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Latitude is somewhat south of its big sister's standards

THE need for simplicity is often touted as a solution to many a restaurant's woes. While confounded by a huge menu of which only a handful of items are worth sampling, diners are quick to wag their fingers and "expertly" state "they should have kept it simple."

While this is often true, the problem is when things go wrong, even though they are kept simple, there is little left to camouflage the mess. This is what ultimately let Singaporean chef Justin Quek down in the end -- while his classic French cooking skills were indeed exceptional at La Platane, the style requires a lot from ingredients to which Quek didn't have access. This is also why many restaurants take the global, almost fusion, route because, oftentimes, a few clever touches are needed here and there to kick the basic produce up a notch.

It's not that this country lacks quality produce, the problem is getting access to it as logistics have yet to match the vast improvements in sophisticated agriculture. Ordering sufficient volumes of a specific product, for example, is often not possible and hence most restaurants offer the same "seasonal" produce in similar guises.

Des Lys is a stunning example of simple done right -- rustic, hearty dishes at decent prices. The place is cozy and service really doesn't call for too much, so it flourishes and became the genesis of a catering business.

The owners have tried to go upmarket, however, and the result is Latitude. When I visited recently, Manager Aymeric Le Boucher recognized everyone in our party, so he was kind enough to give us his full attention. His staff, on the other hand, while on the ball, weren't exactly cut from the same smooth, seamless cloth that good training could have fixed. And with only two other tables occupied, it was not exactly a stretch.

He also didn't charge for one of the set meals (150 yuan/US$21.95 for 2 courses, 180 yuan for 3) in my party of three because, as kind as this gesture was, no one should have to pay for such food. Complaining sometimes has its merits. In a nutshell, the Salmon Tartar was an odd choice (the fattiness of the fish just didn't lend itself to the dish) while the Ham Steak was too salty and dry from local pork that needed to be cleared as soon as possible. Hence its inclusion as a special. I understand the business raison d'etre for set menus, but that doesn't mean the diner has to suffer as a result.

My Beef Tartar was superb, just the right mix of herbs and spices and well-chopped meat. While not as hard to get wrong as carpaccio, getting the blend correct is absolutely crucial to the dish's success. The Scallops Tartar (68 yuan) was just as good, all lemony zest with fresh seafood on a clever beetroot bed.

The Roasted Sea Bass on the set menu was simply passable, with the portion of fish a touch underwhelming. It was also the wrong choice of dish to be done "simply," since unless you have a super duper piece of sea bass with freshness leaping off the plate and the wild flavors and structure you get from swimming free in the wild, the farmed flesh simply tastes too plain and slightly industrial. It also came served with broad beans, which were not listed on the menu and unfortunately to which I am allergic.

The Beef Rossini was poor value at 188 yuan. Local beef can be good at times, but mostly lacks structure, which is what you want in a filet. There's a reason why countries all over the world import beef and that's because the idea of competitive advantage is definitely alive and well. The foie gras was similarly disappointing, with a slight muskiness from being old and a mushiness from overcooking.

Some may question what can you expect for that price? Well, for starters, more than what I was served. This dish was not costed because it was worth 188 yuan, it was priced as such because the restaurant wanted to fill a segment in the market and that's what everyone at that level charges. Only the other's product is usually good.

Hooray for dessert, however -- excellent cheesecake with a suitably solid base and delicate sweetness. If only the waiter hadn't brought teaspoons to eat it with.

The menu has changed since, so perhaps the summer setup is much improved, but this Latitude experience failed, not only because of the food but also because it is an uncomfortable place. Its location on the trisection means headlights shine straight in, while the internal spot lighting is uninviting and unflattering.

The washrooms, located upstairs in the bar, are also in poor condition and booming bass is not exactly cordial accompaniement to a pleasant dinner. Latitude can learn from its superior sister, Des Lys. While simple is best, a lot of thought must still go into it.


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