Five restaurants show there’s more to dining in the Lion City than meets the eye
Despite being known as a food lover's destination, it's easy to write off Singapore's dining scene as a sea of chilli crab, laksa and expensive eateries often serving more hype than substance. But here are five addresses that prove contemporary dining in the city-state is a vibrant mix of traditional tastes and new cuisines, with a wide array of food that is seriously good without taking itself too seriously.
Damian D'Silva is known by locals for championing the Singaporean heritage recipes that he grew up with. Of Peranakan and Eurasian descent, and with family friends who were Malay, Indian and Chinese, he prepares cuisine that carries a whiff of nostalgia for diners no matter what their background. Over the last 20 years, the chef has done it all, from running a hawker stall and a fine-dining restaurant to cooking his way across Europe. Now at Folklore, he channels the spirit of his maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, featuring dishes rarely seen outside of the home, like singgang, a soothing paste of painstakingly deboned wolf herring. He is not averse to adding his own personal touches like in his fried rice cooked with a labour-intensive sambal of buah keluak, the unique black nut that gives the rice an unctuous, addictive quality.
Han Li Guang takes the familiar tastes of Singapore and flips them upside-down. His through-the-roof creative cuisine is pure modern Singaporean, packed with the unexpected in every bite. His personal take on Mod-Sin recently earned the chef his first Michelin star. Dainty bites of rojak, radish cake and nasi lemak get the ball rolling, but they are merely Chef Han's way of warming up. Yes, there's a quenelle of spicy ice cream in the chilli crab and those egg noodles are actually thinly shaved strips of squid tinted with saffron (an oblique nod, conscious or not, to another iconic Mod-Sin dish, André Chiang's risotto in which every grain of rice was sculpted from squid). And if you think kaya (sweet coconut curd) on buttered toast and caviar sounds weird, here's the surprise: it isn't. The improbable pairing is the perfect end to a breath-taking meal.
Award-winning chef Leong Chee Yeng is an artist. His skill at fruit and vegetable carving and ice and butter sculptures made Malaysia’s Seremban town native a sought-after addition to many kitchens. He left for Singapore and Dubai to perfect his talent, eventually developing a unique technique using gelatin to sculpt elegant forms that capture light, colour, movement and fluidity. His love of the arts extends to the ceramics he crafts that decorate the newly renovated Jade, now a light airy room in the heritage Fullerton Hotel, to the poem in calligraphy that inspired his eight-treasure tasting menu, to the classical Chinese painting that he practises in his spare time. But of course, it is his culinary art that keeps diners coming back, like his delectable Char Siew Lamb Rib Loin or the sweet Boston lobster with egg noodles.
Chef and owner Daniel Chavez, already known in town for his food at Ola Cocina del Mar, brings the vibrant flavours and festive spirit of his native Peru to Singapore's first Peruvian restaurant. Tono is Peruvian slang for a party, and that is what Chavez and his chef Mario Malvaez deliver, starting with pisco-based chilcano de pisco that Peruvians consider more refreshing than pisco sours, and a soundtrack from home. The menu revolves around ceviche, the freshest fish and seafood lightly cured in lime and chilli, some reinvented with garnishes like fried calamari or sweet potato purée and served with ubiquitous plantain and purple yam chips. But just because Tono calls itself a cevicheria doesn't mean that you should miss dishes like the lomo saltado, a distinctly Latin stir-fried beef, or the desserts like tres leches with passionfruit, a page from Malvaez's Mexican roots.
When space became available in trendy Keong Saik Street just a few doors down from Andrew Walsh's highly rated Cure, the chef knew it was meant to be. He had been looking for somewhere to serve casual food and drinks and being so close means he can easily go back and forth between the two. The name Butcher Boy is a playful wink at the Patrick McCabe novel and Neil Jordan film, a dark social comedy set in the chef's native Ireland. And while the name can also be taken more literally as a reference to the excellent steaks or crispy pork belly on the menu, vegetables dishes like the flavour-packed grilled lettuce, aubergine or eggplant satay and cauliflower steak are most definitely not an afterthought. Chocolate Textures sounds like a serious end to the meal but the Milo-based sundae turns out to be the quintessential comfort food.