Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Less than a week after I returned to London from Singapore, I was already starting to miss good Singaporean food. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long to try more of it. Nor did I have to go very far to do so.
Just four days after I left Singapore, the Singapore Tourism Board invited me to Madrid for the annual Madrid Fusion food fair and gastronomy summit. The tourism board was hosting A Night in Singapore—the opening event for Madrid Fusion—and I was invited to taste the cuisine of a handful of young, innovative chefs from the best restaurants in Singapore. I couldn’t wait.
I arrived in Madrid on Sunday evening and was taken to Hotel Ritz, a grand dame of a hotel right in the center of the city. After checking into my room, I looked out the window and saw that I was right across the street from the Prado. With one hour left until closing, I hurried over to the museum for a whirlwind visit. I had been to the Prado twice before, but still the vast collection had me in awe of all things Goya, Velazquez, El Greco & co.
The next morning I found myself with some free time for sightseeing in Madrid. I first headed down the street to the Reina Sofia for a healthy dose of modern art. I hadn’t visited the museum since I was 12 years old, and I found that I got a lot more out of it this time than I had in middle school. Aside from the obvious highlight of Picasso’s La Guernica, I was excited to see costumes from Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet and other Bauhaus art.
Leaving the museum, I met a friend for lunch at Bar Tomate, a stylish restaurant to the north of the museum. Upon hearing that I was in town for the Madrid Fusion food fair, she recommended that I visit the Mercado de San Martin, a food market in the heart of the city. After lunch I walked through the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor to the steel-and-glass market building.
As soon as I walked in, I knew I was in love with the place. All along the walls were stalls selling tapas of every kind, and in the center were tables for enjoying the food. If I hadn’t just eaten lunch, I could have spent several hours hopping from counter to counter ordering everything from croquetas de jamon to pan con tomate.
But even if I had been hungry, I wouldn’t have indulged. No, I had to save room for the Singaporean food at A Night in Singapore. At 8pm I left the hotel with the others on the press trip, and we headed over to the Circula de Bellas Artes for the event.
We arrived before it started so that we could have time to talk to each chef about his or her food. We started with Ryan Clift, the British-born chef behind the Tippling Club, a restaurant in Singapore that pairs cuisine with creative cocktails mixed by his co-founder, Matthew Bax. The concept was unique, and the food was too. Ryan made a coffee cured ocean trout for one dish, and clams in a hot fluid gel of dashi for another.
Matthew’s cocktails included a Tippled Tea with Ducasse (Champagne, bitters, and an aromatic herbal fog), a Smoky Old Bastard (whisky, tobacco, and orange smoke), and a Bax Beet Pinot 2008 (a faux wine made from beetroot and Fernet, among other ingredients).
The next chef we met was Canadian-born Kevin Cherkas from BLU restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore. Kevin was cleverly balancing his “BBQ Chicken”—chicken-flavored cotton candy covered with a unique mix of flavors that added up to BBQ spices—on thin strings over the counter. As we spoke with him about his work, he enthusiastically offered us a small shot glass with “Liquid M&M’s” in the bottom. These were multicolored gel-like capsules filled with fruit juice in a playfully healthy nod to a favorite candy.
After Kevin we met Andre Chiang, a dynamic chef that has recently received a lot of international press for the excellent culinary skills that he showcases at Restaurant ANDRE in Singapore. Andre walked us through his three dishes, all of which were presented beautifully along the counter.
The first was spicy Chinese tea consomme in tea bags. The bags, which held tiny capsules, dissolved completely into the hot broth they were served in. The second dish was a black truffle porcini galette, which had a hard shell and was dusted with shaved macadamia nuts. The final dish was a smoked tomato capsule with a hard exterior shell that enclosed a flavorful tomato liquid.
The final chef of the evening was a young pastry chef named Janice Wong. Owner of 2am:dessertbar, Janice created some excellent sweet endings to our Singapore culinary tour. Starting with her Laksa dumplings, which were served in a shot glass, she showed us her Lemon, Lemongrass Explosion which had a hard shell that playfully broke open onto pop rocks.
Those were followed by Popcorn Magnums, which were chocolates filled with popcorn in a sweet-savory blend. Then came the salted egg custard eclairs that had an anise finish. After trying those we couldn’t help but try the caramels that were made with pork fat. They too were a great blend of sweet and savory.
Once we finished talking with the chefs, the other guests started to arrive. Among the first of these was Ferran Adria, the Spanish culinary god. Swoon. Soon after he arrived, the place filled up and the evening buzzed along in a blue-lit frenzy of culinary energy.
As I made my way around the counters to taste all of the chefs’ creations, I was impressed at how much innovation was taking place in the Singapore culinary scene. My recent trip to the country had focused on the traditional foods, and while these chefs were certainly informed by the classics, they took a very forward-thinking, scientific approach.
At the end of the evening I had sampled all of the food, and was impressed. I thought that Andre Chiang’s cuisine was the best both in terms of creativity and taste, and Janice Wong’s desserts were so good and so unique that I spent several minutes trying to convince her to open a restaurant in London.
I left A Night in Singapore wishing I could go back to the city-state to sample more of the chefs’ cuisines at their restaurants. I was still in Madrid, though, and needed to make the most of the time I had left. The next day I made a quick visit to the Madrid Fusion food fair. Then I walked back over to the Mercado de San Martin and had a few tapas before meeting up with another friend that I hadn’t seen in years.
Soon I was off to the airport, into the Iberia lounge (which must have been the largest airline lounge in the world), onto my flight, and back to London.
It may still be a while until I travel to Singapore again, but as soon as I can rationalize another trip, I will certainly use the country’s culinary scene as an excuse to visit.