We admit that this one has been a long time coming.
We make a pilgrimage to Tess every cocktail festival. There’s something that we love about it that we can’t quite pin down. That comes down to a lack of trying, more than anything else. High time, then, that we get off our bums and take a good look at the bar.
Oh, there’s also the matter of a recent change in the Head Bartender.
Not your average hipster
We decide to visit Tess on a weekday afternoon.
The bar is ensconced in a conservation shophouse at 38 Seah Street, opposite the storied Raffles Hotel. Compared to the well-seasoned establishments down the old street, Tess is but a squalling babe; the bar opened but a little over three years ago.
The physical confines are unassuming. We step up to a glass storefront, tastefully adorned with wooden Venetian blinds, and push open the swinging door with “tess” stencilled on the handle.
In comparison to Long Bar nearby, the interior decor is downright spartan. The floors are bare grey concrete, and the iron and steel fixtures on the walls and ceiling give off an industrial chic. The centerpiece is the bar, of course. It is a simple wooden counter paired with modernist, eccentric-looking stools.
Equally visible is the open-concept kitchen, where a team of chefs scurries about making preparations for the dinner crowd. Black leather couches and low tables line the opposite side of the bar. There is little wasted space, but Tess does not feel cramped for its 60 seat capacity.
The decor appeals to us. Despite the resemblance to a hipster cafe, none of the decor is loud or pretentious. There is no fuss here – only a sense of modern simplicity.
The Soft First Touches
As we step into the bar, we are greeted by Boo Jing Heng, the head bartender. He is genial and solicitous, ushering us to our seat and serving a Rebujito ($18++). Angostura bitters, mint, lemon juice and fino sherry makes for a refreshing aperitif. It vaguely resembles its cousin the mojito, but swapping sherry for rum lightens both flavour and the ABV.
The Angostura swirls in the glass as we stir our drink, a crimson cloud in a golden sky. It’s not just decorative, however. The bitters tingle the tastebuds, waking them up and getting the juices flowing. It’s a worthy aperitif, though a little pricey for its simple components.
The Rebujito is a take on the mojito, but this one that we’re drinking is itself a variation on the original sprite and sherry recipe. Jing explains that it echoes his intentions for an upcoming menu update. While the previous edition had a strong Asian influence, the new one focuses on classics with a twist.
Jing offers us a second drink, which is actually a modern creation. The Starry Night ($18++) is a tipple of chardonnay, pear liqueur, maraschino cherry liqueur. His particular rendition has the maraschino in the starring (heh) role.
The cocktail exudes the savoury-sweet aroma of almonds, with a spicy tone from the star anise garnish. On the tongue, it’s a beautiful symphony of unusual flavours. The sweetness of cherries and pears are balanced with the tartness of the wine. The buttery chardonnay and the bitter-almond flavours of the maraschino liqueur are in harmonious equipoise.
The Wind Rises
Tess isn’t just a bar, however. It boasts a fully equipped kitchen that can deliver much more than bar snacks. It serves eclectic modern European cuisine with distinct Asian influences to large lunch and dinner crowds.
We find out first hand just how eclectic when Chef Martin serves his Passionfruit Sambal Squid.
The texture of the squid is taut and springy, giving a delightful bounce as we nibble on it. However, it is the sambal that is remarkable. The passionfruit replaces the usual lime, transforming into a relish that is both more tart and sweet. The tanginess is particularly delicious when paired with the wine-based Starry Night.
Perhaps because of how integral the cuisine is to its identity, Tess has a large wine menu on top of its expansive spirit and cocktail offerings. We’ve already had two wine cocktails, so we only a little surprised when Jing served us a Sangria 1738 ($20++). Filled with berries, passionfruit, Cointreau, Rioja red wine, and garnished with the bar’s signature bouquet, no better bridge between day and night could be asked for.
A Body of Work
While the food and beverages lean western, the atmosphere of the bar is decidedly local. We switch frequently between English, Singlish and Mandarin during our time here. Food and drinks often integrate Singaporean influences with international flavours.
Jing himself is a local chap, and just so happens to be the 2016 Diageo World Class Singapore Champion. Tess’s Head Chef, Martin Wong, is a World Association of Chef Societies gold medal winner and an alumni of L’atelier de Joel Roubuchon in Singapore. Tess may not have a well oiled publicity engine, but there is no dearth of talent here.
Despite their accomplishments, the folks are humble, earnest and eager to please. There are no airs about them, which is a comfort indeed.
We snap back from our musings as our next drink is served. Jing informs us that it is not a regular martini, but a Vesper ($20++).
Departing from the Bond recipe, it is stirred, not shaken…and is garnished with a mezcal-brined quail egg instead of the usual lemon peel garnish. While the drink is identical to a regular Vesper in many ways, the scent of lemon is noticeably replaced with a light smokiness. When we sink our teeth into the egg, we get a burst of luxurious creaminess and a tinge of smoke.
We are finishing up the martini when Chef Martin arrives with the next course- an unusual Roasted Cauliflower, stabbed through the heart.
Murder mystery aside, the dish was a veritable cornucopia of textures. Crisp cauliflower, crunchy nuts and thick, viscous gravy make for an interesting bite. The flavours of cheese and nuts provide an edge to the mellow cauliflower.
The Pièce de Résistance
The highlight of our meal must be the Lamb Rack, which is probably the best one that we will ever have.
A crust of char and herbs coats each succulent rib. The meat sloughs lightly off the bone at the lightest touch of our fork. The lamb parts like cheese under our knife, aromas wafting seductively through the air.
The sensation as we lift it to our waiting mouth is almost indescribable. We hate the expression, but the lamb melts in the mouth. Each bite releases rich meat flavours perfectly balanced with herb and tomato sweetness. A transcendent experience.
The Rum Old-Fashioned ($20++) that we had with it was not half bad either. Ron Zacapa 23, Pedro Ximenez sherry, chocolate bitters and a sprinkling of cocoa nibs as a garnish.
The vanilla and caramel of the Zacapa, and the raisin flavours of the sherry are superb complements. The cocoa nibs echo the chocolate notes in the rum, balance the sweetness, and add a light crunch to the drink. A sultry drink that pairs particularly well with the lamb.
Summing it all up
We wondered why we love Tess so much- and on hindsight, it’s not too difficult to understand. The food and drinks at Tess are absolutely fantastic. Superb cuisine, marvellous cocktails and a simple, unpretentious setting. What’s there not to like?
Business lunch menu is served daily from 12nn -230pm. Lunch sets consist of free soup/appetiser and coffee/dessert with every order of a main course.
Tess Bar and Kitchen
38 Seah Street