Dennis and Kok Cheong Chong have done quite well for themselves with their first venture, CreatureS. Born from the pair’s love for hosting house parties and private dinners, the cyan-walled joint on Desker Road is pretty much an extension of their home: it’s stocked with fresh bouquets, eclectic alternative music, immaculate furniture and good food.
Kok Cheong, responsible for the diverse menu (Dennis is the restaurant director), isn’t formally trained. Instead, he relies on intuition and his memories of growing up in a Peranakan household. ‘Guys were not allowed in the kitchen, so I only remember how the dishes taste,’ he adds. Cooking from recollection also shows through in a few travel-inspired options on the menu.
The Chongs liken Mod-Sin cuisine to a language that can bridge different cultures. They believe that infusing Singaporean flavours into foreign recipes, or vice versa, demonstrates the versatility of local cuisine – it should be more expansive and not only about hawker food, they say. Because for CreatureS, Mod-Sin is about presenting a contemporary take on the exhaustive tastes and aromas of the Singapore everyday.
Ah Gong Fried Chicken and Ah Ma Noodles ($23) – perfect for when you want something extra gratifying, diet be damned. Inspired to make his own version of fried chicken after returning from Taiwan, Kok Cheong took the liberty of adding garam masala and a side of chinchalok (a paste made from fermented krill) mayonnaise. The dish comes with a serving of la mian in an aromatic mix of light soya sauce and shallots.
Chef Jet Lo’s career is a classic case of the saying, ‘Never say never’. During his stints in Switzerland, he told his peers he’d never cook Asian food – yet now he helms the kitchen at this contemporary South-East Asian restaurant. Flavours come first and foremost in his creations; Lo breaks down each ingredient to figure out how it can be presented differently using the modernist techniques he’s learnt.
At Ding Dong’s snazzy new location on Amoy Street – retro posters adorn the walls, a circular booth is fitted with white window railings and a kitchen counter stretches out to the bowels of the space – sit close to where the action happens. Because watching chef Lo work is as much of a treat as his food is.
The definition of Mod-Sin cuisine is a little complicated for the Malaysian chef – you don’t need us to tell you that Singapore’s in a life-long dispute with Malaysia over the origin of certain dishes. So Lo’s found a clever way around it: ‘I won’t say where my dish is from. I’ll let people decide for themselves.’
Photo: Johan Lim
Caramelised pineapple tart ($19). It looks nothing like the ones your grandma makes, but dare we say this deconstructed version is better. Pineapple fibre, tonka bean ice cream, a tart base and spheres of rum cream make this a complex, textural and downright delicious dessert – the trick is to get every element in one bite.
One of the few places where the traditional and avant garde meet with ease, Labyrinth blows any preconceived notions of local food out of the water. Han Li Guang, the mastermind behind it all, has matured into his craft since the restaurant opened its doors more than two years ago, designing his tasting menus ($98-$158) to reflect a gastronomical journey based on local mealtimes. Each course comprises no more than a mouthful of flavours, but it’s enough to make you nostalgic for a hawker binge.
Han takes what he does very seriously: ‘We cannot be seen as bastardising local flavours. We have to protect the integrity [of the original fare].’ To do that, he keeps to laborious traditional techniques and finds out the essence of a dish before taking it apart. Molecular fun comes later on only at the end of a creation – because no matter how great food looks, it all comes down to taste.
Lardo ‘chicken rice’ (part of the tasting menus). A lot of work goes into this small cube of ‘tofu’. It took three months for Han to conceive and requires three days of preparation to create each square. Made mostly of chicken fat and sesame oil – hence the reference to our semi-official national dish – then served with soya sauce and ginger, the dish leaves a lingering perfume on the palate.
‘I have this crazy passion for Singaporean food,’ says Chung Deming, chef-owner of The Quarters. A self-taught cook, the former corporate advisor serves up his reinterpretations of local flavours at his cosy bistro. Here, otherwise plebeian café offerings such as steak frites and burgers are given bold bursts of sweet, savoury and umami. The result: fuss-free and reasonably priced dishes with familiar flavours.
While The Quarters’ menu is a great way for the unenlightened and meek – and tourists – to dip their toes into local food culture, it also is Chung’s attempt to make Singaporeans better appreciate what’s under their noses. ‘Nobody pays $10 for Hokkien mee but they pay $20 for ramen – they should cost the same, considering both require equal amounts of effort,’ he explains.
In the same vein, Chung makes curries, rempah and sauces from scratch, which is why his dishes pack a punch even when presented as a salad. If it’s an even stronger hit you’re after, dig into his durian crème brûlée, a faultless concoction perfumed with the prickly fruit that shot him into public consciousness when it launched.
Satay burger ($17). Don’t be fooled by how banal it sounds. Chung has managed to condense all the flavours of satay – from the smoky, sweet and spicy meat to the nutty sauce – into a burger. The hardest part was perfecting the chewy rice patties that are roasted ’til crispy; he delayed its debut for two months just to get it right.
Hidden away in a sleepy neighbourhood in the East, Slake is a homely casual restaurant where local residents gather for a cold beer at the end of a long day. On the modest menu, chef and restaurateur Jeremy Cheok offers a compelling list of South-East Asian-inspired items, a few with a particularly strong Singaporean influence. The engineering graduate’s Peranakan heritage, in particular, shows through in his use of spices and seasoning.
As he’s never been formally trained, combining the types of cuisines he’s familiar with comes naturally to Cheok – the ‘Mod-Sin’ label wasn’t something that was on his agenda. ‘The whole idea is to be true to yourself and make good-tasting, honest food,’ he adds. But he’s got one gripe about the movement: ‘Nobody is curating what’s defined as Mod-Sin.’
Hae bi hiam gnocchi ($24). The lovechild of Hakka abacus beads and fried carrot cake, spun with an Italian twist, is as addictive as its parents. A mix of handmade regular and sweet potato gnocchi is charred then slathered in a thick, spicy dried shrimp sauce. The cherry on the cake: dipping the fluffy beads into a wobbly sous vide egg.
Willin Low’s story of a lawyer turned poster boy for reinventing Singaporean food has been told countless times. But as its first champion, the chef-owner of Wild Rocket is now pleased that he’s witnessing the growth of Mod-Sin cuisine into all facets of the F&B industry. It’s a step in the right direction towards putting Singaporean cuisine on a level playing field with those from the rest of the world, he muses. ‘I want to tell people that if we sell our classic snacks in France, we might be able to appreciate it more.’
Being a pioneer of the movement also means Low is at the forefront of change. His restaurant offers conventional dishes, such as rojak, in a refined omakase course ($120-$160) and presents them with a certain finesse, elevated by the restaurant’s wood interior and interlaced ceiling feature, entirely designed and made by local companies. In recent weeks, the chef has been trying to perfect traditional goodies such as ondeh-ondeh – and he also admits it’s trickier than making a macaron.
Rojak salad with hae ko ice cream (part of the omakase meal). The gloopy fruit salad we get from the kopitiam gets full marks for flavour but barely passes in terms of looks. To make his reinvention as Instagram-worthy as it tastes, Low gives it a makeover by deconstructing the dish and tinkering with its elements. The mix of shrimp paste, sugar and lime juice – typically used in the thick sauce that binds everything together – is instead served as a deceptively tame-looking sorbet quenelle.
With big red lanterns hanging by its entrance, Xiao Ya Tou at Duxton Hill is hard to miss. The unabashedly Asian restaurant and bar is opened by Abby Lim, chef-owner of popular brunch joint Symmetry. Its decor is a mishmash of old and new South-East Asian influences: paper umbrellas from Myanmar, lanterns from Vietnam, Chinese motifs, and a neon sign of Xiao Ya Tou’s KTV hostess-esque mascot. The menu is, likewise, a combination of Lim’s culinary training at mostly French establishments and her love for classic zi char.
Just as culture evolves, Singaporean food should progress naturally and rope in Western techniques and foreign ingredients – it shouldn’t just be about preserving flavours of the past, according to Lim. ‘Why restrict yourself to local ingredients? If you can get out of that box, you can do more,’ she says.
Twice-cooked beef short ribs ($32). As a play on char siew, marbled beef short ribs from Australia are given the same marinade as the local pork dish before they’re cooked sous vide for 38 hours. Each slice is a party of spices and fat in the mouth, best eaten with steaming white rice to give an added texture and earthy fragrance. Hints of Japanese and Korean influences show up in a white sesame and scallion sauce, and kimchi cabbage slaw.