Story by Anirban Blah
Singapore is a hard city to navigate as a food traveler. I must have been to Singapore at least twenty times but it’s only now that I’m getting a sense of what Singapore is about, it’s hidden treasures, the best places to eat and drink, where you feel that you’re going beyond the obvious. Part of the problem is that in Singapore it’s easy to have a great time skimming the surface because everything is so perfectly packaged and marketed. Whether you’re looking for high end dining at Odette or a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Bar, whether you want seafood at Jumbo or a hawker centre at Newton Circus, the things that are easily found are satisfying and fun. Whatever your budget and whatever your tastes, the city seems to have something for you, more often than not thronging with tourists and Instagramers. Singapore guarantees a good time, but it’s almost always a good time within a framework, leading to accusations of the city feeling sanitised and lacking authenticity.
For a long time I bought into this stereotype but over the years I’ve changed my mind. Yes there is something for everyone but if it sometimes feels like Singapore lacks a feeling of adventure and discovery, a lack of authentic culture, it’s a reflection on us rather than the city. It is the same syndrome that leads us to see Dubai as a constellation of air conditioned malls and luxury hotels and desert camps with Bangladeshis masquerading as Bedouins rather than a melting pot of Arab and immigrant culture. Truth is Singapore has soul. And when we complain about Singapore’s lack of soul, it’s because we’ve bought into the easy stereotype, we’ve cruised and consumed but not searched and discovered, we’ve made a choice to satiate our senses rather than our souls.
So here’s a list of the places in Singapore I love.. a combination of 10 dollar meals and 300 dollar meals, collected over days where the sweat on the back of your neck drips down like the ice cold drop of water condensing and dripping down the neck of an Archipelago beer, and days when you’re spending the afternoon choosing from over a thousand gins in the most beautiful Art Deco bar in the world.
I suppose that the default option for any gourmand traveling to Singapore is Odette. My challenge with it is that it could be anywhere. It is a perfect, flawless restaurant with brilliant food but when you’re in it, you could be in New York or Paris or London or any great city but you would eat better at Ledbury or Le Bernadine. I feel the same way about Les Amis, again great food, but from the produce to the ingredients to the flavours to the drinks, nothing about it feels in any way influenced by Singapore. The point of Odette or Les Amis is the food, and my goal here is to share places that feel either a bit more unique or a bit more Singapore, places where you find and feel and experience context, rather than get sucked into a hermetically sealed bubble of perfection.
Not that I have an issue with global food. It’s just that there are places in Singapore like Nouri and the much missed Andre’s and Wild Rocket that make truly global food rather than French influenced European food, and the creativity and casualness feel of both places feel much more true to Singapore than the Gallic hauteur of the more celebrated restaurants.
That casualness is why I love Burnt Ends. Of course the food is perfect, a tribute to the art of cooking meat over fire. The meat is always charred and never burnt, moist and rare and glistening and tender enough to almost melt in your mouth without ever disintegrating. More than just the food though, I love the vibe, the casual informality, sitting across a counter, seeing your food prepared for you, feeding off the energy of the chefs and chatting with them, understanding how what is almost a quintessentially Australian experience finds itself fitting in so perfectly in Singapore. As you sit and chat you realise how Singapore has evolved from both its Colonial past and it’s provincial history, going beyond British and Malay and Chinese and Indian culture to become a truly modern, Asian city. The other place that nails this Asian/Australian vibe is Cheek Bistro. Rishi Naleendra makes food that feels like you’re sitting by the beach in Melbourne but your soul is in Galle, spotting blue whales in the Indian Ocean.
For me though, the best food in Singapore is always Asian and like everyone I love the great Dim Sum houses. Blasphemous as it sounds I like Crystal Jade and Imperial Treasure more than Din Tai Fung but honestly, you cannot have a bad meal at any outlet from any of the three chains. But I wouldn’t go to these places anymore except for convenience because there are many, more exciting places to go to for Asian food.
My favourite Asian restaurant is New Ubin Seafood. Located in a corner of a parking lot in a warehouse in an industrial part of town, it’s very very far from the tourist path but it’s worth the trek. Singapore’s most iconic dishes are chilli crab and pepper crab and New Ubin Seafood serves what is simply the best crab in Singapore. No other place I have eaten in over the last two decades even comes close to the crab here which is served with sweet, fragrant mantao buns. However the restaurant isn’t a one trick pony. The star of the show for me is the fried rice cooked in beef fat with strips of beef. I don’t know if it’s on the formal menu but it’s a rice dish from heaven. I also like the local seafood places in Geylang like Penang Seafood. With its grungy vibe and old storefronts, Geylang feels like a throwback to 70’s kung fu movies, with Malay and Chinese families who have lived there for generations, and food places with limited English menus (always a good sign in my book).
There is one tourist trap I love though. I know it feels random to have a hawker centre with a Michelin star, a guarantee of throngs of tourists and the promise of an interminable queue. Which is why I avoided Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle for a very long time. But when I did go there eventually, I became a fully paid up convert. It’s like no noodle bowl I’ve ever had, spicy and filled with Umame, with wantons and fish balls and a million other secret ingredients that make it unique and completely worth queueing an hour for. Carry a book. Buy a beer. Chat with your neighbour. Because this is the best, most fulfilling tourist trap in Singapore.
You can find great Sichuan food in the many local places in Chinatown. Our favourite, the place we keep going back to is Sichuan Village. It is spicy enough to burn the roof off your mouth while your lips and tongue are numb with the intensity of Sichuan peppercorn. It has meats and body parts you can’t imagine but it also has enough vegetarian dishes for my vegetarian friends to swear by it, all cooked with zero compromise or adjustments towards tourists or non Chinese. It’s not a place that’s like it or leave it, it’s a place that’s love it or leave it. Follow it up with a Mango Sago at one of the local Chinese dessert places, or pick any of the 70 plus local Chinese desserts, all of which are like traveling through a wormhole into an alternate dessert universe, far removed from the world of baking and chocolate. The place that I love is Ah Chew Desserts near United Square.
For Thai food, I love the dingy, grungy Golden Mile Complex. Frequented by the local Thai community for their regular home shopping, this is a cheap mall very far from the glitzy lights of Orchard Street. But walk into any of the restaurants on the ground floor, say that you want a meal that is Thai spicy and not “falang” spicy and you will get the best and most authentic Thai food I have ever eaten outside Thailand.
Coconut Club is the best place for Nasi Lemak, and I don’t understand how a place so special in such a great location can be so cheap. For all practical purposes, they serve just one dish but that dish is pure perfection.
For a fancier experience, go to Bincho. It’s feels like an Izakaya but cooler and sexier, like a speakeasy in New York. The food is great, the drinks are fabulous and the vibe spectacular. Or go to Violet Oon at the National Museum and eat the amazingly researched and cooked Peranakan food. The best dish there is unusual and a little funky tasting but if you feel adventurous eat the Buah Keluak noodles, a spaghetti like dish cooked in a paste made out of the poisonous seeds of the Panguim Edele tree, with coconut milk, spices, minced prawns and chilli padi. Like Hill Street, this is one of the best noodle dishes I have ever had.
Singapore has many great bars to get a drink I have my own favourites. Colbar was opened in 1953 as a canteen for the British Army (hence the name Colonial Bar which became Colbar). With its Formica tables and old photographs and surrounded by a large lawn, it is a place where time stands still, where you can sit for hours with a book and a chilled local beer and get a sense of what Singapore felt like in its earliest days.
If Colbar represents Singapore’s colonial roots, Druggists takes you back to the days when Singapore was finding its identity, taking shape through the hard work and entrepreneurship of its people. Situated in a shophouse in Jalan Besar that used to be home to the Chinese Druggist Association, it serves craft beer and gin and feels much more authentic than the more popular places like Little Creatures.
From the slightly more upmarket bars, Native is doing extraordinary things with local spirits. Founder Vijay Mudaliar is a true pioneer. His takes his unparalleled knowledge of native spirits to create cocktails that no other bar in the world does.
There is a certain sameness to the “cool” bars like Operation Dagger and Gibson and Employees Only and to be honest I like them all. I also like Manhattan which feels like a mafia don’s hangout from 1930s New York. For some reason though, I like Old Man best of the lot. An outpost of the legendary Hong Kong bar, It’s slightly less expensive than the rest. I love the Hemingway theme and inspiration and the drinks are absolutely stunning. They don’t have a kitchen but you can get snacks from the restaurant next door.
One of the best things in any island city is to sit and have a drink by the sea and Singapore has innumerable bars that provide stunning views of the city and the waterfront. The most famous of these of course is the Marina Bay Sands but for my money the best bar with a view in Singapore is Lantern on the rooftop of the Fullerton Bay Hotel on the opposite side of the bay from the Marina Bay Sands. Less crowded, less gimmicky and a lot more elegant with sweeping views of the downtown district and the bay, it is best visited in the late afternoon to sit and drink away the hours as the sun sets and the tropical sky turns crimson and then ink while the city is illuminated by the twinkling stars of a million bright lights.
My absolute favourite place in Singapore though, food or drink, bar none, is Atlas. Atlas is not just my favourite place in Singapore, it is my favourite bar in the whole world. A tribute to Europe in the jazz age of the 1920’s, it is built in the Art Deco style as a grand lobby in the landmark Parkview Building. It has a collection of over 1300 craft gins, from old classics that are no longer produced to limited editions of a few hundred bottles from craft distillers in Iceland, stocked in a stunning bar four stories high that is the visual highlight of what is already one of the most beautiful bars in the world. The staff is extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful, every detail is thought through and presented with impeccable taste and refinement. The snacks are perfect, the tonics are perfect, the cocktails are perfect, even the amount of ice and the shape of the ice cubes is perfect. It really is the perfect bar, and after you’ve spent the day walking around and discovering the Singapore that you never knew existed, there are few pleasures in the world that compare with sitting on a big comfortable couch in one of the most beautiful bars in the world, a cold gin and tonic in your hands, soaking in the magic of Singapore feeling blissful and knowing that you’ll be back. Because once you’ve spent an afternoon at Atlas, you’ll always be back.