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Gourmet Island

Against the odds, Singapore has built up a formidable reputation as the city with the best international food in Asia.Vir Sanghvi tells you more about its culinary excellence.

india Updated: May 08, 2010 18:00 IST
Vir Sanghvi

FoodEach time I go to Singapore, I marvel at the energy and enterprise of Singaporeans. Fifty years ago, there was no Singapore, the country. The city was Chinese-dominated (it still is: around 80 per cent of the population) and it shared an uneasy relationship with its parent state (the country that we now know as Malaysia).

Eventually, the Malays asked Singapore to leave their federation, and as Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, recounts in his fascinating autobiography, hardly anyone believed Singapore could survive. Instead, it has flourished. With few natural resources of its own, it has harnessed the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of its people to create one of the world’s great city-states. Its philosophy appears to be: if you want to do something, then of course you can.

The city’s reputation as a gourmet paradise owes something to this philosophy. You can understand why Tokyo and Bangkok are gourmet centres: they boast of two of the world’s great cuisines. Similarly, Hong Kong was not just the greatest financial centre in the East; until the mainland opened up, it was the centre of Chinese cuisine. Singapore has had few such advantages. But, against the odds, it has built up a formidable reputation as the city with the best food in Asia.

Four years ago, I enjoyed the World Gourmet Summit, the Singapore Tourist Board’s (STB) successful attempt to put Singapore on the world gastronomic map. This year, I am going again to see if things have changed in the interim.

Day One
Exhausted after a night flight, I check into the Mandarin on Orchard Road. The Mandarin and I go way back. When I first came to Singapore in 1976 (as you can imagine, it was a very different place then), I stayed at the Mandarin. I came back to the Mandarin in 1993, 17 years later by which stage many other hotels had opened and it was no longer the only game in town. And now after another 17 years, here I am again.

It is a huge hotel, two towers, over a thousand rooms, with the best location in Singapore, in the centre of Orchard Road, across the street from Paragon and right next to Takashimaya. It is busy and bustling but I can’t help feeling that in the 34 years since I first came to Singapore it has allowed too many other hotels to overtake it.

Even its name has lost its cachet – these days when people say 'Mandarin’ you think of the rival Mandarin Oriental. But service is gracious and friendly and my room is excellent and I collapse into a deep sleep before waking up in time for lunch at Pine Court, the hotel’s Chinese restaurant which I remember well from 34 years ago. Then, it had been the location of my first real Chinese meal in a Chinese city and I had regarded it as a revelation. For instance, because I was used to Chinese restaurants in London and India, I kept wondering why the fried rice was taking so long to arrive. Finally, they explained it to me: the Chinese ate steamed rice with the meal; the fried rice was a course on its own served at the very end.

I am slightly less gauche now and am intrigued to see that the food – traditional on my earlier visits – is now slightly more modern. The Peking Duck starter comes plated – two little pancakes – with a mass of fried eggplant topped with pork floss on top. The hot and sour soup is full of interesting seafood and the spare ribs are slow-cooked (in the way that Western restaurants serve pork belly) so that they are moist on the inside.

Gung Ba Chicken is deconstructed into a simple, less complex dish and yes, we end with fried rice. This has bits of fish roe added for the texture (it works well) and is topped with a mound of white crab meat.

For tea, I go off to meet Andrew Phua, STB’s head of Dining at TWG, a tea lounge, owned by Sindhis but fronted by a French tea sommelier. Tea has been crying out for the wine treatment (grand cru, food pairings, etc.) but somehow Indians don’t seem interested. How refreshing then to find a Singapore chain that has not only done this but turned it into a commercial success.

My STB guide Naseem hosts dinner at Halia, a garden restaurant in the Botanical Gardens. We sit outside but my guess is that they have overhead air-conditioners going at full blast because it is very pleasant. The food is good. The chef understands mushrooms and vegetable flavours though there is also an excellent steak.

Day Two
Breakfast with Michael Sengol, CEO of the group that owns the Mandarin and John Sarlain, the hotel’s general manager. I tell them about my historical links with the Mandarin and ask them why they allowed the Mandarin name to be usurped. It turns out that there have been changes of ownership and both are relatively new to the hotel. But Michael has very quickly spotted what is wrong and given his track record in London and China, my guess is that he will push the Mandarin into recapturing its old predominance.

Even now, the hotel is well-run and wildly successful but Michael wants to pitchfork it into the front rank of Singapore hotels. Lunch is at a fun place. Wild Rocket is on top of Mount Emily but is notable mainly for the enthusiasm and imagination of its chef-owner Willin Low.

Willin is a qualified lawyer who gave up his practice to indulge his passion for food. The restaurant is a family affair. His staff are partners in the enterprise and Willin’s mother sits silently at a table in the dining room, taking in the action. Even the guests all seem to be regulars. The food is delicious. Willin has tried to marry Western techniques and Asian flavours and has succeeded in a way that only an amateur with no chefly preconceptions can. That said, the cooking is technically excellent. A dish of slow cooked pig cheek would shame any Paris kitchen and a martini white chocolate tart is brilliant.

Willin is not used to Indian flavours so he shyly brings out his tandoori lamb chop. (“And now, I will commit suicide.”) It is great and demonstrates how Indian chefs need to take more risks.

If you know anything about Thai food, then David Thompson needs no introduction. An Australian, he spent a year in Thailand in the late 1980s, discovered the complexities of Thai cuisine (“beyond pad Thai”) and opened the Darley Street Thai in Sydney. When that restaurant became a global phenomenon, Christina Ong, who owns several trendy hotels all over the world, asked him to open a restaurant at her Halkin Hotel in London.

Thompson opened Nahm, London’s first up-market Thai restaurant around eight or nine years ago and quickly got a Michelin star. Nahm is, as far as I know, the only Thai restaurant in the world with a Michelin star.

After that, Thompson published his cookbook, which is to Thai cuisine what the Silver Spoon is to Italian food. Though his cooking style has been widely imitated, Thompson has actually gone back to basics. His food at Nahm these days is more traditional than ever before. Thompson is in Singapore for the Summit and I am scheduled to interview him. We soon get sidetracked however (he knows Bombay, has cooked at the Thai Pavilion and rates Ananda Solomon highly) and end up talking about everything (the political situation in Thailand, mainly) other than food. I’ve followed his food for years now so I am pleased to know that he will be opening at Bangkok’s Metropolitan Hotel (also owned by Christina Ong) as soon as the situation in that city stabilises.

Next is a Sassicaia tasting. I am not drinking alcohol these days so for once I remember to spit after every sip. We try six Sassicaia vintages and though Sassicaia is a wine I like, my palate seems to be shot to hell. Nothing tastes right. I guess you need to drink wine regularly to keep your palate in good shape. I am supposed to go to a wine dinner featuring the food of Andrea Berton, a two Michelin star chef from Italy but I change my plans and head for the Hyatt instead where Thompson is cooking at the open kitchen at mezza9, the influential multi-cuisine restaurant.

It turns out that his two sous chefs from Nahm have not been able to make it because Heathrow Airport is shut because of volcanic ash. The Thai chefs from Bangkok are busy celebrating Songkran (their new year) so Thompson is on his own in the kitchen. But he has not scaled down the menu. There are three starters – northern sausage, grilled mussels and mackerel. Then there’s a choice of six main courses and everybody gets a plate with three desserts. This is not easy to pull off when you are on your own and scores of mezza9 diners are opting for your menu. So Thompson is tense and stressed out throughout the service but I am thrilled: when is the last time I saw one of the world’s great chefs cook everything with his own hands?

As predicted, the food is amazing. Eating Thai food at a snack bar or a Bangkok hotel is like sticking your toe into the ocean: you get some sense of the feeling but have no idea of the breadth and depth that lie beyond. Thompson’s food is the real thing: bursting with complex flavours.

I can’t wait for his Bangkok restaurant to open.

Day Three
This promises to be an interesting day. Michel Rostang will cook for a select group of journos, restaurateurs and foodies who will then eat what Rostang has made over lunch with the old boy.

I know Rostang a bit having met him when his brasserie opened at Atlantis in Dubai. His gastronomic restaurant in Paris has two stars but he also has six other restaurants specialising in lighter food. He is a great chef in the French tradition with French prejudices (“Shitake mushrooms have no flavour…”) whose food has never travelled well, denying him the Asian and American successes that keep the likes of Ducasse and Robuchon going.

I am intrigued to see what he will do in Singapore. Foolishly (in my view), he has planned a needlessly poncy French menu of unnecessary complexity. The starter is “Petit gris snails, squid ink fettucini, royale custard with garlic and parsley, hazelnut oil.” And there are four other courses.

Plus, there are the practical problems. Paris airport is closed. So there has been considerable speculation about how Rostang will make it to Singapore on time for his Masterclass. Then, he has been scheduled to hold his Masterclass at the Miele show kitchen. Miele makes excellent kitchen appliances for the home cook but I’m not sure if a professional chef like Rostang will be at home in such a kitchen.

All my reservations are borne out. Rostang is tired and bleary-eyed. He tells me he has travelled 25 hours to make it to Singapore. He took a train from Paris to Rome, then a flight to Dubai, then another plane to Colombo then yet another flight to Singapore. Having arrived only a few hours before, he is hardly in a position to show off the best of his cooking.

Predictably, the Masterclass is not a success. Rostang seems tired and distracted and much of the cooking is done by his young sous chef who actually has a far better hand than the master. (This is one aspect of cooking that surprises outsiders. Often chefs will run kitchens where individual assistants are much better cooks than the chefs themselves. But in French cuisine, it is not the actual cooking that matters as much as the ability to create or invent dishes.)

He has a real problem with the dessert. This is another pointless poncy French pudding of no interest to anybody except for the Michelin inspectors. Rostang takes whipped pastry cream, adds 5 grams of cigar tobacco and bakes it till it becomes solid. Then he rolls the solid cream into a hollow cigar and stuffs it with cognac mousseline.

Except it does not work out that way. Rostang’s recipe requires the pastry cream to be baked for five minutes at 180 C. He puts the cream into the oven. Five minutes go by. Then another five. The cream has not hardened. Eventually, he pulls it out but finds he cannot slide it off the baking tray. “My mistake,” he says. “I make too thin.” So he does it again. This too is a screw-up. He tries it a third time. This yields one very spotty cigar. (Rostang needs four.) He packs us off to the dining room and asks his sidekick to try making the dessert for the fourth time. Personally I would have been happier with a bowl of ice-cream.

Afterwards Rostang tells me that he is not used to these ovens. His kitchen in Paris uses industrial strength appliances. He was also thrown, he says, by being asked to cook with electricity. Like most chefs, he prefers gas. I eat the meal. If he had served it to the Michelin inspectors they would have thrown him out of the Guide, entirely. The big event of the summit – and the reason I have made it to Singapore – is the chance to hear Ferran Adria, the chef whose El Bulli is widely considered the most influential restaurant in the world today. Adria will not be cooking in Singapore. He has not cooked outside of El Bulli for 20 years. As he speaks little English, all interaction will be limited by necessity. Yet, such is Adria’s star quality that hundreds of people have paid for tickets simply to hear him speak.

The talk is at the Capella, the Norman Foster-designed hotel in Sentosa and no sooner does Adria arrive than he is mobbed by his fans. The hall is packed out and the chef receives the kind of reception one associates with the Dalai Lama or some other holy figure.

His speech – through an interpreter – is brief. He welcomes us and says that few of us have ever eaten his food. This is true. El Bulli is open for only part of the year for one meal a day. It seats only 50 covers. So, Adria’s chefs feed 8,000 people a year (160 meals x 50 covers). That’s it.

Because so few of us have been to El Bulli, he says, we know very little about the food he really serves. So, he would like us all to see a film his brother has made which chronicles a single day at El Bulli.

The lights dim and the movie comes on. It captures the drudgery of any restaurant’s routine and bits of it move as slowly as a European film in which a man takes five minutes to chop vegetables. But the audience watches in pin-drop silence. Not one cell phone goes off. Nobody whispers to his or her neighbour.


Food

When the lights come on again, Adria resumes his speech. Many people think of El Bulli as a science lab, he says. But as the film shows, science is a very small part of the El Bulli experience. There are 70 staff members for 50 guests and 20 of them are in the kitchen. The emphasis is on creating an artisanal experience for each diner, not on gassing guests with science.

Adria says he will take questions. A woman wants to know what his favourite food is. It depends, says Adria, on whether he is responding as a chef or a man. As a man, his greatest meals have been those where he has enjoyed the company, where the food has suited his mood (“when you want hawker noodles, not even the finest caviar will make you happy”) etc. As a chef, his approach is purely professional. “What is the difference between a chef and an ordinary diner?” someone asks. “The main difference is that a chef has different reference points. I have tasted the world’s finest caviar three times; the finest Iberian pork five times; the finest toro twice. So, it is sad but I will always compare anything I eat to those experiences.”

A young Indian-looking girl in the audience stands up. Adria has said that he will shut El Bulli and spend a couple of years travelling the world. Where would he like to travel to?

Adria takes a good look at her. “You know,” he says, “I feel I have so much to learn. I went to Thailand in 2000 and it changed my perspective on food. Now I want to go to India. I am sad to say that I have never visited this great country.”

The girl stands up again. She looks a little peeved.“Thanks,” she says. “But I’m not from India. I am from Pakistan.”

Afterwards, Adria offers to sign copies of his book and a long queue forms. I have never ever seen a chef being treated this way. The audience – almost none of whom have ever eaten his food – treat him like a rock star. I’ve seen Alain Ducasse and many of the world’s top chefs up close but none evokes the hysteria that Adria can generate.

Dinner at Iggy’s, a small, serious-food restaurant that is sometimes called the best in Asia but is – without question – regarded as one of the top restaurants in Singapore (along with Jaan, Les Amis, Gunthers and one or two others). Its reputation is well-deserved. There is only an eight-course menu of tasting plates and the food – French with Asian influences – is so good it takes my breath away. Stand-out dishes include foie gras with Chinese-style pork and tofu, Australian wagyu and lobster with cappellini.

The desserts are made by a Colombian pastry chef, who, by some coincidence, spent a year or so working with Adria at El Bulli. They include a brilliant banana split and a wonderful peanut butter ice-cream with apples and celery. This is the best meal I have had in Singapore. Ever.

Day four
Because Adria is such a star, everyone wants to meet him. Naturally this is not possible but the Singapore Tourism Board has pulled strings to get me some time alone with the great man.

We meet in a suite at the Capella with strict instructions not to talk for too long because the chef has a packed schedule. This is easily said but less easily done. We have to go through an interpreter so everything takes longer and besides I catch Adria in a talkative mood.

We start by discussing yesterday’s film. I tell Adria that as somebody who has never been to El Bulli, the film was a revelation to me because it emphasised the artisanal side of the El Bulli experience. He nods. The trouble with the way in which El Bulli is written about, he says, is that people expect him to wear a white coat and carry a hypodermic syringe in each hand. They ignore the solid cooking that is at the heart of El Bulli. Why do I think this is?

I tell him that I have a theory. Adria and El Bulli came to fame thanks to a New York Times Magazine article which hailed Spain as the centre of the cuisine world and put Ferran on the cover. Though that article did not over-emphasise the science aspect, it suited the French, the old masters of cuisine, to focus only on the science. That way, even when they were hailing Adria’s scientific skills, they were damning him with faint praise.

Each time somebody like Joel Robuchon said that he admired Adria’s cooking techniques, what he was really signalling was: “This guy is a mad scientist. We are the real chefs who make good food the old fashioned way.”

Adria seems to agree though obviously he cannot say so in so many words to a journo. “That is a very profound observation,” he says enthusiastically (we then go off the record).

This leads to a discussion about the role of science in the kitchen. I know that Adria is uneasy about the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ which is often applied to his food. “It is not a word I ever use,” he says. I tell him about Nicholas Kurti, the Oxford scientist who started a tradition of seeing how science can help cooks and we discuss Kurti’s early demonstrations about the power of microwaves. “The term molecular gastronomy was invented by an Italian,” says Adria. “It has nothing to do with El Bulli.”

But the Adria-is-basically-a-scientist consensus suits chefs because it allows them to belittle him. Over a year ago I had a long discussion (again through an interpreter) with Santi Santamaria, the great Spanish chef who regularly attacks Adria. My point to Santi was that we all use science. Otherwise we would be cooking in medieval kitchens. There was nothing wrong with science as long as it was used as a tool and did not become the point of the whole exercise. Adria is intrigued. “You know the politics,” he twinkles. “How did Santi react?” I respond that he was not terribly interested in what I had to say. Adria laughs.

My problem with El Bulli’s influence, I say, is that it has given rise to a whole school of air-and-foam cooking where chefs have lost sight of the principles of taste and focus only on effects. At too many restaurants, the chefs seem like kids who are playing with chemistry sets without bothering to read the instructions.

Adria concedes that this is a valid criticism. He feels no kinship with the kitchen science-as-art brigade. “There is more art in a dish of Singapore chilli crab than liquid nitrogen used pointlessly,” he says. We talk about the chefs he admires. To my surprise, they are all French. He likes Michel Guerard, he says, because he regards him as the true father of nouvelle cuisine. He admires Jacques Maximin because of the cerebral approach he brings to his cooking. And he respects Joel Robuchon for his perfectionism.

Nobody can really disagree with this list though perhaps Maximin’s inclusion is a little controversial and it is interesting that he picks Robuchon over Ducasse, the man with the most Michelin stars in history.

Adria thinks about it. “There is one more,” he says. “There is a restaurant called Mibu in Tokyo. It is very small, half the size of the living room of this suite. The chef (Hiroshi Ishida) makes the best Japanese food I have ever eaten. You have to admire his dedication, his artistry and his pursuit of perfection for over 30 years. Look it up. It is truly a great restaurant.” (I do. It is the one restaurant in the world that is more difficult to get into than El Bulli. It is members-only.)

So, is Adria coming to India? “I would love to,” he says. “I need to experience the tastes and flavours of your country.”

He is still talking when his minders politely usher me away, pointing out that Adria has another event to prepare for. I don’t know if he will turn up in India but I hope he does. I have never eaten his food (nor am I likely to score a table at El Bulli) but he has a remarkable mind: he is more philosopher than chef.

Lunch is at FiftyThree, a small, sunny restaurant with excellent service. There is only a set menu and the emphasis is on natural ingredients. The stand-out dish comes first – Japanese tomatoes with sliced watermelon and horseradish cream. There are Hokkaido scallops to follow and then, a bit of a miss in potatoes with wild yam.

A beef cheek with pear is absolutely brilliant but the strawberry dessert (so-so) is let down by a pointless vanilla ice-cream from which all of the fat has been removed. Why bother to make ice-cream if you don’t like milk fat? Make sorbet instead.

For my last meal, I decide to go to Les Amis, Singapore’s most famous French restaurant to which I have somehow never been.It is a plush if slightly unfortunately located room, not quite a corridor, not quite a dining room (apparently, there is another floor, which I did not see).

Service is warm, friendly and entirely professional and the food is as you would expect at a restaurant with these prices. The stand-out dishes are a mushroom risotto with confit egg yolk and a slow-cooked lamb rack. The setting, the service, the prices and the food remind me of Bombay’s Zodiac Grill. This is a solid restaurant but not one you would want to visit again.

On previous visits to Singapore, I have concentrated on Chinese food. This time, I discover, to my surprise, that I have had only one Chinese meal. And yet, I have eaten exceptionally well.

When you can go to a city, not eat the local cuisine, and still have great meals, then that city must be a centre of culinary excellence.

Singapore! Who would have thought it? But it really is Asia’s international food capital.