“I don’t cook Spanish cuisine, I cook Santi’s cuisine,” the late Santi Santamaria ("Santimaria") once said to me when quizzed about the cuisine that would unveil at his namesake restaurant, SANTI, at Marina Bay Sands. It was the first quarter of 2010 and I was interviewing Santamaria at St Regis Singapore in anticipation of his new opening.
The heavy-set former chef proprietor of Can Fabes was in town with a full kitchen cast – including Daniel Chavez, current executive chef of SANTI - in tow to conduct culinary master classes at the Spanish Arts Festival. It was a timely appearance in Singapore for the 7 Michelin-starred Santamaria who was catapulted to culinary limelight when he became the first Catalan chef to receive 3 Michelin stars in 1994. His flagship restaurant, El Racó de Can Fabes, housed in a centuries old grey stone house where he resided with his family, had consistently plucked 3 Michelin stars in the past 17 years.
Not bad for an autodidact chef whose stable of restaurants grew over time to include Santceloni in Madrid, EVO in Barcelona, Tierra near Madrid, Ossiano in Dubai and, in mid 2010, SANTI in Singapore – where Santamaria tragically collapsed at the age of 54.
Until his passing, the world had seemed most captivated with Santamaria’s public spat with fellow Catalan chef, Ferran Adriàof El Bulli, on the latter’s controversial application of molecular techniques on gastronomy. Still, little was known to the masses about Santi’s cuisine. Wags occasionally call it Spanish. Yes, SANTI serves up one of the most complex and floral first-pressed Spanish extra virgin olive oil to go with the basket of rustic breads. And yes, you’ll also find the prized acorn-fed, 4-years cured jamón ibérico de bellota sourced exclusively from Joselito Farm. SANTI also boasts a sophisticated marble-topped tapas bar with a confection of plush leather seats for guests to chill out over Spanish small plates.
But before you jump to conclusion and conjure up images of rustic dishes served in an interior reminiscent of a Spanish meson, truth be told that SANTI is very much a fine dining restaurant. You dine in a contemporary space with soaring ceiling framed on one side by grey-hued stonewalls festooned with kaleidoscope of blow glasses and, on the other side, floor to ceiling glass windows offering unapologetic views of the malls below.
And as I discovered over dinner almost 6 months after Santamaria’s demise, Santi’s cuisine is anything but Spanish. It is, in Santarmaria’s own words, cocina de Mercado, or market cuisine, which revolves around fresh and seasonal produce prepared with Santamaria’s Catalan-adapted French cooking techniques. On that note, there are no au courant techniques, no tricks nor foams or jellies to be found at SANTI. Just crisp and fresh ingredients cooked a la minute to tease out the natural flavours in the produce.
Befitting the grandeur of space, service led by General Manager, Joan Lopez, is first rate – it’s professional without being stuffy and the well-lubricated service machine delivers near-perfect staff orchestration. If you get into Lopez’ good books – which shouldn’t be difficult if you conduct yourselves with utter grace despite the size of your ego or thickness of your wallet – you might even score yourself a table at one of 3 semi-private crystal box rooms. Couples and the occasional celebrities would appreciate the privacy of the elegant crystal box. At SANTI, there is a limited a la carte menu proffering communal items like suckling pig and Catalan fish and seafood stew; but a quick glance of the menu revealed none of Santamaria’s signature dishes of veal shank, gambas ravioli, or steamed pork jaws with caviar.
Shocking? That’s market cuisine for you. Not that it affected us. We came hungry for the 8-course dégustation menu (S$260++) and were convinced, after a celebratory toast of 2009 Louis Roederer Brut Rose champagne, that we should attempt Chef Chavez’ beautifully plated novelle cuisine from the carte blanche menu (S$385++). And Chef Chavez’ parade of surprises, a good 14 courses – majority of which were seafood - came in exquisite bite-sized doses that delivered a night of unalloyed delights.
To start, there was Spanish octopus basking in a single shot glass of gazpacho alongside a tomato-smeared crusty toast crowned with folds of Joselio ibérico. Following that, a perfectly executed blanket of chopped New Zealand red snapper tartare with avocado and apple bits cloaked with a good measure of oscietra caviar. The surprise continued with homemade capellini tossed in fish bouillon with Sri Lankan crabmeat and tomberry tomatoes (the smallest in the world) in a basil sauce refreshed with a zest of lemon.
As we devoured these zen plates with a Spanish-biased wine pairing by the brilliant Chef Sommelier, Paco Galdeano, Santi’s cuisine was taking shape. Here’s a confluence of Catalan influence with the late chef’s deft take on novelle cuisine that has a decidedly French approach, sans heavy butter and cream.
And Santamaria’s philosophy on market ingredients continued to shine through at dinner with a French smoked eel served with morsels of foie gras (note: paired brilliantly with Galdeano’s 2007 Jorge Ordonez N1 Selleccion Especial Moscatel from Malaga). Or Malaysian baby calamari cooked with short grain rice in an ink sauce perfumed with black truffle shavings. And New Zealand langoustine with lentils and girolle mushrooms in a champagne butter sauce. But most riveting was the salad of sliced American kurobuta pork jaw with a riot of pumpkin slices, black truffles and raw almonds, a most refined take on pork that was delicate as it was flavorsome.
After the discovery of starters, our duo of mains arrived. First, a roasted rabbit stuffed with rabbit liver, roasted garlic and piacada catalane; and then a roasted pigeon with olives and potatoes followed. This could well be a sequence issue; but by the tenth course, we were hardly game for gamey meats. But the beauty of market cuisine is such that by the time you visit, the menu would have been refreshed. Notwithstanding that minor hiccup, the dazzling performance culminated in sublime desserts including a finale of passion fruit pavlova with carpaccio of pineapple, that was sweet as it was refreshingly zesty.
The ensuing cheese trolley (ask for the Parmesan-styled, aromatic and salty Mahon from the island of Minorca) and tray of petit fours came as no surprise. We knew by then that we were trekking down the beaten track of French-influenced haute cuisine. Only that Santamaria’s nouvelle cuisine has a Spanish soul - and rightly so. In remembrance of Santi Santamaria
SANTI Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue; 65-6688 5592
Evelyn Chen traded her frequent flyer miles from her jet-setting corporate days for a critic's pen, and has been eating and drinking on the job ever since. She is a former Time Out food critic and current editor of Zagat Guide (Singapore); her food and travel features have published in CNN Travel, New York Times, Telegraph and Destin Asian, amongst others. Follow her on www.facebook.com/bibikgourmand or www.twitter.com/bibikgourmand for updates on where she's eating right now.