Singapore - Its influence is as obvious as an elephant at the sushi bar. But while the tapas craze, as far as bite-sized indulgences go, has detoured somewhat in its struggle to come full circle, the honest invitation to make a meal out of petite servings of inspired savouries has evolved. Quite literally.
The initial focus on appetisers widened to embrace more substantial reinterpretations, more European in cuisine, served in reduced but not trifling portions. String enough together and dinner is covered. It's invigorating and potentially compelling. Hence, the latest catchphrase on the tip of everyone's tongue is "small plates dining".
This has come to fill the gap between pre-dinner tasters and an early supper. Thankfully, though, this open call hasn't yet led to a string of copycats, doling out tacky adaptations of Spanish nibbles. On the contrary, it has incited some rather innovative offerings, serving up an assortment that yields everything from the unpretentious to the ostentatious - just don't call any of them a gastrobar. (That expression has been relegated to a more predictable, often British in nature, form of dining - which mysteriously never took off here.)
So blame this faddish inclination on our insatiable appetite for variety, or a real tendency to feast. But don't blame these new-ish trappings - many of which have taken root just this year - for thinking big where the little things count.
Amuse #01-29 Orchard Hotel, 442 Orchard Road, Tel: 6735 3476
Crispy pork crouton with lightly smoked eel from Amuse.
A collaboration between Chef Armin Leitgeb and the Esmirada Group, this two-month-old casual restaurant serves food in small portions, much like a tapas bar, except that the dishes are more European, with many carried over from Leitgeb's menu at Les Amis. In many ways, a heightened level of finesse is to be expected with Chef Lee Chee Keong, who has been Leitgeb's trusted right-hand man for the last three years. So if you've heard of his signature dish comprising an egg steamed at precisely 71°C, wrapped in crispy ciabatta; or wondered what the fuss over his famous crispy pork croutons is all about, there's never been a better time to find out. There are new creations to boot - standouts include more-ish filo pastry cones filled with ketchup-laced beef tartare, and the unexpected and elegantly spicy lamb burger.
Esquina 16 Jiak Chuan Road, Tel: 6222 1616
Esquina's barbecued mackerel.
It's surely not the first tapas bar to tempt the masses, but arguably the first to truly put a modern spin on the menu and make it work. Michelin-starred consultant chef and self-proclaimed Spanish food lover Jason Atherton has had a huge hand in its success, but the truth is that it's hard to ignore the lure of a Spanish breakfast cleverly and deftly re-defined in a plating of slow-cooked egg with silky bravas sauce and crisp Iberico ham. Or a duo of Iberico pork and foie gras burgers, for that matter. This tiny space (just 19 seats, though there is standing room for 35) is a quirky comfort, thanks to its upscale underground canteen vibe, pulled together with some of the most charming stools made from machine parts, doorknobs and other winsome antique and vintage pieces that Esquina partner - and famed hotelier-restaurateur - Loh Lik Peng is so deft at acquiring.
Foodbar Dada #01-12 The Quayside 60 Robertson Quay, Tel: 6735 7738
FoodBar Dada's escalibada toast, anchovies, red pepper foam.
It opened in March without the attention that surrounded bigger-name tapas joints like Esquina and Catalunya, but FoodBar Dada has earned its own slice of success, nestled in the Robertson area. The food is no-frills Catalan-inspired fare, mostly cooked in the Josper, which is no surprise if you knew that one of the restaurant's owners, Joseph Wong, is also the Singapore distributor for the aforementioned hybrid grill-oven. Highlights include a dish of black Mediterranean rice, which practically bursts with flavour, having been cooked in a flower crab and seafood stock, squid ink, onions and tomatoes. That said, the small-scale menu remains market-driven, so anticipate tasty new surprises.
Lolla 22 Ann Siang Road, Tel: 6423 1228
Lolla, restaurant interior. Photo by JASON HO
The interior design here flaunts that ever-fashionable industrial chic, but the food is far from unexceptional or pretentious - it is more produce- rather than cuisine-driven, and lush with Mediterranean influences. No doubt, expected staples like Spanish tortilla, which they serve with smoked eel, and the country's iconic cured ham are available. But it has creative inclusions such as sea urchin pudding, and its board specials, that could include some fabulous live razor clams, cooked quickly and beautifully with piquant San Marzano tomatoes and salty chorizo, make this a worthy mention. The steamed dark chocolate pudding, as a finisher, is surprisingly good.
Catalunya The Fullerton Pavilion 82 Collyer Quay, Tel: 6534 0886
Ham, cheese and truffle bikini from Catalunya's hot tapas selection.
There is an obvious eye on incorporating revolutionary food, but this unexpectedly measured start for Catalunya could just be what the success of Spanish food in Singapore needs. Head chef Alain Tolosa even made a concerted effort to reiterate the fact, should his celebrated history with elBulli distract - like anyone would willingly divert their attention from a traditional 12-hour roasted suckling pig with lemon puree. Or, for that matter, a roasted meat canelon served with Idiazabal (sheep) cheese and basil oil. The light bites menu boasts a few modern Catalan tapas, like the iconic Chef Ferran Adria's scrumptious tortilla omelette "deconstruccion" - a slim martini glass that is first filled with a rich egg yolk sabayon, drizzled with chopped caramelised onions and then topped with silky, aerated mashed potatoes dispensed from a siphon.
Sabio Tapas Bar and Restaurant 5 Duxton Hill, Tel: 6223 4645
The place exudes the charm of a well-dressed neighbourhood wine bar, with the tight space feeding the expected tone of a popular tapas bar. The menu does nonetheless offer surprising finesse, celebrating, for the most part, traditional Spanish fare, the country's seasonal produce, and its wines and spirits. Unexpected highlights include the salmon in cider with mussels and clams, and scallops in a sparkling white wine sauce.
Immigrants 467 Joo Chiat Road, Tel: 8511 7322
So it sees itself as a "Singapore Gastrobar". And there's very little misperception regarding the flavours it champions. That being said, some diners feel that Peranakan and Eurasian cuisine do not lend themselves too well to this serving style. But the food, the same astute diners declare, is delicious. Fancy some buah keluak fried rice? Or indulge in a portion of grilled stingray topped with sambal made with the chef's grandfather's recipe.
District 10 Bar Tapas Restaurant 1 Vista Exchange Green The Star Vista #01-42/K3, Tel: 6694 2884
The jury is still out on whether this minted addition to an increasingly noteworthy line-up will make the cut. But given The Bonta Group's success here, this 80-seat bar and restaurant should garner a few new regulars. The atmosphere is more breezy than intimate. The assortment of 35 tapas and pinchos, and their comparatively more economical prices, will certainly help.
MAD - Modern Asian Diner #01-20/21 The Grandstand, Turf City
MAD's sea bass ceviche scented with reposado tequila and a purple potato puree.
A reference to Dick Lee's The Mad Chinaman is evident in its aesthetic interjections and attitude. (Lee is also a partner in this establishment.) But this new small plates dining destination dares for a more eclectic mix. Dim sum will be the order of the day at lunchtime. The dinner menu, on the other hand, will showcase TungLok Group's first attempt at modern European cuisine. Spanish chef Roberto Hernandez Sevillano will be at the helm, creating contemporary and Asian-inspired interpretations, as well as inspired renditions of some of the lunchtime dim sum items, such as deep-fried char siew pao. The remaining three collaborators that make up this uniquely local ensemble are Bakerzin, Bar Stories and Top Wines.
MAD is slated to open Dec 1. Visit tdy.sg/madworld1101 for a brief insight.
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