The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar
Block 17D Dempsey Road
Dinner only from Tues to Sun: 6pm to 10pm (until 11pm on Fri,Sat,eve of public holidays and public holidays).
Lunch from Mon to Fri from end-March. Brunch on Sat & Sun from 12pm to 3pm
We have to say: This is not exactly an objective review.
That's because we said "yes" to a hosted tasting before returning for a so-called "incognito" paid visit. When that happens, the restaurant is warned about you.
They remember you. Jean-Georges Vongerichten - who already has eyes at the back of his head, pulls out a spare eyeball and adds you to the already long list of media, socialites, his investors and their friends - who are there almost every night - that he needs to impress.
All this on top of everybody else who have come to see this multi-starred chef in action in what is shaping up to be a beautiful people hangout at the new COMO Dempsey enclave.
But the guy is from New York, and guys from New York know how to put on a show.
Add fashion industry doyenne Christina Ong's elegant colonial-chic aesthetic; a cast of cherry-picked, higher-than-industry-average-paid staff; and you have the formula for a slick operation that has been running like clockwork since it opened about two weeks ago.
Even if we were to discount the extra attention on both our visits, there are enough points left over to make Dempsey Cookhouse a solid new entrant to the dining scene from price point, food to service.
Apart from a S$42 lobster dish and S$38 caviar mouthfuls, pricing ranges from S$14 for a starter to S$38 for grass-fed tenderloin.
The menu is a greatest hits collection of all of Chef Vongerichten's restaurants from his three-Michelin starred Jean-Georges to the casual ABC.
It's "real" food - nothing progressive, occasionally dated but mostly executed to a consistent, reliable standard.
If you judge bread according to how soon they're served once they leave the oven, you might mistake the room temperature ciabatta and focaccia for convenient, store-bought stuff.
We pull at the ciabatta warily, but are surprised at how resilient the texture of the bread is, and how the crust is tender, not dry or hard.
The focaccia - dark brown, slightly salty but with a fragrant yeastiness - is also addictive.
Everything is made in-house, says the master baker who pops up at our table and identifies himself so, offering precious slices of a rye levain loaf with seeds that result from a complicated process that takes five days to make - and a good two minutes to explain the fermentation process.
"You have to eat it with butter, not olive oil," he says in a bossy, Bread Nazi way. Even so - "Don't go home," we plead with him.
But no, all master bakers have to go back to New York because he has many of his boss's bakeries to run and more to open, more pastries to make and more people to impress with his resume. We like him.
We sure hope his team of resident bakers keeps up the quality. The same for the large kitchen brigade, running at a brisk clip to get orders out to the fast-filling dining room.
There are watchful eyes everywhere, who are in turn watched by Chef Vongerichten - possibly one of the most hard-working and kiasu celebrity chefs we've seen at work. Indulgent palates won't go far wrong with anything from the caviar section.
Just don't expect more than a couple of bites with each S$38 morsel. Toasted egg yolk caviar - custardy-chewy egg yolk sandwiched with thin toasted bread slices topped with a big dollop of caviar - is a must-try.
The egg caviar, which we didn't try, is supposed to be the signature dish in New York.
Black pepper crab dumpling (S$19) which was a pasty dumpling covered in a blanket of cloying black pepper and kicap manis on our first visit is fine-tuned into a more delicate version on our second visit - with a lighter dusting of pepper, clean crabmeat-filled wonton and restrained sweet soy sauce.
Spring pea soup (S$13) is the ultimate comfort food cliche. You want to snuggle up to this bowl of simple creamy goodness that ends with a crunch from tiny croutons, and extra savouriness from the ball of parmesan foam on the side.
We're not fond of the tuna tartare on the menu, but we'll knock back the crispy salmon sushi (S$16) for the crispy fried ball of rice topped with raw fish and a dab of chipotle mayonnaise.
We've also found our favourite pizza dough here with its chewy, firm crust that's full of character.
Assorted toppings including a slightly too-rich truffle and fontina cheese (S$24) and a perfectly balanced mushroom and farm egg (S$19) with its mixture of firm, chunky mushrooms and runny egg on top.
Main courses are a mixed bag that include a so-so braised short rib that's dry on the surface and a spice-crusted John Dory that's dry throughout, but we find happy balance in the more forgiving roast cod (S$30) in a Thai-influenced coconut lemongrass gravy.
Desserts are the stars, with the restuarant's signature warm chocolate cake (S$15) opening the floodgates to a smooth flow of molten sauce.
Even a staid raspberry frangipane tart impresses with its crisp tender crust and light marzipan filling.
But the mother of all desserts is the salted caramel ice-cream sundae (S$14), with all the alarm bells of decadence "pinging" in your ears as you power through velvety ice cream, house-roasted peanuts, caramel popcorn and hot fudge sauce.
When even the big chef takes feedback seriously; service hiccups are corrected (like the murky hot water we get) or at least apologised for; and diner engagement is executed professionally (no ingratiating "How's the food?" in between courses); it's hard not to respect Chef Vongerichten for the high-level playing field he's introduced here.
The long-term test is still to come, but if nothing else, it's really nice to come to a fancy restaurant that is not out to overcharge you.
Service and food standards may differ from person to person but we have a good feeling about this place. And we don't think we're being subjective.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.