Been there, done that: You can't afford to enjoy Singapore like a Crazy Rich Asian but you don't want to just eat at hawker stalls or at touristy restaurants that everyone else has already posted on their grams. Where will you go makan like a real cool kid? No worries, lah, here are some chic hotspots that are a little off the beaten path that will be packed ... with more locals.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
Violet Oon is a journalist — a food critic, to be exact — who turned her passion for food into a series of culinary adventures spanning almost 50 years. She's now considered an authority on Asian cuisine, particularly Nyonya or Peranakan food.
Since learning about the Peranakan culture and often being taken for a Nyonya, myself, I've become more interested in the unique aspects of their cuisine and trying to see if the flavor profiles spark any genetic taste recognition. I was stoked when my guide, Suhail Jindran, took me to Violet Oon's restaurant before we explored the National Gallery (which, by the way, is a must-do). The place is packed, so be sure to make reservations well ahead of time to ensure you get a seat. Everything is delicious, but if you want a very unique taste of Nyonya food, order these (in addition to the cover photo):
One of my new favorite things is kuay pie tee, little fried pastry cups filled with julienned bamboo shoots and turnips poached in a prawn bisque topped with shrimp. The filling tasted like pork! You add your own chili paste and molasses to taste, so you get a sweet-spicy-savory burst of hearty flavor. These are too easy to eat!
This is actually a classic Nyonya dish and I guarantee Hawaii people have never had this before. It's a spicy, slightly tangy chicken stew with various spices like lenguas and turmeric, but most importantly the buah keluak nut. I don't know who figured out how to make this poisonous nut edible, but it needs to be specially prepared through boiling and fermentation to get the hydrogen cyanaide out. The inside becomes an earthy black paste, which you can scoop out and add to the gravy to eat over rice. Jindran felt the taste might be a little too strong for me if I scooped out too much, but I thought it provided an unusual umami to the spicy gravy. I'm coming back for this one with more friends.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
1 St. Andrew’s Road
#02–01, National Gallery Singapore (City Hall Wing)
+65 9834 9935
Whenever I visit, my cousin Celia Chu Lines takes me to at least one very hip, upscale restaurant. This time, it was Cure, a venue by Irish-born chef Andrew Walsh in the Keong Saik neighborhood on the outskirts of Chinatown.
Cure is known for its tasting menus; you can get a three-course menu for $95 (weekdays only), five courses for $120, and "chef's tasting" for $160 (weekends only). While that sounds kind of steep, keep in mind that you will get some snacks, as well. We were lucky to get the chef's table, which is right up at the kitchen prep counter, so you are literally in the team's faces as they artfully cook and plate the food. The menu changes monthly, so you're likely to see regulars like my cousin, revisiting to see what's next.
The plates are all artfully done, much like what you see at Senia here in Honolulu. And the servings look small, but they are rich — especially the foie gras dishes — so you get full fairly quickly. It was interesting to see ingredients that looked familiar, but tasted different due to Walsh's interpretations based on his own European experiences.
Despite being so refined, the food — like Walsh — is very approachable, and the first bite of each dish seemed to evoke a little surprise for us as little unexpected twists in flavors and textures were revealed. I can't wait to see what he's serving the next time I come through Singapore.
21 Keong Saik Rd.
+65 6221 2189
Another spot with a super cool, yet welcoming vibe was Native, a bar recommended by Jindran. Vijay Mundaliar has created a multi-tiered craft cocktail bar on Amoy Street in Chinatown, known for his use of rare Asian spirits and local ingredients from foraged insects to unique spices from around Southeast Asia.
Like other craft cocktail bars, some of his drinks have fun garnishes that are obviously a pain in the butt to make, but represent favorite dishes of the region. Mundaliar forages for the ingredients himself, which is probably what adds to the cost of $23 per cocktail. Unlike other places with expensive cocktails, however, Native is very unpretentious and casual, and the staff is knowledgeable and fun. We were impressed that the cool ambience was natural, not simply manufactured for show.
A fun fact about Native: Mundaliar takes the "reduce, reuse, recycle" movement seriously and does as much as he can to foster an incredible waste management system. Last month, he generated a total of four grams of waste. That's a good enough reason for me to check out this hipster hotspot.
52A Amoy St.
+65 8869 6520.
If you're living the high life exploring the massive Marina Bay Sands hotel and shopping complex, take a meal at Punjab Grill, which is located under the stairs at the end of the mall. It's high-end Indian cuisine, but Jindran recommended it because they're one of the few places in town that serves authentic biryani.
You can get items off the a la carte menu, but that would be pretty expensive and over-filling. Try the five-course tasting menu instead, which is $98, and gives you a more well-rounded sampling of their offerings. If you're adventurous, try their specialty cocktails, which use Indian spices to create unique drinks that complement the food. I don't mean to imply that the drinks are weird; you'll just never taste those kinds of spices in cocktails again because they're so creatively different.
If you're as full as we were, you'll need to walk around the mall or the bay to work off your dinner!
B1-01A, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands,
South Podium, 2 Bayfront Ave.
This is another spot my cousin took me to — it's about 20 minutes outside of downtown at the riding stables, and although it has a country club feel, it's actually open to the public. Locals love it because it's casual, and it doesn't feel like you're in Singapore.
They serve breakfast, lunch, and early dinner, but the crowds come here mainly for brunch — and weekend brunch, at that. You absolutely need a reservation if you want a table on the weekends. The menu is contemporary, with vegetarian and vegan choices as well as traditional English breakfast and light hipster fare. If you're lucky (or pushy Chinese like us), you might get a table on the lanai overlooking the stables and riding trails for a lovely country view.
The food is done well, as it caters to upscale families who may own or simply ride the horses there. My cousin Jordyn Lines rides there regularly and is part of the team that tends to the horses, so she gave us a mini-tour of the stables, but on Sundays you can bring the kids for supervised rides, as well.
51 Fairways Dr.
+65 6466 9819
If you're feeling like a baller to round out your act-like-a-Crazy-Rich-Asian trip, you may want to try ScootBiz, which can be as low as $2700 round trip. While this is much more expensive than economy, it's still a fraction of the cost of other airlines. A random check through internet fares showed $3,500 to $7500 one way to Singapore on other carriers, so this is still a good deal. ScootBiz seats are wider with more leg room and the seats recline pretty far, including a leg rest. You also get to access ScootTV entertainment for free on your personal device (athough wifi is an extra charge).
Mahalo for the grand adventure, Scoot. I'll be back, lah!
*Transportation was provided by Scoot Airlines.