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Mar 11, 2014 04:48 AM

Report on 3 days in SIN by a San Francisco hound

Here's the mostly great, and some unfortunate and surprising, experiences we had this week in Singapore. In chronological order.

Arrived 6AM direct from SFO, where the Laksa in the SQ lounge was the best I've had in the Bay Area, with 6 hr layover in Seoul, so decided to hit the breakfast buffet at Edge in the Pan Pacific. Huge, expansive buffet with a bit of everything, but not quite everything since I was dreaming of more laksa and they serve that only at lunch. Items of uneven quality from all over Asia, but many Asians were at the American breakfast counter. Guess it is exotic.

Afternoon headed out to the Old Airport Rd Food Centre for some crab and rojak. The rojak at Toa Payou Rojak was marvelous. The old man was assembling the orders, helped by his son.

The crab at Mattar Rd Seafood BBQ was ghastly. I really don't know what happened as I expected this to be a high point as Rick Bayless, a Chef hero, had raved about it. Maybe I shouldn't have taken the Makensutra recommendation to have the white pepper crab. Maybe it was because I asked for a larger crab for 2 and got one a bit over a kilo. Maybe I am just spoiled by the juicy tasty Dungeness crabs we get at home. We got a she crab with massive amounts of roe, which was so overcooked as to be hard and bitter. The crab was dry and uninteresting. Sauce mild and bland. The cook seemed to be the owner. Can anyone explain what happened?

Things got better when we found the Nam Sing Hokkien Prawn Me Stall which was just closing. So we were given a take out order from a freshly made batch. It was wonderful. So 2 for 3 at Old Airport Rd were spectacular.

Next day we went to the Sunday 'buffet' dim sum at Jade in the Fullerton, which I had booked in December. Absolutely the best dim sum, including Hong Kong, TPE, SF, and LA. One of the best meals in years. Every item was refined most were creative upgrades from standard or new creations. Example, truffled small fried taro puffs. High point and best dish in years came at the end, and was fantastic even though we were quite full, was the stewed grilled lamb loin. Shredded soft braised lamb, marvelous flavor, with a charred spicy crust in a little square cake, slice for presentation with pickled veggies. Wow!

For dinner headed to Maxwell St for chicken rice. Arrived at TianTian at 6, just as they sold their last order, not to us, despite almost a display of tears for me. Discovered Ay Tai 2 stalls down just before a huge line formed. Lady in the line said she slightly preferred TT for the rice, but like us she had come to Maxwell St with her heart set on chicken rice and Ay Tai was almost as good. For us it was incredibly good and we now appreciate why this dish is such a big deal in Singapore and surroundings.

Next day, excellent beef murtabak at Zam Zam. Never have seen this so light and tasty. Earlier stumbled on a Din Tai Fong, with incredible XLBs. No where else comes close. Lots of excellent soup. I see y'all have more DTFs than TPE. Lucky you. Don't know why we can't get a branch in the Bay Area.

Then headed out to crazy Sentosa for dinner at Sam Leong's Forest. We had experienced his creative modern take at Jade a few years ago when that was his spot. I still think he is one of the most interesting chefs around, much like Wolfgang Puck in his prime. We had foie gras with duck breast in a crispy tofu skin cup with interesting unfamiliar flavors. Shrimp stuffed with smoked oyster with was I sauce, a fine dish. I over ordered heavy meat dishes, but both were excellent, Wagyu beef cheeks, pressed duck with yam. Impressive, maybe not as exciting as he was at Jade. Not sure why this has to be tucked away in a remote corner of Sentosa.

All I all a great food town youse guys have here. Headed for CCU and when we come back through SIN will have along enough layover to get some of the East Coast Rd Laksa.

Thanks to klyeoh and others on this board who really made this visit work for us.

I've posted some photos, mainly dim sum, on twitter, @tomnash

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  1. That was one quick whirlwind visit, Tom. Sorry to hear about the Mattar Rd seafood let-down. You'd have had a better chance of experiencing culinary nirvana, crab-wise, if you'd tried Sin Huat's crab bee hoon (plus other seafood dishes like steamed scallops, etc.) at Geylang Lorong 35.
    White pepper crab at No Signboard (Geylang) or black pepper crab at Eng Seng (Still Road) would have done more justice to your expectations. I do agree that Dungeness crab is really up there among the best - salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab at R&G Lounge in SF Chinatown is one of the treats Singaporean visitors there never miss.

    For Hainanese chicken rice, Boon Tong Kee (Balestier Rd) or Wee Nam Kee (United Square) are good alternatives to Tian Tian (Ah Tai's okay, but does not have the same standards as the other established places). Try those other places if you're passing by again.

    The Singapore foodie world is currently in an uproar over the impending closure of Nasi Padang River Valley after > 50 years of business due to rising rents, in perhaps 2-3 weeks' time. From your SF Bay Area perspective, it's almost akin to Tadich Grill saying that they are closing shop because they can't afford to pay the rent anymore!

    If you're looking for something really new in Singapore at the moment, make a beeline to Pidgin Kitchen & Bar in the Dempsey Hill dining enclave - Pidgin offers Singapore cuisine moderne: Hainanese chicken rice arancini, Singapore rojak with foie gras and crab otak-otak croquettes.

    Singapore's rich dining scene is ever-evolving - the traditional and the new lurk behind every corner. Be mindful of opening hours of street food places - many do lunch business and close early.

    Do let me know if there are any specific dishes you're looking for.

    18 Replies
    1. re: klyeoh

      River Valley Nasi Padang's landlord is tripling the rent: scandalous! How sad that we are losing another one of our food legends.

      1. re: klyeoh

        Thank you - I feel that the Pidgin recommendation was spot on and analogous to SF mid-range dining. I've been eating mostly at the hawker stands, but I realized that is probably equivalent to eating only at food trucks while in San Francisco.

        Pidgin reminds me of 1760 in San Francisco - Acquerello's casual offshoot with small plates to share. Both happen to have uni pastas too.

        I really enjoyed the foie gras with rojak because 1) never had rojak before, and it matched the fat really well and 2) foie gras banned in California!

        1. re: tofuflower

          Oh my, the world *does* go around - the very first time I had uni pasta was, in fact, at Caffe Macaroni on Columbus Ave, North Beach, SF.

        2. re: klyeoh

          Thanks klyeoh, I will take you up on your offer...
          On our way back to SFO we have a long enough layover in Singapore to get some laksa in the Katong laksa neighborhood that's not too far from the airport. Which place are you recommending these days?

          Or another suggestion a short cab or subway ride from airport.

          We have been in Bengal, Assam, Bhutan, and I owe a write up on some incredible food we had in Kolkata which I will post after we spend a couple more days there on the way back.

          1. re: Thomas Nash

            I think you can do two laksa spots at one go - first, do 328 Katong Laksa on East Coast Rd - it's the best-known and the most popular spot. Then, cross the road to Roxy Square, where you'll find Janggut Katong Laksa on the ground floor: it's the *original* Katong laksa.

            Walk down East Coast Rd towards Joo Chiat Rd, stop by Kim Choo Kitchen (111 East Coast Rd) and try some Nyonya "kuehs" or desserts (pic below):

            1. re: klyeoh

              klyeoh, I'm just curious - do you like Kim Choo's kuihs or do you recommend it also because of the shop's quaint atmosphere? I haven't met a single Kim Choo kuih I liked (other than the nyonya ba zhang, which was alright)

              1. re: RipCurl

                It's got a good selection of kueh and cookies which I thought were good. Their Nyonya chang has a home-made flavour which is hard to find anywhere else in Singapore. I don't think the shop was "quaint" at all, but it's conveniently located in Katong, so accessible to the OP who'll be in the neighbourhood. Glory Catering up the road also has a good selection.

                FYI, my fave Nyonya kueh spot is Subway Niche @ Wisma Atria.

                1. re: klyeoh

                  I see, I actually find it quite quaint myself! With their displays of kebaya and knick-knacks (this is the one along East Coast Rd with two entrances).

                  I prefer the Subway Niche kuihs also or even Bengawan Solo in a pinch. But seems to be harder and harder to find good kuihs - I've tried a whole assortment (Chintamanis, Chilli Padi, Kedai Kue...), most places don't even sell those kuihs that used to be more common like dodol, pulut inti, kuih lopis. It used to be possible to find kuih lopis fairly easily - Scotts Shopping Ctr FC, Parkway Parade... putu piring also, it seems like the Haig Rd place is the sole survivor. I suppose hard to make money on these.

                  If you know of other places (far-flung in Sgp is fine too) for good kuih or for putu piring / putu bamboo do share!

                  1. re: RipCurl

                    RipCurl, I think Rumah Kim Choo's kebaya and nyonyaware is fairly new, as the shoplot was previously part of their restaurant which is now restricted to only upstairs. They are competing with Rumah Bebe next door. They use to occupy only one shoplot which sells kueh chang babi.

                    Kim Choo's kuah chang babi is my family's favourite for nearly 30 years. They are very good at making kuah chang. But they are fairly new at offering nyonya kueh, compared to Glory Catering which has been doing it much, much longer.

                    I think Kim Choo's kaya is quite nice. They also make quite good pulot panggang (which we call rempah udang in Melaka) and kueh seri muka (called pulot tekan in Melaka).

                    If you want good nyonya kueh in Singapore, go to Princess Terrace in King's Hotel for the Penang buffet. The kueh-mueh which is part of the buffet there has the traditional taste and flavour. I'm afraid no where else in Singapore does it as well as they do.

                    1. re: M_Gomez

                      Ok will give Kim Choo's rempah udang & kaya a try, thanks for the suggestions. At Princess Terrace I always end up spending too much stomach space on the DIY chendol & apom balik that I don't remember actually getting to the kueh!

                    2. re: RipCurl

                      Actually, some of the best "putu mayam" (called "idiyappam" in south India) and "putu piring" (similar to "pottu" in Kerala, India, and also Sri Lanka) I'd had recently was in Penang's Pulau Tikus market. You need to go there in the mornings:

            2. re: klyeoh

              So, I was thinking laksa on our 12 hr stopover in SG on Monday, but your description of Pidgin Kitchen & Bar got my attention. So I booked a table at 1PM.

              Now I see it is out by the Botanical Gardens and I am trying to figure out how to get there without breaking the bank or walking a mile in the heat or rain... Is the best way to take the train to, say, the Holland Village stop and then find a taxi? Are there taxis around those stops? Can the restaurant call a cab?

              We get in around 630 am and need to be back at the airport by 330 or 4PM for the 630 pm flite to SFO.

              Any advice, or do I just revert to the laksa plan A?

              1. re: Thomas Nash

                The restaurant can call a cab. They did it for me on a busy Saturday night and helped me catch the proper cab with the right license plate number. Most people in that area drive their own cars, so the only cabs that come around there are ordered by other patrons that don't have their own cars. I walked around trying to flag one down, but it was impossible! Good luck, hope you enjoy it!

                1. re: tofuflower

                  Yes, cab is best. It'll cost around S$20 from the restaurant back to the airport (Singapore taxi companies has a small surcharge for phone bookings).

                  Dempsey Hill is a food hub which is in a very nice part of Singapore (near Botanic Gardens) - it'll be a pleasant 30 minute ride each way.

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    Pidgin was a great suggestion. It is exactly what a fusion restaurant should be, here using western techniques with Singapore food stall ingredients, spicing,and sensibilities.

                    The foie gras with rojak was a most interesting and effective combination. I would be saying it was the best foie gras I have had if the generous piece of pan sautéed foie gras had been flavored more interestingly (and without a very small unidentified off flavor from the pan or oil ?? or ?). It was, nonetheless excellent, but missed spectacular.

                    On the other hand, I thought the crab croquettes were spectacular, with fascinating lemon grass and other local flavors. The signature duck confit was also superb, beautifully plated, crispy tasty skin, with a great aromatic intense lychee sauce, with crispy smashed small potatoes, probably also fried in the duck fat, and several whole lychees. A most fascinating transformation of a French canard rôti avec cerise.

                    The beet root salad with a good goat cheese was not what we were looking for. But the aromatic lychee sorbet was perfect.

                    Great place. Also, the neighboring "grocery" stores were quite impressive, even by SF standards. Huge variety of foie gras, caviar, and French cheese. I guess it goes with the gated palaces we passed on the way there. Only lacking were some of our great California and Vermont cheeses.

                    Somehow the cab ride from the airport cost SG$35 via the northern route and on return only Sg$24 via the southern route, though both show as the same distance on Google maps. Airport surcharge?

                    Thanks for recommendation and help.

                    1. re: Thomas Nash

                      Whoa, that was a quick report back - thanks, Thomas. It was good to hear that you enjoyed yourself.

                      Yes, taxis in Singapore have a S$5 airport surcharge coming out of the airport, but not for going back in. Also, there's a "peak period surcharge" (Mon-Fri: 6.00am to 9.30am and 6.00pm to midnight) where the cab metre automatically adds 25% of metered fare onto your bill.

                      Have a good flight home.

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        If you're still hankering for some local flavours before you board your flight, check out Kim Choo's Nyonya Kitchen at Terminal 3 departure area (that should be your terminal as all flights towards US departs from there).

                        It's the only Asian-based eatery voted among the world's top 30 airport eateries back in late-2012:

                  2. re: Thomas Nash

                    The restaurant can call a cab. They did it for me on a busy Saturday night and helped me flag the cab. Most people in that area drive their own cars, so the only cabs that come around there are ordered by other patrons that don't have their own cars. I walked around trying to flag one down, but it was impossible! Good luck, hope you enjoy it!

                2. Mattar Road seafood is run by this elderly couple for a long time. Being voted by Singapore's definitive hawker food guide, Makansutra, as one of the Singapore Makansutra Legends, my expectations have always been high if I try their famous chilli crabs. But the last time I was there, I thought the chilli crab was so-so. I never tried the white pepper crab there before so cannot vouch for their dish.

                  Jade is a popular restaurant for foreign visitors but you should try one of the popular local dim sum places like Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck in Paragon to get a true taste of good dim sum.

                  Hope you find good Katong laksa when you're back.