I remember my first time at a strip club, it was the tail end of my first semester at Syracuse and we were at Dream Girls on Erie Boulevard. I won’t bore you with the details, this is after all a food blog (two girls soaped and showered each other!) But I have to say that it was quite an (cultural?) experience considering that strip clubs are unheard of in Singapore. And after a few visits I learnt that:
1) Stripping requires a high level of athleticism and grace.
2) Strippers all smell the same, I think that there is a certain perfume that is de rigueur in their profession.
3) You’ll have more fun if you go in a group mixed with guys and girls.
4) Gorgeous strippers are never as enthusiastic as the average looking ones.
The gorgeous ones know that they’ll get tips and private dances on account of their drop-dead looks. The average ones on the other hand work harder to woo you and go out of their way to make sure you have a good time. Restaurants situated in spectacular surroundings, like gorgeous strippers, know that they don’t have to work as hard to get your money. And there are few places as scenic as Labrador Park, a coastal hill forest that overlooks cliffs and a rocky beach which hosts mainland Singapore’s only coral reef, observable during low tide. The topography and location offers sweeping vistas of Singapore’s southern coast. The British, realizing the strategic value of the location, built a network of tunnels and fortifications around the park during World War II, which you can still see. And nestled right in the middle of this lush greenery and history is the Olive Ristorante.
As a kid I loved Labrador Park. The tunnels and bunkers intrigued me. I used to launch my remote controlled hovercraft from the beach and would walk along the beach during low tide, fascinated with all the life scampering, peeking, hiding and swimming in those shallow pools. So I guess that’s why I chose the Olive as the first restaurant to visit when I came back to Singapore.
The cab driver dropped K-Dubs and I at the foot of a small hill. Cars aren’t allowed to go up, but there’s a covered walkway leading to the restaurant. It took a minute and wasn’t anything major, but ladies, you might want to consider that before wearing your towering Louboutins. I liked the open-air concept of the restaurant (or rather ristorante.) It exposed and connected us to the beautiful surroundings, unfortunately there isn’t too much of a view from the restaurant. Fortunately though, it wasn’t hot as there were numerous fans.
Labrador Seafood Platter: Scallops, prawns, smoked salmon & caviar. Chef’s special dressing.
We started off with the Labrador seafood platter and escargot. The seafood platter was attractively plated in a minimalistic sort of way. However I didn’t think that “platter” was particularly accurate, in light of how small it was. But Tiny Seafood Side Dish, no matter how accurate, just doesn’t have the same appeal. Another misnomer was the caviar, which turned out to be salmon roe, which are still fish eggs but a little misleading. The prawns were surprisingly crunchy, which I (guiltily) like. The scallops were not overcooked but I would have preferred it more rare and with more of a sear. The smoked salmon and the “secret sauce” were both unremarkable.
Escargot: Baked with butter garlic & cheese.
The snails had just a tad of grit but were decent, I’ve had better, but it’s not hard to like garlic-herb butter, especially when the garlic wasn’t overpowering.
Pizza Olive: Ham, onions, olives, zucchinis, artichokes, mozzarella cheese & tomato sauce.
My main, the US Kurobuta pork chop was cooked just right. It was tender and juicy with a delectable char. But the Kurobuta was surprisingly leaner and not as flavorful as it should be. To be fair, I was comparing it to a delicious Berkshire pork chop I had at Mario Batali’s Lupa, just before I left New York.
K-Dubs had the pizza and liked it.
US Kurobuta: Slow oven-baked marinated tender Kurobuta Pork.
We had the tiramisu for dessert. It was actually good: Luscious, moist and decadent. There was nothing bad about the meal. It was pleasant enough. However at what they were charging, I expected a little more. As I left, I still felt hungry. Just like a strip club, it was fun while it lasted, but it leaves you unsatisfied and wondering where all your money went.
Tiramisu: layers of finger biscuit, mascarpone cheese & liquor
That should have been that. I didn’t write the place off, but there are so many interesting and delicious dining options in Singapore that I couldn’t imagine why I would go back. I did go back though, not because of the restaurant, but the view at Moon Ladder bar, just a short walk from The Olive. I discovered the place, on the roof of Villa Seafood Galleria (they are all under the same management,) on my previous visit and it was a great place to chill out. The drinks are mediocre and the music is sometimes questionable, but it’s blessed with one of the best views in Singapore.
I was expecting the same overpriced but decent food and the first dish, a crayfish pasta confirmed it. There was a flavorful oil, but that was about it. The pasta came with only one crayfish and it was lonely.
Spaghetti Arragosta: Long Pasta with crayfish, chili & garlic in lobster oil.
The other pasta dish was more substantial. The mushrooms, loaded with glutamates gave the dish a big hit of umami and the prawns were still surprisingly crunchy. The pizza though was nothing to shout about.
Pizza Labrador: crispy bacon, capsicum, onion, olive, mozzarella & tomato sauce
Like the last time I was still hungry and we decided to get the seafood cartoccio for two. I was hesitant at first, because I’ve always had a superlative cartoccio at Dante’s back in Syracuse (across town from Dream Girls.) I’ll be honest, my expectations were not high. So I was pleasantly surprised when the dish arrived. It was generous; chock full of clams, mussels, prawns and even a whole crayfish, drenched in sauce. So it’s not the condimente that Mario Batali always talks about, but I don’t think they ever made a claim for authenticity. That sauce was fantastic. It’s tomato based, but it wasn’t too acidic, it had body, the juices of all that seafood gave it terrific flavor plus it was spiked with some of that delicious shellfish oil. There a certain char taste, like the “wok hei” you would get from hawkers stir-frying noodles in their seasoned iron woks and it really elevated the dish. Delicious and satisfying, at $35 with a portion size meant for two, it was the best bang for your buck, which stood out from the rest of the menu. I had mentioned before that I couldn’t imagine why I would come back here. Well I would gladly travel all the way back here for the cartoccio.
Spaghetti Cartoccio (for two): Long pasta with crayfish, clams, prawns & mussels in tomato sauce
A mountain of shells
Creme Brulee: Slow baked creme brulee with bourbon vanilla pods, topped with almond flakes.
I did just that a few weeks ago. I was craving for that cartoccio and it’s mélange of flavors. When the menu was presented, I said I already knew what I wanted. The waitress finished my sentence by predicting that I would order the cartoccio. Apparently it has quite a following. I decided to try the rack of lamb as well. It required a 25-minute waiting time and I didn’t want to wait till after finishing the pasta to see if I wanted it.
Seafood Cartoccio, wish they used parchment paper instead of foil.
Well it didn’t take 25 minutes as stated on the menu, it practically came right after the pasta. Both surprisingly fast, so fast in fact that when the lamb was presented, I actually asked what it was, not believing that the three small nuggets of meat was the dish I ordered. It was pathetically small, more an appetizer than the most expensive item at $37 on the menu. I consoled myself that at least we had the pasta. It looked smaller; there wasn’t a mountain of clams like the last time. I eagerly took a spoonful of sauce and twirled up noodles. The flavors were listless and flat. The sauce was much different, very one-dimensional.
Rack of Lamb? More like lack of lamb.
I cut into the lamb. I wasn’t sure what part I was eating. I don’t think it was the rack, if it was, the lamb must have been the size of my cat. It was decent, ordinary. But this is a city that serves superb lamb, tender and flavorful, and so in comparison to other restaurants, this was probably the worst lamb I’ve had.
I was severely disappointed.
Lousy this time
The restaurant had squandered whatever goodwill it earned with their cartoccio from my last visit. I refused to believe that the dish could be so different. It was as if a different kitchen had cooked it. True enough, I found out later that they had a new chef. God I wish I could taste that cartoccio again.
Table on a pool at Villa Seafood Galleria, near the Olive.
But the pasta aside, I hoped that my third visit would contradict my first impression of the restaurant; sadly it only confirmed it. I was debating on how to write this post. Should I sugar coat or slant my story, I realized that even though this might be just a meal for me, that meal might represent the livelihoods of those people working in the restaurant or the dreams of an owner.
Moon Ladder Bar, above Villa Seafood Galleria.
But I also realize that I have a responsibility to portray the food as accurately as possible. The last thing I would want is for someone to waste his or her hard-earned money on a place that didn’t have decent food.
One of my biggest fears is to write something that isn’t right. I try my best to fact check everything. If I’m not sure of something I’ll look it up. The thing that gives me the most confidence to write about a place though is that of multiple visits.
I’m always tempted to write about a restaurant the moment I finish dessert. But first impressions are generally misleading if not wrong. I try to visit a restaurant at least three times before writing about it, so that I can piece together the most accurate picture of the place.
The view from the bar.
Nice huh? Wish the food was as good.
The Olive Ristorante
Labrador Villa Road, Carpark A
www.villaraintree.com (Group website)
Open from noon to 11 p.m., Monday to Saturday. 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday.
Recommended dishes: None
Appetizers & salads, $9.50-$28; pasta & risotto, $16-$25; pizzas, $18-$25; mains, $28-$37; desserts, $3-$12.