Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Gourmet Capital of the East


For as long as I can remember, Singapore has always wanted to be Asia’s food capital. I wasn’t always convinced, but in 2010 I finally conceded the point. But even then I had my doubts. Shouldn’t Tokyo, with its many Michelin star restaurants, have this distinction? How about Bangkok, where it’s difficult to eat badly? And what about Hong Kong, which has great international restaurants and the world’s best Chinese food?

But time was on Singapore’s side. Bangkok is still struggling

to recover from the pandemic. Hong Kong had massive problems of its own. And the language makes Tokyo a closed shop to non-Japanese.

Singapore, on the other hand, is booming. Some of this has to do with the global financial community’s decision to make the city its Asian base. There are as many Masters of the Universe (in Tom Wolfe’s words) in Singapore as there are in London. They know good food and are willing to pay for it. And in the era of the crazy rich Asians, even the native Singaporeans are much richer and more sophisticated than they were ten years ago.

The pandemic kept me away from Singapore for two years, but when I returned for a short trip last month, I just ate.

Chef Kazu Hamamoto runs one of Singapore’s most inaccessible restaurants

On my very first night, I was taken to Revolver by its owner and guiding star, Sameer Sain. (Full disclosure: Sameer Sain and I co-founded Culinary Culture; a non-profit organization that awards Indian chefs and rates restaurants.) Revolver is now one of Singapore’s hottest restaurants. It serves a new style of Indian cuisine using only different fire cooking techniques.

The chef is Saurabh Udinia who I have admired for years. Saurabh blew us away with its hits: the famous Scotch Egg, a stunning Lobster Manchurian, short rib in a Nihari reduction, and the restaurant’s signature kulchettes, small, stuffed kulchas with toppings like Malabar crab.

Lunch the next day was at another Sameer eatery, Hamamoto (named after its chef), which consists of a single counter behind which the chefs work. You eat omakase, which means you get what the chef gives you.

Gaggan Anand serves his greatest hits in Singapore suitably tweaked

Japanese cuisine is complex. By now most of us know that the sushi rolls we get aren’t really Japanese, and the food we eat in the fancy modern Japanese places isn’t very Japanese either, but is based on a cuisine that more or less created by chef Nobu Matsuhisa in America. The problem is that authentic Japanese haute cuisine relies on such delicate flavors and so much subtlety that people who love nobu or zuma don’t always like it.

Hamamoto makes real Japanese food, but he tweaks it slightly here and there without changing its basic character, to make it accessible to people like me who don’t have the experience required to appreciate traditional Japanese cuisine. The food, as I expected, was quite spectacular and it was a delight to watch Chef Hamamoto working with his hands and preparing the food on the other side of the counter.

Odette’s menu boasts a brilliant reinterpretation of this ancient mainstay, the floating island

Dinner was an unexpected treat. Rishi Naleendra is the only Sri Lankan chef to ever win a Michelin star. I was at Cheek By Jowl, one of his other restaurants that served Rishi’s version of French bistro cuisine. I was surprised to find that his current restaurant serves really sophisticated food in a very relaxed atmosphere. The food takes all of Rishi’s influences, from his childhood in Sri Lanka to his youth in Australia and his years in Singapore, using both classical and modern techniques to bring it all together. I got blown away Rishi deserves a second star which I think must be on the way.

The fire cooking trend, exemplified by Revolver, is usually attributed to a restaurant called Etxebarri in Spain, run by Basque chef Victor Arguinzoniz. Firedoor in Sydney, which I wrote about here in 2016, descends directly from Etxebarri. Burnt Ends, the hugely influential Singapore restaurant, takes the same principles but makes something of their own.

I never managed to get a table at Burnt Ends but they recently moved to a larger venue so I was able to get in.

At Odette’s, waiters, managers and even chef Julien Royer control every table during the meal

To say the food was outstanding would be an understatement. Chef Dave Pynt elicits so much flavor from each ingredient through the skillful use of fire that I was amazed by his ingenuity.

My favorite dishes included a dish with leeks and a type of steak the French call an onglet. This is a very flavorful cut, but it’s usually not very tender. I don’t know what Dave Pynt does, but his version was meltingly tender: the best onglet in the world. It was in these simple ingredients (leeks, marrow, cheaper cuts of steak, etc.) that the chef’s transformative genius was evident.

As you may know, Gaggan Anand has a super successful pop up restaurant in Singapore at Mandala Club. It’s so popular that I’m assuming Gaggan will likely open a full-time restaurant in Singapore.

Chef Dave Pynt at Burnt Ends has changed the way chefs work with fire

All the Gaggan classics were there the night I was there, most with new twists: Yoghurt Explosion, Charcoal, Ghewar, etc. And the familiar Gaggan hallmarks appeared on the menu: he might have been the first chef, the Uni (sea urchin) combined. with something sweet; here it was with strawberries. But there were also many new dishes, including a fabulous onion rice with a perfect crab curry.

Gaggan was in Bangkok when I was there and this is only the second time in years that I have eaten his meal without benefiting from the spectacular performance he put on each night (first at The Lab and then at The G’s spot). It wasn’t the same: Gaggan’s personality was always at the heart of the experience. But the food, overseen by Rydo Anton as always, was great and if Gaggan stays in Singapore I’m sure a Lab experience will be added as well.

Luxury ingredients abound at Burnt Ends, but Dave Pynt’s genius is most evident when he conjures up less expensive cuts of meat

My last dinner in Singapore was at one of the best restaurants in the world. After eating a meal he cooked in the Maldives a month ago, I had no doubt that Julien Royer was a top chef. Nonetheless, I was impressed by how well Odette, his three star restaurant, was run. Not only was the service faultless; it was also warm and friendly. During the meal different waiters and managers came to each table (as did Julien herself) and you felt like the entire restaurant was welcoming you. There was no point in giving high rollers and VIPs special treatment: everyone was treated with the same warmth.

The experience of dining in a three Michelin star restaurant should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, you do that all too often. But nobody will forget an evening at Odette’s.

The food was everything you would expect from a great chef: Julien’s signature slow-boiled egg, an intense pigeon dish, a brilliant reinterpretation of that old mainstay, the floating island, and much more.

In the Revolver, Saurabh Udinia serves Scotch Egg, Lobster Manchurian and the signature Kulchettes

Odette really is one of the best restaurants in the world. Like all great restaurants, it transports you to a dreamy state where everything is perfect, every bite is delicious, and you feel like you’re being immersed in a warm and luxuriously scented bubble bath.

The next day, before my departure, I had a quick lunch with my old friend Vladimir Kojic (the sommelier at Gaggan) at the counter of Saurabh Udinia at Revolver. The food was even better than the first night I went there. Saurabh is clearly up to something here.

Just like Singapore. Finally: the undisputed gourmet capital of the East!.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, March 13, 2022

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