John Brunton investigates the gourmet revolution that's taking Singapore by storm and delves into the classic street food scene.
Long known for street food, Singapore steps up with five-star tables
Singapore has always been one of those destinations that punches above its weight. The tiny island state boasts one of the world's great financial centres as well as one of the busiest ports, and it has long attracted travellers, first for trade between west and east, and now for its futuristic shopping malls, first-class hotels and museums, sporting attractions, cultural events and last, but definitely not least, its food scene.
Join the crowds that throng Chinatown, walk the streets of Little India, where fragrant flowers and incense fill shops and temples, or Kampong Glam, the old Muslim quarter, where Arab Street and Haji Lane are lined with shisha cafes, and you can taste the history of each neighbourhood. Adventurous foodies can track down cheap and cheerful hawker stalls, and feast on authentic local dishes such as spicy Hokkien noodles, wok-fried with plump prawns; a rich beef rendang curry, the tender meat slow-cooked in coconut milk and chillies; or a bubbling Cantonese claypot of frogs legs, ginger and spring onion, with each dish only costing a few Singapore dollars.
Street food is still what Singapore does best but chic new restaurants are opening here all the time. For global gourmets ready to splash out a few hundred dollars on a gastronomic tasting menu, the fine dining scene has reached new heights with the recent arrival of some of the world's most feted chefs, from Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck to Daniel Boulud and Guy Savoy.
To find out more about this gourmet revolution and check out the latest hot spots, I sit down to eat with Singapore's leading restaurateur, the wonderfully-named Ignatius Chan, whose restaurant, Iggy's, features in the prestigious San Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants" awards, far ahead of many of Europe and America's best-known establishments. We are perched high above the city on the rooftop of one of Asia's most futuristic buildings, the three-towered Marina Bay Sands, linked by one long floating platform that locals have cheekily christened "the banana", a spectacular 150-metre pool with the hip Ku De Ta club at one end and gourmet restaurant Sky on 57 at the other.
Sky on 57 is run by renowned Singaporean chef Justin Quek, and Iggy insists I sample the signature xiao long bao, delicate Chinese dumplings filled with foie gras, and king fish tartare with seaweed-coated oyster fritter. I eat as he explains the food revival.
"Over the last few years, the government has pushed to bring different food concepts into Singapore, turning it into a playground for the rich and famous, and I think it has worked. Some people call us a 'Little Hong Kong', but I think a better description is 'Little Monaco', a place where something has been made out of nothing."
For the most part, celebrity chefs are primarily based here in Marina Bay Sands, but Iggy chose to keep his own place in town, and hints that the more interesting locales are still a bit more off the beaten track. I promise to return for dinner and he agrees to show me around after nightfall, so for now I set out to explore Marina Bay Sands.
I already know the chefs Daniel Boulud and Guy Savoy well, and both their restaurants here are exceptional: Savoy has a team that almost perfectly recreates the ambience and dishes of his Paris gastronomic temple, such as his divine artichoke and black truffle soup with mushroom brioche, while New York chef Boulud has installed a remarkable young chef, Stephane Istel, who is filling his restaurant, db Bistro Moderne, every night, serving French classics that include everything from a hearty coq au vin to irresistible profiteroles smothered with a hot chocolate sauce. It isn't just the high rollers staying at the hotel who pack these restaurants every night but locals eager to try out the cuisine of two of the world's most famous chefs.
Both are clearly very excited about their Singapore experience. Guy Savoy explains that a local favourite, black pepper crab, has inspired him to create "black pepper cod", which, he says, you'll find on his menu here and in Paris.
Boulud is equally enthusiastic: "The dining scene is moving forward very fast in Singapore. The multitude of different cultures and styles of cooking you'll find actually reminds me a little of New York. The spectrum of foods is impressive. You can get a wonderful super-casual meal at a local food court where you would sit down to chilly crabs or traditional chicken rice or on another night opt for an incredible western style dining experience."
But it's time now to escape the somewhat surreal, vacuum-packed world of Marina Bay and head out into the steamy tropical heat of real-life Singapore. My mission is to look at the best-of-the-best at the other end of the spectrum - the vivid world of street food - and I'm lucky to have Naseem, a local food guide recommended to me by a chef. Naseem, who is a gold mine of inside information, used to run her own restaurant serving contemporary Indian cuisine.
Forget the gritty stalls that symbolise street food in the likes of Bangkok and Hong Kong, because street eats in Singapore mean food courts; the same stalls cooking the same exotic dishes, but in much more sanitised, and increasingly fashionable surroundings. Here, there is no chance of seeing a rat scuttle past, and each hawker has to display a letter, from A to D, signifying how high is the hygiene standard. I'm reminded of Iggy: "The one thing we lack is a bit of chaos," he says.
There is certainly no chaos at our first stop, Food Opera, located in Ion Orchard, the latest and most exclusive of the city's many shopping malls. The food court is down in the basement, far below the elegant Prada, Cartier and Burberry boutiques. But not to be outshone, the dining area is decorated with kitsch baroque chandeliers and plush velvet sofas. The choice of stands is spectacular, featuring some of Singapore's oldest family-run businesses, with many hawkers specialising in a single dish, such as dry beef noodles, oyster omelette or, my favourite, curry laksa, an intense prawn noodle soup served up by the same family for three generations, from early beginnings as a humble street stall before ending up here.
Madame Angie Foo, who runs the stall, tells me she is almost 80 but would never think of retiring. "What would I do all day?" she asks. "Watch TV?" When I try to discover the secret of her laksa, which is just that little bit more sour and tangy than usual, she immediately becomes reticent and disappears into the back.
All too soon, we exchange the air-conditioned mall and busy Orchard Road for the crowded, narrow streets of Chinatown and the Maxwell Food Centre, an institution for Chinese cuisine, where more than a hundred tempting stalls cram into a converted 1950s covered market. Every table is filled with hungry diners, pausing only from the serious job of eating with chopsticks to sip a drink, the minimal conversation all but drowned out by the whirring drone of roof fans.
The problem here is knowing where to start and, then, when to stop ordering. Don't miss Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice (it has the longest queue); vegetable popiah rice rolls; rojak, a mix of fruit and vegetables with a sharp sweet and sour sauce; steamed dim sum and an exotic bowl of herbal soup that claims to heal a host of ailments. Each costs about S$5 to S$8 (Dh15 to Dh23).
Naseem then whisks me off in the car to Geylang Serai Food Court, just outside the city centre. This is a different face of Singapore, a Muslim Malay "kampong" village, whose huge market hosts the only halal food court in the city. Here noisy families sit around tables ordering nasi Padang, a dozen different curries served with rice, home-made chicken and beef satay, brightly coloured kuay coconut cakes, spicy otak-otak fish steamed in a banana leaf, and a mountain of biryani rice. I can't help thinking that everywhere we go, at any time of the day, people are out eating, and everywhere seems full, from street stalls to chic restaurants.
"Singapore is a very tiny island state, so what do we have to do during our time off? The answer is to go out to eat," explains Naseem. "It really is the national pastime here and something that unites all Singaporeans - Chinese, Malays and Indians."
Naturally, Iggy's restaurant is back in the chic Orchard Road district, discreetly ensconced in the Hilton hotel. Although the decor is sober, the tasting menu is dazzling, full of totally unexpected dishes: sushi resting on meringue instead of rice, with the soy sauce already infused by molecular methods; delicate spider crab served on a crunchy "tuile" of black pepper; abalone complemented with artichoke, pistachio and yuzu. After two sublime desserts, Iggy says it is time to go, and our first stop is Dempsey Hill, an oasis of green just above the city centre, which has been transformed from a sprawling army barracks into a gourmet paradise of more than 20 diverse restaurants.
My host explains that while locals often come here for their favourite comfort food - banana leaf curry at Samy's or the best black pepper crab you have ever tasted at Long Beach - we are heading for two cutting-edge locales. The Tippling Club is the brainchild of English chef Ryan Clift, who is surrounded by a wild bunch of Australian chefs. This has to be the coolest place in Singapore to hang out, with casual dining along a long bar, across from the open kitchen and barmen conjuring up inventive drinks. Don't miss Ryan's inventive creations, such as scampi with kuzu noodles and sea grapes or an eye-catching plant pot filled with wild fern, white truffle mousse and dried truffle brioche.
Just round the corner from the Tippling Club lies the Disgruntled Chef, where diners are sitting in a tropical garden lounge. Iggy and I head for the bar, where the talented young Singaporean chef Daniel Sia (it turns out he's not grumpy at all) serves an Asian take on tapas, including mussels steamed with kaffir lime and lemon grass and an unforgettable baked veal bone marrow. Even higher up than Dempsey Hill is Mount Emily, and that is where we end the evening at a restaurant that typifies Singapore's eclectic dining-out scene.
Hanging Out at Mount Emily is a budget hostel, yet it is also the venue for Wild Rocket, a chic gourmet restaurant featuring a cuisine termed "Mod Sin". Willin Low is the lawyer-turned-chef, with no hang-ups about mixing up Singapore hawker dishes with the flavours of European cuisine. The result is dishes such as beef bolognaise served with chunky Chinese rice noodles, or duck confit juxtaposed with yam cake and plum mustard. Even on a Sunday night, the place is fully booked with smart young Singaporeans who, even at the end of the weekend, still prefer to dine out than stay at home.
The next day I am due to fly out, but there is still time for one last stop at what remains for many the ultimate Singapore institution. Raffles is not just one of the world's great hotels, it is a bastion of the culinary heritage of the old colonial days, and Singaporeans remain nostalgic for this bygone era. Locals and visitors alike flock here for a traditional cooked English breakfast, and the rubber planters' favourite, curry tiffin, long enjoyed by guests including Somerset Maughan and Joseph Conrad.
I settle down for a sedate afternoon tea with home-baked scones and strawberry jam, cucumber sandwiches and a pot of Earl Grey. Sitting here, cocooned in a rather genteel past, I could be a million miles from the frenetic Singapore of today; Chinatown's noisy cafes, its food courts, Dempsey Hill and the fashionable dining rooms of Marina Bay Sands.
If you go
The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Singapore with Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) cost from Dh3,760, including taxes
Sky on 57 (www.marinabaysands.com; 00 65 6688 8857) has a tasting menu for S$188 (Dh550)
db Bistro Moderne, also at Marina Bay Sands, has main courses from S$40 (Dh120)
Iggy's, Orchard Road (www.iggys.com.sg; 00 65 6732 2234), has a tasting menu for S$275 (Dh805)
The Tippling Club at Dempsey Hill (www.tipplingclub.com; 00 65 6475 2217) has a tasting menu for S$145 (Dh425)
The Disgruntled Chef (www.disgruntledchef.com; 00 65 6476 5305), also at Dempsey Hill, has tapas from S$15 (Dh45)
Wild Rocket (www.wildrocket.com.sg; 00 65 6339 9448) has main courses from S$40 (Dh120)
Afternoon tea at Raffles hotel (www.raffles.com/singapore; 00 65 6337 1886) costs S$58 (Dh170)
The food centres
Prices at Food Opera, Orchard Road, start from S$5 (Dh15)
Maxwell Food Centre has dishes from S$5 (Dh15)
At Geylang Serai Food Court, dishes start from S$3 (Dh9)
For more details, visit www.yoursingapore.com