My Singaporean Dinners…Jumbo, Tippling Club, Muthu’s, Founders, Swee Choon

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I was in a bit of a dilemma when I wrote this post on my dinners in Singapore.

I ate at so many places this time! If I tried to fit them all in one post the post would be very long. Alternately I could do a post on each place which would be more vivid. But then that would be scattered all over. After all people look for lists and compilations while looking for travel ideas. Stories suffer though when you make lists. At the end I decided to make this a compilation post to go with the Singapore breakfast and lunch posts. Sorry for the length and broad brushstrokes of the post . This post is like ten posts rolled into one and I wrote it over multiple sittings so please read with patience and time.

The trip was sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB)

While the Chinese in Singapore have their dinner early, Singapore as a city stays up late and eating options are open well into the night. Which sort of works well for us Indians as we eat late plus there is the time zone bit too.

In case you are wondering what to do before you head for dinner, here are some ideas.

You could go to the Arab Street which has a very different topography from the rest of the city and has a lovely vibe. There are plenty of swish hookah bars and lot of shopping too. And then you could go to one of the humble tea stalls run by Indian uncles and have a teh ahlia, a powerfully ginger infused milky tea, or a teh tarik (the pulled tea) on the pavements.

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Or you could go to Clark Quay, the cleaned up and restored river front and have a beer at one of the many pubs there or go for a boat ride by the river front and say hello to the Merlion.

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Or you could do what awed me the most. Head to the Gardens by the Bay, which from I gather houses a greenhouse. They also have these towers which are covered with foliage. At night the towers are the setting for the most amazing sound and light show. The towers have lights which are synchronised to blink with a reverberating sound track which is a fusion of Chinese, Malay, Arab and Indian notes which is one of the most powerful pieces of music that I have heard. There are two shows in the evening and are worth the travel to catch.

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Crabs at Jumbo

On hearing that I was in Singapore, loads of folks tweeted to me saying that I should have crabs at Jumbo or at the No Signboard Restaurant.

Well I had gone to No Signboard in 2008 for the Esomar conference and had a great dinner there which included having my first taste of the much vaunted chilli crab of Singapore. A couple of years later I went to the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant in Singapore and fell in love with the black pepper crab.

This time the Singapore Tourism Board had arranged for a dinner for me at Jumbo itself, the local seafood chain on my first night. We went to the outlet at Dempsey which is an area where army barracks once used to be and is now the venue for restaurants.

Jumbo at Dempsey has an outdoor and an indoor section. Given the heat I preferred indoors where we were surrounded by groups of Chinese families enjoying their meals.

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My guide, Anita, told STB that I had tried both chilli and pepper (the tourist and local favourites respectively) before. Hence they ordered a salted crab for me. The crab was shelled and served to us. This made it easy to take the sweet crab meat out. The crab meat combined delectably with the eggy custard like salted sauce that enshrouded the crab. I quite liked the silken delicacy of the sauce which enlivened but didn’t outshout the crab.

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Anita ordered KangKong for me which is Chinese broccoli stir fried with shrimp paste. I just loved the combination of the bouncy broccoli with the shrimp paste and intend to try it at home. It went very well with steamed rice.

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The other dish that we tried was prawns cooked with powdered cereal. There was quite a bit of sweet cereal which we moved to reach the prawns. The prawns were perfectly juicy and had a tad bit of bewitching sweetness to them. Another great seafood dish.

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For desserts I had shaved ice with beans which had an interesting honey-like taste to it which grew on one.

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Jumbo has a number of branches in Singapore. At 8 SGD each you get packets with the black pepper or chilli crab pastes in case you want to replicate the dishes at home.

All in all a great first night in Singapore.

From what I understand the meal cost close to 30 SGD. All restaurants add a 7 pc GST to the bill which is why tipping is not the norm in Singapore.

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The Tippling Club

The second night saw my most expensive meal at Singapore and my first full blown taste of molecular gastronomy. This was at the Tippling Club at Tanjong Pagar Road where they had moved from Dempsey.

I had the ten course gourmand meal which was around 265 + SGD for the non pairing one that I went for. With pairing it is SGD 415 +

Managing the kitchen that night was the Aussie head chef Paul Gajewski. I sat by the bar and the open kitchen. It was amazing to see chef Paul and his team go about their work with quiet concentration without a single word spoken amongst them. Chef Paul later told me that he believes in training his staff well. He believes that if trained well a team can go about their work quietly and efficiently without any drama or heartburn. At the end of service his team of young wizards ditched the pincers and took up the mop to clean the kitchen.

Chef Paul and his team would put the food together and then get the food to the diner and explain what the dish was and how one should eat it.

First there were starters which included a soft quail egg on an edible nest, something with such a long description that I forgot what It was, a curry reduction which tasted quite Mangalorean with rice crispies, something that looked faeces but was charred peppers with wasabi and had a very interesting bite beyond the black colour and then a brilliant palate cleanser of a gazpacho reduction in a test tube.

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The food looked wondrous. Nothing like anything I had experienced before. I strained to identify the flavours in the unfamiliar settings.

Then came the mains. A reconstituted omelette topped with eel and caviar which tasted the way fish would with a soft egg.

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Then there was cauliflower cheese with truffle which made we wonder what the fuss is about truffles.

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The foie gras puree I loved and the confit apple went very well with it.

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The other memorable dish was the Iberico pork belly with lobster but it was really the belly that dominated. It was covered with foam which seemed more apt after eating when the dishes would be cleaned than before!

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I just loved the wagyu that followed which was cooked medium rare and the quality of the meat was superb. It had a compressed beef sheet on top which again I was not sure what it did to the dish. However I loved the combination of the wagyu with the burrata cheese bed it was served on.

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The monkfish was a bit chunky like cod, the green curry base interesting.

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The food awed and occasionally shocked. The plates looked really pretty and complex. Whether they gave pleasure is something I am a bit unsure about. I am more a Casablanca man than an Avatar one when it comes to food and I think I like my food simple and classic too. The techniques displayed were no doubt worthy of respect. Comfort food this definitely wasn’t.  Nor was it meant to be.

The desserts started with a cheese plate which was fantastic and tantalising. Salty like I like it.

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The desserts though left me cold and tried too hard.

There was a fizz bomb where I opened the sachet swallowed the tang like powder till I was told that the paper was edible too!

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Cheesecake pills served in a pill box which looked like tablets and tasted like them too.

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There was a strawberry and cream where the strawberry flavours were hampered by the fact that the dessert was ice cold and numbed your senses.

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A walnut ice cream which wasn’t sweet.

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A biscuit sandwich where the high was you eat it without using your hands….you get the gist.

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The Tippling Club experience left me thinking about the concept of molecular gastronomy. It was no doubt a competent demonstration of molecular gastronomy that night. The produce used was world class. The techniques used impressive. A lot of hard work had gone into it. As a concept it excited me, dazzled me.

Did it speak to my heart? I am not sure about that. I mean why would I want to have my pani puri in the form of foam while I still have  ?Plus so many elements seemed extraneous. Molecular gastronomy as a concept seems to be about more than just eating while I am a guy who is more into food than its trappings.

I guess if molecular gastronomy intrigues you then Tippling is a good place to try it out.

To see the full menu at The Tippling Club you can click here.

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The hundred dollar challenge

The STB thought up of an interesting challenge for my last night in Singapore. I was given 200 Singapore dollars. 100 for food and 100 for travel. The idea was that I had to hail 4 taxis and ask them for the best option for fish head curry, bak kut teh, dim sums and durian and get them to take me there. Once there I had to order and eat. The idea was to see how far I could go with the money and how successful I was with my orders.

Anita, from STB, accompanied me as a silent observer. Anita later told me that the STB expected the taxi drivers to be ambassadors of Singapore. She was pleased to see this unravel through the evening. I hailed 4 cabs. Barring one, all spoke English, heard me out, took me to places that turned out to be the ‘right’ choices. 

Our first taxi driver, Mr Ho, turned out to be the most knowledgeable, articulate and helpful. I asked him to take me from Ann Siang Road in Chinatown to the best fish head curry place. He said Muthu’s and Apollo are the best options and between the two Muthu’s is older. This worked for me plus Rajyasree of Burrp on twitter kept telling me to go to Muthu’s for the fish head curry.

Muthu’s for fish head curry

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Muthu’s has quite a few branches, including at Dempsey, but Mr Ho took us to the one at Little India which, Anita said, was the closest from where we were.

Muthu’s is a sixty year old chain which serves Singaporean food rather than ‘Indian’ food. Well the landmark fish-head curry is Singaporean to start with. The crowd had a mix of Indians as well as Chinese. There was a tandoori maker flipping the bread near a tandoor. South Indian themed dishes such as Mysore mutton and even a vegetarian section with dal tadka, palak paneer and bhindi fry had dishes displayed in the counter.

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I ordered the fish head curry. The smallest portion which comes at 22 SGD and can be shared by 2. With this you order individual servings of rice at about 3 SGD. The steamed rice comes with a cabbage and brinjal sabzi.

I quite enjoyed the complexity of spices in the curry. The taste reminded me a Mangalorean gassi, heaty and mildly tangy. The fish head meat had an inherent sweetness which went well with the the curry and rice. Like a good Bengali, much to Anita’s bemusement, I had the fish eyes too. Years back I had fish head curry in KL. Wasn’t too impressed. This I enjoyed. I ate gingerly as I knew I had more food stops but would have been happy to have made a proper stop out of this.

What I liked about Muthu’s is that despite its age and Indian pedigree, it had maintained an international level of service, ambience and quality which made its appeal go beyond the diaspora. Truly a crossover phenomenon.

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Once I stepped out Muthu’s I saw lots of Indian options including North Indian, vegetarian represented by Komala Vilas and Kailash Parbat, even a place serving Kolkata’s Tangra Chinese. Indians who seek Indian food while travelling would feel quite at home here. There was even an Indian hawker’s market!

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In fact I later did go to Apollo Banana leaf where the food at the counters seemed tired and the place rather empty and the harsh white lights less appealing that the yellow glow at Muthu’s The prices at Muthu’s for fish head curry was similar to those in Apollo.IMG_0822IMG_0821

Founders Bak Kut Teh

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My next challenge was to find the best bak kut teh.

Bak kut teh is a slow cooked pork rib soup. Very popular with the Chinese who consider it to be a source of strength. Bak kut teh dinners at night are quite popular amongst the Chinese I was told.

Our cabbie said that the best bak kut teh are to be found at Rangoon Road near Little India. He took us to a place called Founders Bak Kut Teh, which Mr Ho, our first driver told us about too.

Founders is a second generation run place which has a nice cafe like feel to it. The clientele was largely Chinese unlike Muthu’s cosmopolitan one. We met the ‘founder’s’ charming daughter who very sweetly hosted us. She was refusing to take payment at the end till Anita insisted on behalf of STB.

I ordered a pork rib bak kut teh as our cabbie had recommended. I first took a sip of the soup. It was peppery, meaty and reminded me of the paya clear soups of Mumbai which are supposed to give taqat (strength) too. I then had a bite of the ribs.

I was in love. These were the most tender pork ribs that I have ever had. Our hostess told us that the ribs were cooked for 24 hours and it showed. I was full after the fish head curry and thought I’d take only one polite bite.

A minute later I had munched both ribs clean.

I had had bak kut teh before in KL and I remember that being brown in curry. I learnt that those are the herbal ones.

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Now, this is an epic dish, which with its simplicity showed the food in its best light. If you eat pork this is strongly recommended. You are given chilli padhi (soy sauce with split chillies on the side and you can dip your ribs into this before eating. You use your hands to eat.

Our dish cost 8 SGD.

You also get Bak Kut Teh spices from the store which cost 20 SGD a packet.

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Dim Sum at Swee Choon

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My question on the best dim sum place got our cabbie to take us to Swee Choon.

Dim sum places in Singapore stay open pretty late. The Chinese gather here for supper as they have dinner early. Folks come here in groups. Order a variety of dim sums and share.

Swee Choon has three sections. One a takeaway where people queued up. Then there was an aircon and a non aircon section where you give your name and wait to be seated. While you wait you are given a sheet to mark out your order in.

We went to the aircon section and were greeted by a noxious odour since the cleaning lady had just passed by with her cart and trash. It was quite an un-Singaporean stench and took us a while to find our composures. We ordered a couple of teas and two dim sums.

The first was a very well flavoured pork sui mai or shu mai which reminded me a lot of places like Ling’s, Yautcha and Royal China which do dim sums in Mumbai. This was pleasing but not unfamiliar.

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The other one was an egg custard dim sum which was very different from anything I’ve had so far. A Chinese bun stuffed with soft, gooey, yellow, sweet and salty egg yolk. This I quite liked, found different and wished I could have eaten more of but stuck to one as I was full by then.

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The popularity of Swee Choon is obviously well earned.

Our meal cost us close to 15 SGD.

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Durian at Geylang Street

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My last challenge was to find the best durian. My cabbie suggested Geylang Street which Anita said is a good place to go to. From what I gathered Geylang Street is also a red light area apart from a place where you get durian and restaurants that serve frog porridges. That’s as colourful as Singapore can get. Cabbies might get a bit suspicious if you ask them to take you to Geylang.

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There were a row of durian shops and Anita took me to one in the middle. I had once had durian in Penang and really enjoyed its creaminess though it gave me onion flavoured burps later!

Anita suggested that I pick the King of Kings Durian which was the most expensive at 38 SGD a kilo as she wasn’t too sure of durians. The guy at the store who spoke very little English conveniently gave me one which was well over a kilo. At about 60 SGD this durian, which was from Malaysia, screwed up my 100 SGD budget as I overshot budget by 20 dollars thanks to this. My cab spends were just about 40 out of 100 SGD though as our last ride was in the STB car.

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This was a rather sad ending as unlike the durian in Penang, this durian smelt and tasted of rotten onion paste and I didn’t go beyond one bite.

With which it was time to call and end to a glorious night of eating and head back to my hotel, The Club.

Singapore digested

The vibrant dinner scene in Singapore awed me. But then I was a convert from my earlier trips to the city and had always enjoyed the food here. What I found really interesting is the coexistence of Western establishments such as The White Rabbit and the Tippling Club with local Singaporean establishments. Both had their places in Singapore and were not thriving at the cost of one another. A lesson for us in Mumbai where there is a fixation with international cuisine when it comes to new restaurants with very little happening on the local restaurant scene.

And as for Singapore, it’s definitely a destination to go to eat.

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