Eating Around The World

Singapore: A food writer's gourmet diary * :

by Laksmi Pamuntjak

* This article appeared in The Jakarta Post, 18 December 2008

They say never ever put food critics together in one room for more than ten minutes or they will start falling face down into each other's soups, telling the wait staff that they've always considered chili oil to be the Tabasco of the over-bred, or ordering an outrageously expensive bottle of wine and forgetting about it when presented with the bill.

But it was around 2 p.m. and we were somewhere near the end of our 7-course meal (12 if you count the four kinds of amuse bouche and "pre-dessert"). The place was Jaan, on the 70th floor of the Swissotel Stamford in Singapore.

By this time, the silver light-the kind of light you only get when you're two sheets to heaven-was subdued. Or maybe it was just us being subdued by a string of tiny epiphanies, coupled with the easy kinship that too often develops around good food.

Especially between food writers such as ourselves, who had gathered in Singapore from various points of the globe for the launch of The Miele Guide, a new guide to the best restaurants in Asia.

By this point, let me stress that we had sampled pinch-sized eruptions of salt and sugar in a lobster cornet; a spicy gazpacho sorbet that on some level recalled a cold papaya mash laced with Indonesian rujak serut sauce; a dish of grilled Japanese tuna belly whose daring placement on a bed of Ratte potatoes and aubergine tartine actually worked; mini-leek raviolis bursting with unexpected sweetness in a pool of deep-tasting kaffir lime consomme; and—here’s the clincher—a creme brulee of Perigord foie gras whose perfect caramelized crust was lifted ever so subtly, as it should, by nothing more than spiced bread powder.

In other words: by this point, we were all best friends. At least, we told each other we were all best friends.

Not that all was flawless: the slow-roasted lamb fillets that concluded the mains, for instance, were too rare for my liking. Yet something else happened on the plate that was so spectacular and all was forgivable: an ingenious mass of crispy rice pop "carbonara" that practically stole the show.

Every now and then, Chef Andre Chiang would appear in our midst and the room would brighten up several notches. Yet nothing prepared us for what he set before us on the serving table at the start of the fish course.

It was a hunk of white truffle the size of a baseball glove.

It was impossible not to goggle at the thing. To the untrained eye, it looked no different than a mass of crude rock, grubby pale brown in color and some 10 centimeters in diameter. It was also impossible to ignore that pungent, distinctive odor -- somewhere between cheese and garlic (or sulfur, for that matter, which principally accounts for the flavor of garlic), the "foretaste of paradise" as Grimod himself quipped nearly three hundred years ago.

"It cost the restaurant a bomb," Chiang said cheerily, "Added to which we can't sell it, of course. Because it only means we will have to charge our customers three times the price, and that's no good. So I only share this with friends and special guests."

As we watched Chiang -- tall, handsome, equally impossible not to goggle at -- reduced to adolescent ardor, he began to go around the table and shave the bumpy fungus over our golden brown fillet of John Dory, a fat teardrop of tapenade sitting soberly by it side.

Inducted thus as Friends of Andre (FoA), I was reminded of what the great Waverley Root once said: that while truffles were there "to admire, not to eat, as they were too precious to be lavished, free, on guests", owners and chefs of great restaurants over the centuries have steeled themselves to make that supreme sacrifice each time.

Jaan, over which Andre Chiang has presided in the last four months, is one such restaurant. Previously a respectable, if somewhat staid stronghold of French haute cuisine, it has quickly metamorphosed into one of the most exciting rooms in town.

As with many of his young Asian contemporaries currently sharpening Singapore's culinary edge, the Taiwanese-born 32 year-old's vibrant Southern French mod cuisine has given his new home a new lease on life. These days, to be an FoA is really what it is all about. (To be thrown out of the FoA circle, of course, would be the next step.)

By now we are familiar with the story. The requisite stints at some of the most eminent 3-Michelin star kitchens in France -- Pierre Gagnaire, La Maison Troigros, Alain Ducasse. The early formative years under twin Michelin star chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. (Chiang is an equally talented pastry chef-his Snickers bar dotted with fleur de sel shows cheekiness towards convention as well as a sense of balance) It also doesn't hurt that he looks like a movie star.

We are also familiar with the bigger picture. Indeed, it seemed not so long ago that Singapore had only been Jakarta's savvier, more organized sister. Her hawker centers were better packaged, worked longer hours, but, as everything else about the place, seemed held aloft less by whimsy and creativity than a pack of regulations and government-led impetus.

But how far has she gone in such short a time. Modern cuisine, one that constantly attempts to mix and match the world, has not just caught on, but been mastered and continually upgraded. A gap between style and substance is no more permissible -- it is simply not on; they have to come together in one package. The modern experience has to be total. "Cosmopolitan sensibilities," as it were, have been built from the ground up. Yet it's quite clear that Singapore's international sophistication does not mean that producers or consumers are merely automatons: by dining on modern European cuisine at Iggy's or by chomping on a whopper at Burger King, Singaporeans have decidedly not been robbed off their cultural heritage, nor have they become the impassive dupes of transnational corporations.

And when they enjoy a black miso cod at a neighborhood restaurant, whipped up by a local chef, it is quite clear that New Cuisine in Singapore is Singapore's own.

Or is it? Meet Chef Daniel Sia of White Rabbit, an old chapel turned new restaurant and bar surrounded by acres of rolling green just off the trendy Dempsey area. Sia is a lanky, shy, thirtysomething and his international exposure includes spells at Le Gavroche, Marco Pierre White's Oak Room in London and, most recently, Justin Quek's Shanghai-based restaurant Le Platane where he was Chef de Cuisine. And he doesn't want to go mod all the way.

In fact, he wants to go the other way. He wants the other chic: simple, soulful food to go with the old-world, understated, essentially rustic space.

He wants, in other words, to be the Marco Pierre White of Singapore, after his mentor, because you can't be accused of lacking class for going to an MPW-kind of restaurant where you can be pretty sure you'll go the route of a sturdy Cobb salad, hot smoked salmon-stuffed "omelets Arnold Bennett" and reliably good steak frites.

Not that the impulse -- an utterly simple menu paired with something bleakly industrial or otherwise impossibly ethereal -- has no bleakly industrial or otherwise impossibly ethereal -- has no precedents: one need only look at London, Melbourne or Sydney in the last five years. But whether one can pull it off is another matter.

And so Sia smiled in spite of himself when we ooh-aahed down the brunch menu: ricotta hotcakes served with raspberries and caramel syrup, the White Rabbit Mac and Cheese. He also knew nowhere else could he offer Tournedos Rossini and Chicken a la King -- with the exception, perhaps, of Manila (don't ask) -- and not be laughed off all the way back to his mother's kitchen.

Yet behind the veneer of wholesome innocence, there is a steady haute hand at play.

While Sia's truffle soup (a full-bodied consomm‚ coddled in a pastry crust) might seem ordinary, it is anything but. On the contrary, it is a clever, subtle twist that plays off the usual creamy liquid against the classic bread-soaking French onion soup.

Sia's char-grilled smoked Wagyu striploin also happened to be among the best I've had for a long time; and while crispier cracklings are known to exist, the pieces of suckling pig he nonchalantly propped on the side held the joy of moistness and perfume. Even the green peas, always a sobering presence, were of the finest, juiciest sort.

To understand the new Singapore restaurant, it may also be necessary to go to a place like Forlino, opened only a few months.

When an underperforming waterfront entertainment stretch such as One Fullerton looked as if it was sagging even deeper into oblivion, an Italian chef from Piedmonte who had cooked for a year at il Lido on Sentosa packed up his family -- wife, mother, daughters, cousins -- and moved them to Singapore before opening a high-end restaurant so oblique and labyrinthine and impossibly haute 70s that it was instantly embraced.

Chef Osvaldo Forlino is slight, quick on his feet, energetic. You sense a hands-on chef who is as adept at working the room as he is the kitchen.

His food is resolutely rustic and gorgeous, drawn from a soil he knows only too well. He still keeps his own orchard in Piedmonte from which he sources its produce. In other words, he literally knows what his cow has just eaten every morning. "It is all about the ingredients," he solemnly announced, as any real Italian chef would.

Which would have been empty words had the food not been that good: most of Forlino's dishes were delicate, uncontrived affairs that let the raw ingredients sing. The sauces tended to be subtle but decisive. A dish of crushed potatoes with warm cod flakes and artichokes on a pool of Liguria olive oil was one such dish, as was the truffle cornmeal with wild mushrooms blanketed in a Robiola cheese fondue. The veal ravioli, touted as a signature dish, was less inspiring, but the baked wild sea bass served with Liguaria Taggiasche olives and Ratte potato antipasto was truly a thing of beauty.

When we got to the trio of desserts I thought it would be so nice to find something to carp about but not much luck there: okay, the pear marsala was somewhat outmoded, but the marrons glac‚s with vanilla ice cream and Barbaresco grappa immediately knocked us silly.

And it was only when I took a peek at the kitchen, organized in a French-style rigidly structured brigade, that I realized not so much the scale of the operation required to produce each dish than the labour of love that went into it. It was all there, in the kitchen, and in the large lumps of cured cullatello in the maturation rooms, next to all the cheeses, to be savoured with spicy fruit preserve.

It was visible, most of all, in Patrizia, Chef Forlino's wife, who was dashing from station to station, a sprig of thyme in her teeth, before kissing each plate with her seal of approval.

I waved at her, with real feeling. "Come back," she said, her husband's arm around her. It was the feeling you get of wanting to return home.

Which brings us to the final curiosity: whither Thai?

Having lived in this city for three years I have come to the conclusion that the best Thai restaurants in town tend to be the neighbourhood ones such as A-Roy Thai, which eschew carbon-copy Thai for down- home, forthright home-cooking with occasional flashes of brilliance, or hawker-style Thai peddling bold flavors and lively sauces.

Mod Thai has been around for more than a decade, and has influenced the global modern cuisine movement the world over. It has not only changed the way world-class chefs cook, but also become an emblem of modernity.

So a restaurant like Kha, an eight-month old contemporary Thai restaurant in HortPark, Singapore's latest gardening and lifestyle hub, is hardly a novelty -- its daring lies in the fact that it opened at all.

Restraint saves Kha from the burden of expectations, though only one appetizer -- the mango salad with crab and prawn cakes -- really stood out (and boy don't I know my crab cakes). Kha's strength, as it turned out, was neither the dressings nor the old-world standards -- the tom yam goong lacked the requisite complexity, the pad Thai was average yam goong lacked the requisite complexity, the pad Thai was average despite its charming banana blossom twist. Rather, it was in the joyously sturdy sauces -- the roast duck red curry amply displayed -- and a black sticky rice and date pudding whose tamarind caramel sauce defied the common wisdom about Thai desserts.

All of which tells only half the story, of course, because we all know there is another side to the city, the Singapore of hissing woks and chili-filled air, of the fetid and the festal. A melting pot where, despite its highly organized diversity, Malays eat yong tau foo, Indians gorge on mee rebus and throngs of Chinese turn up early for vegetable biryani at its freshest.

But what those four days have shown is a chef-driven culture that may just be, as with the French since 1789, where the revolution necessarily has to begin.

Whole industries were borne out of the demands of their craft: restaurant, takeout service, catering, fresh produce, foodstuff, kitchen equipment, culinary school, culinary arts, culinary entertainment, culinary publishing.

In Singapore, as it was in America and Australia, the cooking revolution was above all a middle-class revolution. The people who jumpstarted the cooking revolution here were doing it as a second career, held at least a bachelor of arts degree, had traveled and eaten extensively, and knew exactly what the restaurant trade involved.

Meanwhile, the wait staff, assistant chefs and kitchen hands are drawn from a new generation weaned on new domesticated tastes and for whom a career in the restaurant industry is not seen as second-class.

Institutions like SATS Catering and At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy are serious bastions of learning and knowledge exchange. Singapore has a National Culinary Team and regularly wins international cooking awards.

Like anything that merits education and training, opening a restaurant or working in one is seen as something that requires industry.

As The New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik says, the most derided of all modern restaurant manners -- the waiter who introduces himself by name -- is actually imperative to this effort: "I'm Henry, and I am your waiter tonight" means, really, "You and I belong to the same social class. Tomorrow night I could be sitting there, and you could be standing here." And it is this egalitarian ethos, a chief aspect of Singapore's strong middle class culture that is really driving the culinary revolution here.

And then there is us -- food writers. Whatever is trying to pass as traditional or modern these days we will pan and sigh over for as long as there is food on the table. We will be hard to please but also too eager to endorse something good when we taste it. And we will keep telling people what things are even if we often are just as pathetically, blissfully, ignorant.