Your first impressions of “French bistro”-concept Summer Hill might be a little disorienting at first. You navigate a sleepy HDB estate in Clementi until you find the most cheery-looking tenant on the block. If you’re there in the evenings, the restaurant sticks out rather conspicuously in between the utilitarian fluorescence of a Korean barbecue joint and an Indian-Muslim prata place.
Potted foliage, bistro-style furniture, paper lanterns, and candlelight (you won’t know they’re battery-operated unless you peep into those glass lamps) all work tirelessly to distract you from the fact that you’re in a quiet housing estate. It works. On a good night, the tables bustle with office wear-types and the kind of people that order wine during dinner.
But look closely and there is a sheet of mahjong paper (that you can doodle on) instead of starched tablecloths; your cutlery comes from a communal container, and the wine comes in stemless glasses. The neckties are off, and no one seems particularly concerned about the lack of stemmed glassware.
Far from the competitively trendy areas in town, there is no pressure on chef-owner Anthony Yeoh to be on-trend or “progressive”. No attempts have been made to shoehorn any Asian ingredients into the dishes — and this somehow translates into a particularly nourishing experience. The food is honest and well-cooked; the atmosphere decidedly chill, and the beverage list respectable and reasonably-priced.
The menu has expanded considerably from the 3-or-so items from earlier this year, and Yeoh now considers Summer Hill to now be a “full-fledged restaurant”, thanks in part to the support from loyal customers from his days at Cocotte, and a new, steady stream of regulars that have flocked to this unassuming neighborhood.
There are fresh tomatoes, transformed with acid, sugar, and salt into an antithesis of the mealy, tasteless fruit you’d anticipate with off-season, or most locally-grown varieties. This gets tossed with refreshing green herbs before being laid to rest on fluffy homemade ricotta and toasty sourdough.
Are toasties French? They are if they come stuffed with duck rillette and brie; with wholegrain mustard and port wine-cherry compote to cut through the richness. Don’t let any Frenchmen tell you that it should be called a “croque”.
Sometimes, the menu flirts with some un-French dishes–perhaps a holdover from Yeoh’s days as the head chef at luxe fried chicken concept Bird Bird. You’ll find lovingly-smoky, roasted baby eggplants served on green goddess hummus with hazelnuts and currants; or a watermelon, crab and feta salad; or–in a defiant showing of free will–cheeseburger pasta (“beef ragu, mustard & cheese sauce, pickles, tomatoes & sesame seeds”).
A somewhat French thing though is the fried veal chop. It’s not that French though, because it doesn’t really fit neatly under any categories in the classic pantheon of French, or even European dishes. It’s not a veal Milanese, nor is it a schnitzel.
If semantics tire you, then it is a hefty piece of meat, sectioned from a veal rack, then breaded in panko and thyme, and cooked to a delicate, pink, medium. It’s meat from a Dutch calf that has never had to taste a morsel of grass or hay in its life as it’s raised purely on milk. It’s probably also safe to assume it led a happy life. It has very good flavour.
A very French thing is beef bourguignon. Yeoh braises oyster blade (also known as flat iron steak) for 12 hours in a red wine marinade to make this.
Desserts are also simple, comforting affairs. Their dark chocolate tart, which comes with a generous piping of cream Chantilly, is an exercise in balance. Try to get a bit of the flaky salt sprinkled on top with every bite. There might not be enough salt. You can try asking for more.
106 Clementi Street 12, #01-62, Singapore 120106. Tel: +65 6251 5337