Held on a random Tuesday every month(ish) since September 2017, Tasting Room sessions at Singapore’s renowned tapas bar Esquina aren’t for everyone.
Literally and figuratively.
The former because to take part in one, you’ll have to be part of Esquina’s mailing list. You also need to be quick enough to register your interest via an electronic direct mailer invite. Slots are restricted to around 30 people or so.
And you’ll be dining, as I was, with a bunch of complete strangers. The painfully shy and/or socially awkward need not apply. Ditto for those on a first date, unless your idea of a romantic evening involves shouting across the table (30-odd people crammed into a small dining room with nil carpeting or curtains, you do the math) at your dining companion.
If you haven’t yet balked at the prospect of eating with a host of unfamiliar people or tenderly yelled dinner conversations, perhaps you might at being chef Carlos Montobbio’s guinea pig. Or as Esquina bills it, a “unique opportunity to collaborate and provide feedback on off-the-menu creations".
What I had during that particular Tasting Room session wasn’t exactly off-the-menu, given this was supposed to be a test run of its Valentine’s Day menu. Specifically, an eight-course tasting menu meant to take diners through the various stages of a relationship and named accordingly (Captivation, Commitment, Completeness).
At any rate, it’s clear that Montobbio and his team were still ironing out the creases.
Things like the third course, Coupling, which paired eel and mussel in a lemongrass-perfumed spicy broth. While the spiciness added a good amount of bite and the lemongrass a cheeky Asian twist, it was overpoweringly salty. Which is kind of sad, since the eel was exceptionally fresh.
The course following that, Compromise – iberico ham and chutoro served with a tomato foam dip – worked far better than I thought it would, the tomato’s tang providing a counterpoint to the rich ham and fish. Plus, it did a great job of cleansing the palate before the (rather heavy-handed) mains that followed.
Unfortunately, the presentation for that was somewhat lacking. Served on a black stone slab, the meats were placed atop some greaseproof paper, which threatened to make a spirited getaway at any hint of a draught. I like to think it was thanks to my lightning-quick video gamer reflexes that prevented the diner opposite me getting a faceful of tuna and ham-infused greasepaper.
It’s the small, but borderline infuriating missteps like that which highlighted to me what I had at this Tasting Room session was very much a work-in-progress. Of course, I’m willing to concede that the assembled guests (myself included) were willing test subjects.
Feedback forms assessing each course on taste/balance/how much it should cost are the placemats. What eventually becomes of this is a little more uncertain, however.
On a more serious note, I’m sure Montobbio takes Tasting Room sessions seriously. He did seem to listen when I told him the dessert course (Consolidation, a chilli banana/chocolate tart) could have done better with fresh chilli instead of chilli flakes.
It sounds like I’ve been complaining non-stop about my time at Esquina. But if I’m honest, it’s the most fun I’ve had in a good long while. Yes, what I had wasn’t perfect, but that’s entirely the point.
Sharing a meal with like-minded individuals who share the joys of experimentation and discovery, sounds like a fun night out to me. And at S$68/RM205, you really can’t complain all too much, can you?