, as was in place in the forecourt of Climpson’s Coffee Roasters last year, except this time it’s inside, in front of an 18 seater bar and 8 person banquet table and within a stripped back, industrial, but not too try hard setting. It’s Barrafina, Polpo, Bubbledogs Kitchen Table, St John Bread and Wine and Asador Etxebarri all rolled into one.
The biggest surprise about Burnt Ends is how elegant barbecue can be. Despite the name, it’s not about heavily charred lumps of meat or billowing clouds of smoke. Rather, you get faintly smoked soft boiled quails eggs, sweet and salty oysters warmed in their shells for barely a minute, rings and rings of just cooked squid dressed with paprika butter, tender sweetcorn and spring onions charred and wilted in seconds in the 700C furnace, whole fish cooked slowly, gradually raised on the pulleys so that the skin is crisp but the flesh is tender, and smoked, but not acrid, ice cream. It’s sophisticated but base, modern metrosexual yet primitive. Dave Pynt, the bearded Aussie chef, plays all the right notes to a captive audience – he’s the Liberace of the grill.
A group of ex-pat friends and I took the banqueting table. There were many highlights in our thirteen course menu, those warm oysters and smoked quails eggs among them. Plump duck hearts, golden brown on the outside and perfectly pink throughout, were a treat served with Asian mushrooms and a faintly garlic aioli. Many of my pals were duck heart virgins. They’ll all be having them again. A rack of venison matched the hearts in its caramel and Maillard brown exterior and perfectly pink interior. Served with a Jerusalem artichoke puree and baby gems dressed only with vinegar and shallots, it encapsulated the restaurant’s ethos perfectly: great food, deceptive in its apparent simplicity, served with basic but mighty effective trimmings. It’s not fine dining, it’s proper dining.
Japanese Sea Bream, cooked and served whole on a massive platter with just a pot of salt and a fennel salad on the side, was probably the showstopper. Indeed it drew a fair few gasps from our crowd both as it was laid in front of us and whilst we were eating. Back when Dave was based in London Fields, I always enjoyed the whole feasting fish the most. I think that’s because eating perfectly barbecued 3-5kg fish off the bone with friends is a rare joy.
Deconstruct that a little:
It’s communal, evocative and memorable food and I’d be very surprised if you’ve the pulleys, the patience or the nerve to do it yourself (and do it right). This one was towards the smaller end of the fish I’ve seen Dave grill – 3kg, maybe – but it was still enough for 5 people normally and plenty for 8 as part of our meal. The skin was dark and crisp, all the flesh white and moist. It was knockout.
Desserts played on a smoke and heat v sweet ice cream theme: little barbecued bananas served with caramel ice cream; roasted pineapple and vanilla; smoked ice cream and hibiscus. The smoked ice cream was the most interesting component. The roasted pineapple the most successful – each bit of the charred fruit was multi-layered, first the char, then heavy smoke of the grill, followed by intensely sweet and caramelised fruit.
I think we were fed most of the menu – though kid offal, celeriac and baby carrot, and onglet, burnt onion and watercress stood out as things I’d go back for if I lived closer, and sight of a huge hunk of Cape Grim 53 day dry aged rib of beef resting and then being carved made me reconsider my daily commute.
This is all rather glowing, isn’t it? If I had to bring it back to earth, I’d say that, if anything, we had too much food, and that probably changed the effect of the meal; desserts were decent but relatively basic – I would imagine there’s better to come; and Singapore, by necessity, has massive air miles on all of its food – I wonder whether some of the rarer, top quality produce of the kind that stocked (and made) his London Fields pop-up can make it as far or in as good a nick.
But that’s just about it. I suspect there are worse comments to receive than ones relating to overfeeding (and that’s only relevant to the banquet menu, which is not the standard experience), desserts in a restaurant focusing on an open grill and 700C oven, and the unavoidable implications of geographical location.
Burnt Ends wasn’t intricate, fancy or, despite it’s openness, showy. It was quality food, modern and a bit different. But whilst there were elements of subtlety and finesse, surprise and innovation, it was mostly just the kind of food that seeks out the comfort zone. For all those reasons, though this may not be the ‘best’ restaurant around, it’s the one I’d love to put on an A380 and fly straight back over here.
Burnt Ends in 3 Words
In Singapore. Bugger.
$100 p/p for the set menu. Which is about £50 and not nearly enough. The wine list, on the other hand, is not cheap (mostly $90 and upwards) and we drank lots of it. I suspect you’d spend $50-100 per person on food if you went a la carte.
burntends.com.sg – 20 Teck Lim Road, Singapore 088391 – +65 6224 3933
I had been in Singapore for a few days as the guest of YourSingapore.com. This wasn’t part of the itinerary – but it’s something for them to be proud of and certainly worth looking out for if you’re there on business or a stopover. More on eating in Singapore in future posts.