Trust Willin Low the godfather of Singapore’s Mod-Sin cuisine to add interesting things like prawn paste fried frog legs ($10) and a baked cabbage sayur lodeh ($12) on the menu. This hidden spot in the CBD is also where you can enjoy Willin's best-selling creations at affordable prices. Rice bowls and pasta plates start from $13.80 with decent servings. Favourites include the krapow bee tai mak ($13.80), hae bee hiam spaghettini ($17.80) and carbonara linguini made with siew yoke ($16.80). Save some space for dessert because the chendol ($8.50) is worth squeezing in before you leave the restaurant. Feeling absolutely satisfied of course.
When walking into its space along Joo Chiat, resist the temptation to look at its line of local-inspired desserts. You might be tempted to skip the mains and go straight for the cakes ($8) that reference desserts like ondeh ondeh, pulut hitam, kueh dadar, and kueh salat. Resist its pull, and you will be rewarded with unorthodox creations such as the muah chee salad ($12) and baked cod with dao jio crust ($18). It’s not just all about new-fangled creations. Tates reminiscent of the past, like the sng muay pop drink ($5) will bring you back to a time of sour plum ice balls. The best of Singapore – both young and old – are celebrated here.
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 ($36). 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.
More than just a breezy rooftop bar, the food that Loof serves celebrates Singaporean flavours too. Start with the chilli crab waffle fries ($15) for an easy introduction, before going into special mains like the B.C.M. Grilled Cheese ($18), which is inspired by minced meat noodles. Sourdough cheese toast comes stuffed with pork mince and grilled to a toasty temperature. Or get your hands dirty with the Loo Original Ramly ($23). The inspiration might be a pasar madam staple, but the upgrade of Australian beef patty drizzled with secret sedan sauce will have you licking your fingers. A trip up here will not be complete without a locally-inspired cocktail, like the Changi Apricot ($21) or Loof’s grown-up version of bubble tea ($22) made with vodka, gin, rum, and orange liqueur.
Taking over the premise of Slake is Garang Grill, where smoke-kissed meat is given a Singaporean treatment. Take for instance the black Angus beef short rib (from $45) that comes glazed with gula Melaka, or the grilled barramundi fillet ($26) with laksa leaf beurre blanc, spicy tomato chutney, and gingered mustard greens. And before you leave, make room for the gula Melaka banana ($8) with homemade coconut ice cream.
What was once a popular private dining set-up is now a still-popular intimate dining experience in the quiet neighbourhood of Serangoon Gardens. Fans should already know about chef Gan Ming Kiat who spent time in kitchens of Candlenut and Goto Kaiseki. Now, at his humble 13-seater restaurant, you won’t find explicit ‘Singapore’ flavours in the menu ($138) that changes monthly. It comes across in more subtle, sometimes complex ways, that reflect chef Gan’s personal interpretation of Singapore food.
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. Try the Creatures crayfish hokkien mee ($30) jazzed up with seafood, or the Hainanese chicken rice roll ($20).
This contemporary South-East Asian restaurant by The Spa Esprit group is all things cheeky and fun. Dishes lean towards local comfort food, with items such as rendang beef beef cheeks and lotus buns ($9), and the crispy pork knuckle ($35) served with spiced vinegar that's large enough to share among three. Large plates like the pork collar char siu ($34) and duck leg in toasted peanut sauce and ketupat ($30) can be shared or had as a main.
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 ($128-$178) 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. Expects plates like rojak tossed with honey with a side of jackfruit sorbet, or the 'ang moh' claypot chicken rice made using kampong chicken.
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.
‘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 ($15). 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.