Mar 15, 2018
There are people in Singapore who are going to read this and get very, very mad. Good. I expect nothing less. Whether it’s a $3 bowl of Hokkien noodles or white-tablecloth fine dining, Singaporeans take their food seriously, with every eater harbouring strong opinions on where to find the good stuff. Your correspondent is no exception. Declaring something the best – especially in a city as rich in food options as Singapore – is fraught with danger. But as someone who was born in the city-state, visits the Little Red Dot at least once a month and leans on a network of local chefs, bartenders and other trusted food informants for intel, I stand behind this hit list. I hope you’ve packed an appetite – you’re going to need it.
Best for chilli crab
Sin Hoi Sai
Alfresco dining under the stars. No-corkage BYO. A kitchen that stays open till 5am. All reasons why this easygoing Tiong Bahru seafood restaurant has a place in the hearts of many (including the hungry chefs and waiters who flock here for post-service supper). It doesn’t hurt that it’s also an excellent spot to sample one of Singapore’s favourite dishes: fat crabs stir-fried with a sweet, gently spiced tomato sauce. Ordering fried mantou buns and sauce-mopping is as essential to the experience as the towelettes provided to guests.
Best for white pepper crab
Mattar Road Seafood Barbecue
Although chilli crab might be the seafood diner’s It dish, locals get their RDI of crab in myriad ways. For many, this bustling stall (01-63 Old Airport Road Food Centre, 51 Old Airport Road; +65 6447 2798) is a dependable go-to. It’s a small place run by a couple so there may be a wait – the fish balls from nearby Ru Ji Kitchen are a tasty way to pass the time – but this signature crab dish’s heady combination of fragrant white pepper, butter and spring onion repays the patient.
Best for views
Perched at the top of Swissôtel The Stamford, 70 storeys above ground level, Jaan could so easily hang its hat on those widescreen views of Marina Bay and the ship-dotted Singapore Strait beyond. Yet the cooking of Kirk Westaway is just as photogenic as anything outside the window. The contemporary likes of confit egg yolk and caviar on a celeriac custard are as pleasing as the engaging service under restaurant manager Simone Macri, while unexpected soundtrack choices (there will be ’90s rock) help diffuse any stuffiness. Dinner, not surprisingly, is special-occasion central but lunch offers a wider range of menu options. Want to maximise your chances of scoring a coveted window table? Book early and limit your party size to two or four.
Best for breakfast
Missing home? Go directly to The Lokal, a neo-Aussie café run by former Tetsuya’s chef Darren Farr. The coffee is good (everything is double-shot as standard), graffiti and shelves of cookbooks give the place warmth and the menu booms with flavour. Grilled mortadella and roast beef with mustard are typical of the sandwich options, while pomelo and toasted almonds put a fun spin on that modern brunch classic, smashed avo with housemade ricotta. Even the local stuff goes under Farr’s DIY microscope: his sweetly silky, housemade kaya (a spreadable coconut custard) sure is something.
Best for chicken rice
Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice
The discussion about Singapore’s national dish – a comforting trio of poached chook, fragrant rice and chicken soup – is a vigorous one but this veteran is a name regularly mentioned in the debate. The original restaurant has closed but its many branches continue to serve one of the island-nation’s benchmark chicken rices. Head to the Thomson Road outlet (01-08 United Square, 101 Thomson Road; +65 6255 6396 ) for reliably tender bird, garlicky rice and ginger chilli soy dipping sauce.
Best hawker centre
Satay by The Bay
This bustling outdoor hawker centre has much to offer tourists and Singaporeans alike. There is, of course, its rollcall of local food favourites, ranging from barbecued seafood to smoky chicken wings and the centre’s namesake grilled by multiple vendors. Lush plant life and the lack of disposable plates and cutlery are ticks for green thinking. After dinner, head into the Gardens by the Bay for the nightly lightshow starring the Supertrees, towering vertical gardens.
Image: Danny Santos
Best food court
Food Opera at Ion Orchard
As you’d expect from a food court in one of Singapore’s fanciest shopping precincts, Food Opera is a cut above the island-nation’s neighbourhood eating houses. Bentwood chairs and mosaic detailing are a nod to the country’s Peranakan history, while the food options are diverse. Local specialties include the beef noodles at multi-generational Scotts Hwa Heng and the bak kut teh (pork bone soup flavoured with medicinal herbs) at Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh. The ayam panggang (grilled chicken) at Riverside Indonesian BBQ also has its admirers.
Best heritage experience
Afternoon tea at The Clifford Pier
Once a busy terminal for tourists and daytrippers, Clifford Pier now lends its name to the signature restaurant of The Fullerton Bay Hotel. The homage doesn’t end there, with the pier’s rich hawker history informing The Clifford Pier’s menu of polished Singaporean classics. At the lavish afternoon tea, this cosmopolitan approach yields the luxed-up likes of little pink macarons perfumed with bandung (a rose-flavoured syrup) and savoury carrot cake topped with XO chilli and scrambled egg.
Best for Sunday brunch
The drinking is always fine at Regent Singapore’s New York-themed bar – the jurors of the World’s 50 Best Bars have voted it Asia’s best – but Sundays see the fun factor dialled right up. Free-flowing cocktails are the name of the game and seasonal fruit Bellinis plus access to a DIY Bloody Mary room ensure everyone wins. Prefer bubbles? You can add unlimited Billecart-Salmon Champagne to your menu. To dine: Maine lobster, shrimp cocktails, hand-rolled bagels and other trappings of the high life.
Best for fine dining
Restaurateur Ignatius Chan and his eponymous establishment have long been synonymous with local fine dining. Following a recent makeover and the arrival of new head chef Aitor Jeronimo Orive (formerly of The Fat Duck and Spanish powerhouse Mugaritz), both are ready to take their place in Singapore’s new food landscape. Lightly smoked wild yellowtail sashimi crowned with caviar and sea urchin is typical of the restaurant’s strong Japanese bent but for something different, take the comforting pastas and small plates on the bar menu for a test drive. Matching vertical tastings of burgundy are optional but highly recommended. ￼
Best for Chinese
There are fancier places to eat Chinese food but a reputation for robust Cantonese cooking keeps this old-fashioned coffee shop crowded. While office workers flock to Kok Sen (30 Keong Saik Road; +65 6223 2005) at lunch, evenings are prime time, with diners spilling over into the alley behind the restaurant. The crowds – and this place is best for large groups – are here for the kitchen’s wok hei, the smoky “breath of the wok” that lends essential char to dishes such as black bean beef hor fun. The prawn paste chicken, meanwhile, is unmissable.
Best for cocktails
The claim: Singapore is the world’s newest global cocktail superpower. The proof: the island state boasts six entries in the influential World’s 50 Best Bars list. Among the locals to have made the cut are Asian-focused Native (No. 47), speakeasy 28 HongKong Street (No. 25) and Operation Dagger (No. 24). Then there’s the year-old Atlas at No. 15, the fraternity’s freshest member as well as the highest-placed new entry on last year’s countdown. A picture of lofty Art Deco grandeur and elegance, Atlas is as notable for its exacting cocktails – brisk Martinis sharpened with champagne vinegar, say – as its awesome stockpile of more than a thousand gins (and rising).
Best for modern Australian
A pale rose comprising “petals” of raw Japanese yellowtail and white beetroot is surrounded by grains of tonburi, an edible seed nicknamed “land caviar”. A whole orange is candied and filled with citrus granita and ice-cream. These are beautifully presented dishes that are as satisfying to eat as they are to photograph. Sam Aisbett, one-time head chef of Sydney fine-diner Quay, is striking powerful blows for modern Australian cuisine at his fresh-faced dining room in the Chijmes precinct. Three- and five-course options are available but the eight-course menu (with matched wines) is the best way to experience Whitegrass.
Best for craft beer
The Good Beer Company
Ice or no ice? Once upon a time, that was the extent of the choice for beer drinkers in Singapore. Then along came Meng Chao and Daniel Goh (right) who, in 2011, opened a craft beer stall in a hawker centre and indelibly changed the drinking landscape. The original outlet has now been incorporated into sister stall Smith Street Taps (02-062 Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street; +65 9430 2750), while The Good Beer Company (01-23 Savourworld, 2 Science Park Drive; +65 9859 7386) has moved to new premises, offering packaged and tap beers from cult favourites to classic British ales and styles, making it possible to play all manner of beer- and food-matching games.
Best rooftop bar
Spago Bar & Lounge
Life’s problems have a knack of disappearing at Spago, one of the Singaporean interests of Austrian-born American chef Wolfgang Puck. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the rooftop bar is on the 57th floor of Marina Bay Sands and overlooks the hotel’s infinity pool, with views of the city skyline. Cocktails are available for one or in carafes for four or eight, while the well-stocked bar and bottle service lets guests channel their inner rock star. The snacking, meanwhile, fits the brief for punchy yet casual with beef sliders, Japanese fried chicken and sushi.
Best for Indian
The Banana Leaf Apolo
Like the country’s Chinese eating options, Indian food in Singapore takes many forms, from the excellent biriyani at Tekka Centre, where Yakader Muslim Food (01-259 Tekka Centre, 665 Buffalo Road; +65 9178 3427) is rightly considered a benchmark, to the roti and other Indian breads at the 24-hour Al-Haji Noordhin (161 Jalan Besar Road; +65 9240 9316). When it comes to Southern Indian banana-leaf rice dining, Apolo is many locals’ gold standard. They come for the curries – particularly the fish head curry – as well as tandoor-roasted meats. Both Apolo outlets are located in the Little India neighbourhood and provide an excellent reason to visit this vibrant precinct.
Best for French cuisine
After winning over diners at the aforementioned Jaan, Michel Bras protégé Julien Royer swapped the highs of the city’s tallest restaurant for a more down-to-earth setting at the National Gallery. His aspirations, however, are no less lofty. Plush surfaces, double-dressed tables and gold accents make a suitably elegant backdrop for bouillabaisse with Irish blue lobster and Provence artichokes, heirloom beetroot teased into myriad forms and the rest of Royer’s delicate, modern French handiwork. The service is attentive while the wine list, not surprisingly, showcases plenty of Gallic names.
Best for coffee
Chye Seng Huat Hardware
Having trouble finding this low-key café in Jalan Besar? Just look for the hordes of hungry cyclists in Lycra. The semi-industrial location might be a nod to its origins as a hole-in-the-wall pop-up but the welcome and the atmosphere are far from robotic. The onsite coffee roaster ensures baristas have access to top-shelf beans, while the menu shows off flavours that are local (crisp curry puffs and sweets, known as kuehs, made from rice flour) and introduced (linguini carbonara and pizza).
Best for bar dining
There’s barbecue and then there’s barbecue, Burnt Ends-style, where guests sitting at one of the 18 bar stools enjoy front-row views of the bustling open kitchen. From grissini slathered with taramasalata to slow-roasted suckling pig, everything on the menu gets a lick of smoke from the custom-built grills. Counter reservations are only taken for 6pm to 6.30pm, with subsequent seatings filled on a first come, best-dressed basis. Get to the restaurant early, add your name to the waiting list then come back later for your piece of the action.
Top image: Whitegrass