Friday, March 02, 2007

Canteen Fare

Cantina, The Food & Wine Stop
60 Greenleaf Road, Singapore 279351
Opening Hours:Tue to Fri & Eve of Public Holidays11am to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm
Weekends & Public Holidays11am to 11pm
Tel: (65) 6467 5413
Fax: (65) 6467 5438

When Cantina in Greenleaf Road first opened in 2002, they revolutionized the quality of Italian cuisine in casual Italian restaurants in Singapore. Then with Chef Valentino Valtulina at its helm, the food was anything but canteen quality. It became the darling of Greenleaf estate to everyone except residents there. Like a true blue Italian restaurant, dinners starts late after 8pm and it gets noisier till past 12midnight. The residents complained, the authorities responded and everything scaled back. Still however, its popularity shined and it spurred 2 more restaurants to open within the estate, La Braceria with a similar concept and another seafood menu oriented restaurant which has since closed down. Chef Valentino now has his own place at Rifle Range Road and is doing well. Despite Valentino’s departure, Cantina expanded in the last few years with new outlets in Changi Village Hotel, La Cantina Venezia and Eau La La at the Gallery Hotel. Both my wife N and I have enjoyed the two Cantinas at different locations and we felt that even without Chef Valentino, it was still managing very well.

After a year’s break, we were back in Cantina over the weekend after going on a pig out for Thai food in Bangkok. Not expecting anything fancy, we order the usual favourites like Caprese Salad, Pasta Vongole Bianco, Parma Ham and Porcini Pizza and Calamari. On a side note, the problem with Singaporean Food Critics in the local newspapers is they tend review a restaurant that is less than six months old and never to return again. Two years later or more, you will still be reading the same review which can be very misleading. In European or US standards, a critic has to eat there several times before the article is published and every year or two, the restaurant is review again to ensure it maintains its standards.

Back to Cantina, it wasn,t that really a good sign when we arrive at 8pm to find the place half empty. Usually parking would already be a nightmare rather than the breeze we had tonight. Walking over, La Braceria was also half packed and somewhat Ban Guan Estate in Greenleaf has become more like ghost town. Settling down, the menus were still the same so it wasn’t difficult to find what we wanted. Nicholas and his partner who use to run the floor were not around. Though the restaurant was half full, none of the wait staffed seem to be really experienced. They wee overlapping each others duties which sometimes resulted in chaos and confusion. It’s a common syndrome in Singaporean restaurants as the profession tends to be condemned by most locals as a low class job for people who do it for the sake of extra side income or while waiting for a better paying opportunity.

Food arrived pretty soon with the Insalata Caprese in the lead. Now, Italian cuisine recipes are one of the simplest to cook and the easiest to get it wrong. Because the ingredients and cooking methods are so basic, it is so easy to get it wrong with inferior quality ingredients or lack of discipline in execution. Caprese or Flag salad as it is known requires vine ripe tomatoes, fresh springy mozzarella cheese in brine, coarse salt, fresh grounded roasted black pepper, a good quality extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil. When any one of the ingredients do not perform, the dish is ruined. Our Caprese came with overripe tomatoes that lack the right balance of acidity and were mushy to a certain extent. That did injustice to the mozzarella as it need the tomatoes to support its blandness and with such quality stuff, its performance was also implicated. The measly sprinkling of black pepper only provided specks of “dirt” to the salad with no flavour. By now there was nothing much the olive oil could do to help and the crucial basil leaves that bridges the whole salad together look tired from hanging out too long in the sauna like kitchen environment.

Calamari are our favoutites in any Italian restaurants that we go to and often it’s a benchmark to what else can be expected on the rest of the dishes. We have always enjoyed the calamari in Cantina ever since Chef Valentino set the bench mark. Without him, they were still able to keep the steam going as we knew from the last visit. This time round, not only the portion was smaller, the taste magic was lost. From the tender lovely pieces that we knew, it came to us this time as if the calamari had gone through a six months six pack workout at California Fitness. Getting it pass our teeth before swallowing was another workout. I could see the disappointment on N’s face and by now, the cook from the kitchen came out to serve and clear dishes too. How strange when the restaurant is only half full. Clearly she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to cook or serve. There were still orders in the kitchen waiting to be expedited for goodness sake or at least do something to wake up the fresh herbs from their hangover! Another cook pop out to slice some parma ham from the display counter, nothing wrong with that actually, except you do not do it wearing Bermuda pants, t shirts and slippers.
Spaghetti Vongole Bianco came with a generous amount of clams which was supposed to be lovely. As we dug in, we realized there was more chopped garlic in between the shells that the clam meat. With so many clams it made the broth very salty with their natural brine and the chef must have overlooked on creating a balance with it. There was no wine flavour as it should be and the bitterness from the raw garlic did not help at all to the already salty broth. With so much garlic, the finely chopped parsley was rendered useless in the cooking process as it had been squeezed to death from its juices through over chopping and washing under running water before leaving out to dry. It is a stupid practice taught by an earlier generation of chefs to that totally rob the fresh herb of its flavour importance to counter balance with pungent spices like garlic. Pasta was unfortunately also far from “al Dente” as it would suppose to have been. Honestly, the dish looked really sad to us because a simple recipe like this when badly managed could really be totally disastrous.
We were impressed with the size of the pizza when it arrived served by the cook who was still thinking about a switch over in position while the rest where still trying to sort out who should pour the ice water at the bar.. I appreciate the generosity of the Parma Ham which was a consolation to the earlier disasters but it got to the point where when we eat the centre core, it would make us gulp down copious amounts of plain water. The bitterness of the aged rocket leaves didn’t help either. Still the porcinis were of some consolation.

By now, telepathically N and I have decided until they buck up, we will not be visiting Cantina for some time as we have a Spizza nearby too.

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