Still stuck in Singapore, David J Constable learns to fully immerse himself in the island’s wonderous markets and hawkers, sampling anything and everything he can, and, if that includes an invitation to dine at the city’s Michelin star offerings too, then so be it. But an English restaurant in Singapore… really?
Recently, I wrote about Labyrinth restaurant and my travel predicament in Singapore. Well, I am still here, still rooted to the island. I don’t even have my passport. As I sit writing, it has been 22 days. I arrived for three. This has resulted in varying conditions of accommodation across price-points and comfort levels. Right now, I am at Elegance 81 Hotel just down the road from Pillow Talk Hostel. Booking in at Pillow Talk – by the hour or the night – presents certain kinds of questions, and expectations. So far, though, I have been pleased with my lodgings, which are located in the Kallang neighbourhood, close to Marinn East and downtown where I can continue to explore on foot.
I hate frogs, like a proper extreme hate. Slimy, little, croaking, pustule-skinned bastards
Downtown, I discovered the hazardously addictive Guan Lee Sen Seafood restaurant and Dynasty Fried Porridge where they fry leftover porridge in a bubbling pan of cooking oil and fish sauce with lard and soy. Who would have thought, rendered fat on your morning Quaker Oats? But it is a thing, a popular dish in the hawkers, and now with me. Although, I don’t think families back home are ready for tallow morning porridge or frog porridge, for that matter, another Singaporean staple that tastes much better than it sounds. And I hate frogs, like a proper extreme hate. Slimy, little, croaking, pustule-skinned bastards.
Unsure exactly how far my money will stretch and how much of it, if any, I will be able to reclaim from my employers back in Bangkok, I have consumed meals in hawkers, moving between vendors; quick, cheap, on-the-move mouthfuls. Wandering the stalls, I have gawped at the endless varieties of noodles, dumplings, chicken rice, dim sum, fried cakes, fish head soups, kaya toast, hae mee, oyster omelettes, tofu, fish balls, roti prata, murtabak, BBQ Sambal stingray, frog porridge, unusual meats impaled on sticks, and all of the impressive entirety of this cultural microcosm in which multi-ethnic living has resulted in some of the best hawkers and street food anywhere.
Unabashed and in an attempt to make my pocket change stretch, I have eaten anything that looks or smells unusual, all of the glistening, lip-smacking morsels available. Everything originates from different parts of the continent, yet is considered wholly Singaporean within the hawkers’ heat and hustle. Beyond a rich migrant-food culture, it is the people and their culinary output that have played an important role in shaping Singapore, just as much as expat wealth and the banker boys. And it’s through food, as it so often is, that reflects society and the economic gulf here, with much of the poor and migrant population depending on hawker employment and its production to survive. Like Bangkok, it is these quick, cheap and toiled over market-stall nibbles that feed a nation.
While stationed here, I am by no means alone. I have a few useful connections; the best friendly consorts one can have when travelling, in fact – chefs. I might be sleeping in hostels and hooker-dens, but there has not been a day when I have gone hungry, shifting meals between hawkers and restaurants. One of those restaurants is the Michelin-starred JAAN, where I ate dinner last night from the 70th floor of the Swissôtel The Stamford, looking out across twinkling, night-time Singapore. The young chef behind JAAN is a Brit called Kirk Westaway. I know of a few British chefs in Singapore and Southeast Asia, but none of them are leading the kitchen charge like Kirk. In fact, I can’t think of another British chef in all of Asia, or the world, who is doing what he is. Sure, plenty live, work and apply their trade in global kitchens, but which are full-time head chefs in a foreign setting like this promoting food from the British Isles? There is Daniel Calvert at Belon in Hong Kong. Although, dining there last month, it was clear that the menu had a proclivity for the French; the pigeon pithier being the restaurant’s signature and most famous dish.
Kirk has broken out from the French traditions that swamp great swaths of the Singaporean fine dining scene and instead promotes English food – gulp! Yep, it’s a thing, really. He is not chasing the fashionable or importing ingredients demanded by the elite but turning to home and sharing it with a new, global audience. Trust me, no one here is demanding Curworthy or Devon Blue, and yet, there it appears on the menu. The results are beguiling and fresh, menus adapting based on seasonality – autumn here is pretty much similar timing in the year to autumn back home – and availability of products. It is not a plundering of the whole UK but a very specific pivot towards the West Coast of the British Isles and to Devon, where Kirk grew up. His was a cream-then-jam sort of upbringing.
A nice touch upon arrival is champagne, especially when you are a homeless visitor adrift. Thanks to Kirk’s selection as a Krug ambassador, the restaurant has been afforded access to a select number of bottles and vintages from what I can confidently say, is Champagne’s best champagne. Although, to my faultless, gold-plated pallet, Chavost Blanc d’Assemblage does a fine attempt to compete and is significantly friendlier on the wallet. This might just be my, what the French call, “Le gout Anglais”, but I think even the most ardent froggy nostril would agree that temperate British weather and a flowing breeze high off the coastline, has helped England produce some of the most outstanding sparkling wines in the world. French champagne houses have been crying into their onion soups for years now, some even swallowing their fierté and crossing the Channel to purchase farmland in Kent and the home counties to get in on the bountiful chalky terroir. These English producers may find a new ambassador in Kirk. Tap him up.
As dinner unfolded, layers and levels were added to the table. Small, ceramic, white pillars and plates upon which were placed dainty delights of explosive flavour and colour. We were off, at full colourful pelt – tapioca chips, cumin hummus, Devonshire Cheddar & buckwheat pancakes that resembled Danish aebleskiver or Japanese takoyaki, buoyant puff-balls of light batter and gooey, runny cheese concealed within, except that it was expected thanks to the flag-waving of the patriotic chef, who quite literally plants the green-white-cross flag of Devon into each. I might have been 70 floors up, Moshe Safdie’s triple-towered Marina Bay Sands in my eye-line, but there’s no forgetting where I was sitting for the next few hours; this is an Englishman’s kitchen and he’s doing his best to show me home.
Then arrived a small bowl of Charlotte potato and truffle bouillon, although, if Kirk is truly to show his allegiance and get behind the English culinary wave, then he should drop the grandiloquent French verbalising and call a bouillon what it is, a broth. There is nothing wrong with ‘broth’, nothing at all. Or a ‘stock’, for that matter, which has always sounded northern to me, suitably wholesome and necessary during those harsh winter months. The Charlotte potato is a good choice, but the Maris Piper remains the UK’s most beloved spud. There are a number of popular tubers in the UK to choose from despite not being particularly reflective of our culinary brilliance; it’s Peruvian, after all. Still, we are a nation fascinated by spuds – roast potatoes, jacket potatoes, salad potatoes, smashed-up, flattened and fried into breakfast hash browns (the word is actually a derivation from the French word “hacher” which means to hack or chop). The Charlotte is the most popular salad potato in the UK and a winner of the Royal Horticultural Society award of garden merit. Here it is used to produce a densely thick and creamy bouillon (if that is what Kirk insists on calling it) with diced mushrooms and shavings of pungent white truffle. It was chowder-thick, and rather splendid, like those familiar bowls of comfy English soup on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But with truffles.
There was also a terrific Scottish langoustine poached in a vegetable broth (okay, a bouillon), perfumed with orange zest and a host of spices – coriander seeds, star anise, cumin seeds – and a number of different butters to get excited about. Hardly the highlight of most meals, but when butter is good, such as the room-temperature Devonshire cream and seaweed one here, I get all hot under the collar, strewing it untidily across the springy surface of warm, rye sourdough so that it absorbs and fuses and becomes one luscious, smooth bite. We are also a nation of greedy butter eaters, applying it on our morning toast and crumpets as if it were the finest pâté. With the langoustine were small Italian Violin courgettes and a purée of Amalfi lemon and red pepper chutney, which added a citrus and sweet, roasted peppery depth.
The English Garden was a standout course and a creation requiring painstaking dedication and a steady hand, consisting of over 30 individually plated tiny vegetables, dressed with a black olive powder and anchovy dressing, plus Scottish kombu dashi, poured from a miniature watering can and to be added at the diner’s discretion. It was both playful and visually striking, a burst of magnificent colour on the plate – a medley of baby carrots, Romesco leaves, kohlrabi, cauliflower, radishes, etc. It would look wonderful hanging on my living room wall. Kirk demonstrates an intense eye for detail and an intrinsic value for clean design, all of which were on full display here.
A plump Irish oyster with caviar is next, and quickly dispensed, then line-caught brill with artichoke and an egg-shaped bowl and lid inside of which was a bright orange egg yolk, jiggling upon a bed of blue foot mushrooms and Cevennes onions. There is more caviar, delicately dolloped on the yolk and a side of brioche strips topped with rivers of grated Parmesan. I would have preferred to see an English Cheddar or Old Winchester, a harder, more crystalline cheese which at 18-months is a suitable substitution for Parmesan. Then coffee and sweet things. Another glass of champers.
I checked my phone. There were no new messages or emails from the embassy. The following day and today have been just as unpredictable. Another bed, another neighbourhood. But that night, I left JAAN giddy, with champagne breath, and walked the streets of Singapore dreaming of English cheeses and nostalgic for home, but secure in the knowledge that the future of English food abroad is in safe hands. C
Jaan By Kirk Westaway, Swissôtel The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road 178882, Singapore