Photo: Jia Xiang Nasi Lemak
It's been a good year for the food and beverage scene in Singapore. Gongcha left us, then made a triumphant return. Nasi lemak fever struck hard. Rainbow foods took over Instagram. More great Singapore restaurants got their Michelin stars.
As December draws to a close, we look back on the best bites that 2017 had to offer.
Chicken Rendang Nasi Lemak Set
Jia Xiang Nasi Lemak, 01-08 CT Hub 2, 114 Lavender Street
Open: 10am to 3pm (weekdays), 11am to 4pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays; go to www.facebook.com/jiaxiangnasilemak
Longing for a taste of home can make people do crazy things.
The Lim brothers from Kedah, Kenneth and Shawn, gave up good jobs, in information technology and with an established restaurant group respectively, to recreate their grandmother’s nasi lemak. At the family home, it is a breakfast dish. The octogenarian uses butterfly pea flowers from the garden to colour the rice blue, not knowing that this little touch would set off a torrent of Instagram posts when her grandsons recreated her dish to sell in Singapore. So yes, the blue rice is startling and cool, but Jia Xiang’s nasi lemak (right) is not just about optics.
The rice is cooked with just enough coconut milk so it is rich, but not cloying. The sambal is a little sweet, but also has gravitas from chilli. That achar has the right degree of tang and crunch.
Go on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when chicken rendang is available. There is nothing wrong with the fried chicken the brothers serve, but the rendang, Shawn’s creation, is especially good – the rich rempah scented with lots of aromatic kaffir lime.
Mix the gravy in with the rice and experience bliss on a spoon.
Out of all the things I have eaten this year, Jia Xiang’s nasi lemak embodies everything I look for in a dish. It is soulful, its flavours sing and it takes humble ingredients to the next level without gimmickry, whiz-bang theatrics and/or a craftily written press release with an overwrought “story”.
Who needs fireworks and frills when you can make nasi lemak that is just plain good?
Milk Moons, B208-5 Takashimaya Food Hall, Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road
Open: 10am to 9.30pm daily; go to www.milkmoons.com
Nubbly pandan cake frosted with buttercream, topped with berries and full of zing from lime zest; that same cake sandwiched with coconut tasting of deep, dark caramel; wobbly kueh kosui logs covered with long shreds of coconut; that incomparable kueh salat.
There is so much to love at Milk Moons, the new offshoot of Chalk Farm, Bryan Koh’s cake business. This takeaway kiosk offers luxe cakes with a decided Asian twist. But it is the one savoury offering that I cannot forget. Milk Moons’ Pulut Serunding (above) is an antidote to all that passive-aggressive food that some chefs are putting out. I am talking about chefs who list scores of ingredients that go into the dishes on the menu, never mind that these are not discernible on the (inevitably) hand-thrown plates.
The rich, heady spices permeating the shredded coconut topping are front and centre. So are the sweat-inducing chilli punch, the beguiling scent of kaffir lime and the umami from the chicken floss. Then there are the soft balls of glutinous rice, each grain separate, but all of them soft. They make the perfect landing spot for the shower of serunding.
But if I could, I would buy jars of the coconut and sprinkle its magic on everything – buttered bread, coconut rice, sayur lodeh and, heck, why not pasta too?
Pork Satay Hainan
Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill, 01-18 Clarke Quay, 3B River Valley Road
Open: 6pm to midnight daily; go to violetoon.com/violet-oon-satay-bar-grill- at-clarke-quay
Oh those skewers at Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill are the stuff of dreams.
They do not come cheap; $16 gets you three, but these are hefty sticks and love has gone into making every bite pleasurable. Pork tenderloin manages not to dry out on the grill. The meat is juicy and the marinade has gone in deep. Then there is the peanut sauce, just the right balance of chunky and smooth, and even better mixed in with the dollop of grated pineapple.
When putting together this list, I thought hard about whether or not the Tripe Satay was better.
97 Amoy Street
Open: noon to 3pm (weekdays), 6 to 11pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Originality seems to be the trend in the Singapore dining scene this year, with new restaurants coming up with entire menus of dishes I have not seen anywhere else. Some restaurants do it more successfully than others, however.
Blackwattle is especially memorable because of the way the odd combination of ingredients and flavours in its dishes, while not immediately appealing, grows on me. Chef-owner Clayton Wells even manages to make cliched items such as grilled octopus fresh by serving it in an exciting spicy ink sauce.
What is laudable, too, is that despite being a well-known name in Sydney – where he co-owns the well-regarded Automata restaurant – he keeps prices reasonable at Blackwattle with a $118 five-course dinner.
16 Stanley Street
Open: noon to 2pm and 6 to 9.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
There are few dishes so memorable that after eating them once, I can remember every detail about them. And I can’t wait to eat them again.
This year, that dish is Gaig’s Traditional Cannelloni at this offshoot of a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in Barcelona.
It is based on a recipe that has been with chef-owner Carles Gaig’s family since 1869. Rolled in a soft and smooth pasta sheet is a filling of shredded roast pork and beef and it comes drenched in a decadently rich and swoon-worthy truffled cream sauce.
There are other good dishes too. Stuffed Baby Squid is one of them. The squids are more half-grown than baby and come stuffed with minced pork, beef, squid and egg. They are stewed till tender in a thick, delicious tomato sauce.
The restaurant has the casual feel of a family-run eatery, which makes it even more appealing.
2 Keppel Bay Vista
Open: 11.30am to 3pm (Mondays to Fridays), 6 to 11pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays and public holidays, but will open for Sunday brunch next year
It is not difficult to dish out good seafood as long as one does not overcook it, which is why it requires a lot for a seafood restaurant to stand out from the competition.
This newcomer in Keppel Bay surprises with not just fresh and perfectly cooked seafood, but also recipes that take classic dishes a step forward.
My favourite is a seafood linguine, where the fresh pasta is simmered with a variety of seafood and tomatoes till it soaks up the delicious flavours.
But you do not get soggy noodles either.
Wild Red Snapper has the fish rubbed with a bit of curry spices and scallion yogurt before being grilled to perfection. The spices are used subtly so as not to overpower the fish, yet there is enough to give it a nice aroma.
600 North Bridge Road,Parkview Square
Open: 10am to 1am (Mondays to Thursdays), 10am to 2am (Fridays), 3pm to 2am(Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Cavernous and classy, the 1920s come to life at the resplendent Atlas bar, with its gilded walls, sharp-suited staff and exquisite cocktails.
While it opened only in March this year, the bar has already snagged a coveted spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, making the highest debut at No. 15.
The magnificent space may be better known for its vast collection of more than 1,000 bottles of gin that are stacked in a tower, but its over 250-label champagne collection is also notable. The most expensive is a shipwreck champagne – a 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole “Gout Americain” that was recovered from the seabed and is available at $190,700 a pop.
The bar’s popularity is apparent. Even on weekday afternoons, the space is comfortably filled with customers enjoying coffee or tea. But it is especially hard to get a table or a seat at the bar on weekends, where the wait in line can take up to an hour.
52A Amoy Street
Open: 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Another new bar that has made its mark in a very short time is Native in Amoy Street. Opened in January, it sits on a stretch that is already filled with reputable home-grown bars such as Jigger & Pony and Spiffy Dapper.
But head bartender and local boy Vijay Mudaliar is fixated on championing only regional spirits – not massmarket, brand-name ones, as expected in any bar worth its salt.
Here, a sizeable range of expressions from India’s Amrut single malt whisky and brands such as Nusa Cana white rum from Bali get heavy play at the back of the bar, along with house-distilled gins using Asian fruit and flavours, such as pomelo and matcha.
The unique concept, which also involves using foraged ingredients such as weaver ants in their now famous Antz cocktail, earned the newbie bar, which opened in January, a very respectable No. 47 spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list.
1 Cuscaden Road, Level 2 Regent Singapore
Open: 5pm to 1am (Mondays to Thursdays), 5pm to 2am (Fridays and Saturdays), 11.30am to 3.30pm and 5pm to 1am on Sundays
Before Atlas and Native joined Singapore’s rapidly evolving bar scene, there was Manhattan.
The three-year-old bar has gone from strength to strength, consistently delivering a quality drinks programme, innovating its offerings – all the while getting recognition from its international peers.
As American bourbons and ryes came to the fore, Manhattan also introduced the American Whiskey Embassy Programme in July this year, as a companion to its already world-class bar programme – one that got it its highest ranking on the World’s 50 Best Bars list yet. Moving up four places from No. 11 to No. 7 this year, the bar also remains the highest-ranked in Asia.
The bar stocks a highly curated 200-bottle collection of fine American whiskeys, including rare, cult brands such as Pappy Van Winkle.
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.