Singapore for Your Supper
Over the years, I've been assembling a dream menu of the best foods I've ever eaten, a desert-island top ten from which I'd choose if ever asked the question, "If you could eat only one thing every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
Beef jerky is near the top of my list and always will be. And not just because it's a survival food, either, but because jerky is what I seem to eat the most when I'm not out on the job with someone else cooking for me and am too lazy to cook for myself. Mantu -- a kind of Afghan dumpling filled with herbed meat and onions, then covered with spiced lentils and cool yogurt -- from Albuquerque's Tora Bora House is right up there; so are the red-chile breakfast burritos from Milton's across town. Arby's curly fries; poached sea bass with figs and French toast stuffed with sweet-potato purée from the Spring Mill Cafe outside of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania; fat, late-season Granny Smith apples; D'Anjou pears with honey; Matt Peltier's seafood pho with Mongolian fish sauce from Le Metro Cite in Buffalo; my own pork with sour-cherry glace de viande -- these are all on the list in ever-shifting order, depending on my mood.
But roti canai -- specifically, the roti canai from Penang (the restaurant with locations in New York and Philadelphia, not the city in Malaysia) -- will always head my list. And now here I am in Denver, 1,700 miles (give or take) from the place where I had my first, best and most enduring taste of this Malaysian appetizer that I could eat every day for the rest of my natural life, and the roti canai is exactly the same as I remember it, because one of the Penang chefs is in the kitchen at Singapore Grill. Michael Lee, a native of Malaysia, comes from a family with a generational history in the restaurant business, and he spent several years in Penang's galley before he was hired away by Kin Kong, who opened the Singapore Grill here in June 2001.
Technically, roti canai is just an unleavened pancake served beside anything in need of such an item to soak it up, but that description doesn't do it justice. Michael Lee's roti canai is not a pancake, but a work of alchemy in which a simple dough of flour, salt, water and sugar is transformed into something magical. It takes years of practice before a cook is able to stretch and throw the dough properly, working it until it is thinner than paper, then grilling it in ghee -- Indian clarified butter -- until it crisps in veins and around the edges while remaining soft and chewy in between. In Malaysia, the best roti throwers work out in front of their restaurants, showing off their skills to the hungry crowds, but at Singapore Grill, all the magic happens behind closed doors.
And that's a pity, because I would have liked to see Michael work. I would have liked to tell him that I was impressed by Penang when I ate there for the first time years ago. I would have liked to tell him that I've rarely had a meal as memorable as that one. I would have liked to tell him that it probably even had a little to do with my getting married, because that meal was one of the first big, romantic dinners that Laura, now my wife, and I had together. But I didn't say anything, because you don't look a gift horse like this in the mouth. You shut up, thank the stars that you've found such unexpected happiness, and start eating.
Singapore Grill's roti canai was thin as a dream -- crisp in some places, pliable and soft in others, as delicately sweet as pastry and mounded up on the plate like a fall of silk. It was accompanied (as it should be, but often isn't) by a smooth curry and coconut-milk stew studded with bits of chicken and potato that was spicy enough to make you sweat but somehow didn't overpower the roti's fragile sweetness. I don't know how Michael does that, exactly. Like I said, it's magic.
Also on the table was murtabak (a kind of sliced roti pillow stuffed with spiced ground beef and onions) and shrimp in taro: shelled, tail-on shrimp wrapped in puffy deep-fried jackets of the nutty starch that made them look like crustacean gangsta rappers. These shrimp were much more interesting than the lame butterflied-and-battered variety available at 10,000 other Asian restaurants, and they came with a sauce several degrees removed from your usual ketchup-and-horseradish cocktail mix. It was still red, but sweet and gooey, spiked with unidentifiable bits of something (I'm guessing mango), with a mildly spicy bite that was sharp enough to hold its own against the heavy taro batter.
There were three of us there for dinner, and we devoured these appetizers -- including another round of roti canai -- in what seemed like seconds before the main courses began arriving. First, beef rendang, an archetypal Malaysian dish that's generally the most recognizable and palate-friendly to a wide-eyed rookie new to this cuisine. At its best, it's a stew of beef sweated or poached in coconut milk and mild curry, then left to grow tender while its own juices mix with the sweet milk and reduce into a thick, powerful gravy. Here, unfortunately, the classic had been rushed, and while a properly coddled beef rendang can be cut with a fork, this one was tough and stringy, able to withstand the attack of any utensil. And although the sauce was good -- smoky with curry, thick and brown, sweetened a bit by the coconut milk and given legs and solidity by the beef -- it wasn't good enough to overcome the tough meat, or the inattention that allowed it to get that way.
A double dose of buah mango -- chicken and shrimp in mango-bell-pepper sauce -- was a diabetic's nightmare: Both were sweet, brutally sweet, with fat sticks of perfectly ripe mango, slices of pepper, and chicken or shrimp floating around in a candy-apple soup of that sweet-and-sour sauce you get with your grocery-store takeout Chinese.
We'd also ordered chicken done Hainanese style -- which apparently means boneless, rather bland and doused in liquid smoke -- and served with a huge mound of yellow, sticky rice that sent a gentle reminder from tongue straight to brain of the potential of rice treated right. Uncle Ben's this wasn't. And sitting in the middle of the table, blind eyes staring toward the door, was a whole red snapper, fried with head, fins and tail intact. It was a beautiful fish, done perfectly so that the skin had crisped and the firm white flesh inside steamed when I dug in with my fork. Crowned with long strips of carrot, served upright on its split belly in a deep red puddle of mellow, sweet and chile-spiked sauce, this fish -- like the roti canai, the rendang sauce, the Hainanese rice -- displayed the kitchen's sense of balance in a way the other entrees didn't. Malaysian food is playful, complex without being stuffy, and at its best a slow dance of spicy with sweet, soft with sharp, passion with deliberation. On this plate, these competing elements came together in a simple fish that I picked down to the bone.
Dessert was ice kacang, a bizarre ice-cream sundae that included, top to bottom, chopped nuts, vanilla ice cream, shaved ice flavored with red-rose syrup that tasted exactly like those decorative soaps your grandmother keeps in the bathroom, corn, sugared kidney beans, various flavors of lotus jelly (an alien Jell-O chopped into small quivering cubes), and something crunchy at the bottom, which, in truth, I'm a little afraid to guess at. It was as if someone had gone through the coolers in the kitchen, randomly picking out bits of things to throw into a sundae dish and then tossing some ice cream on top as an afterthought. But it wasn't bad, and it was an adventure -- the perfect way to get a table full of people laughing together at the end of a long meal.
We continued our Malaysian tour two nights later at the Isle of Singapore.
My wife is a brave woman. Not just because she's married to me, which ain't easy, but because she's hung with me through hundreds of strange meals and walked beside me through the culinary hinterlands, taking all the same risks and reaping none of the rewards. She does it because she loves food -- and me, ostensibly. But when she fixed me with that look from across the table and swore that if I didn't take the shrimp heads off my fingers that minute, she'd never go out in public with me again? Well, then I knew I'd pushed things too far.
In Isle of Singapore's quiet, Asian-chic dining room, we found the perfect complement for Singapore Grill's Littleton strip-mall ambience. The two restaurants couldn't be more different, in both the little and the large, but they work together to bless each other's faults. (Both restaurants offer Chinese food in addition to Malaysian cuisine, but you can get your moo shu pork and shrimp with lobster sauce anywhere, so why bother with it here?)
Compared with the appetizers at Singapore Grill, Isle of Singapore's were entirely forgettable. For starters, there was no roti -- in my mind, a sin of epic proportions for any Malaysian restaurant -- and the chicken satay was dull, little more than skewered bits of white meat with a weak, soggy peanut sauce. The entrees, on the other hand, were consistently good, showing a sense of evenhandedness sometimes lacking at Singapore Grill.
While the latter's culinary influences seem to have drifted up from the wilder gastronomical environs of Indonesia, Isle of Singapore's come from the more grounded North -- from the traditions of mainland China, Thailand and Southeast Asia. Those fried little shrimp heads I was wearing on my fingertips in an ill-fated attempt to get a laugh out of the wife had once been part of a fantastic dish of whole shrimp crusted with salt and pepper, fried in the shell and served with little red chiles hot as dragon's breath mounded over shredded cabbage and nothing else: Chinese peasant food, through and through. I had enjoyed the same thing twice a week at a Hong Kong-style restaurant where I was working a decade ago as a bartender in exchange for getting to hang out in the kitchen when the bar business would slow. For staff dinners, the kitchen would dredge fistfuls of whole shrimp in salt and cracked black pepper and throw them in the fryer. Then a big plate would be loaded with the crispy crustaceans, and everyone would reach in, grabbing and twisting the heads off, sucking out the meat, eating the bodies shell and all. The same rules apply at Isle of Singapore, where your waitress will give you a choice between having the shrimp prepared whole or stripped. Go for the shells on: They protect the tender body meat while frying, leaving the shrimp moist and flavorful. Plus, the head meat -- which is generally discarded during processing for most shrimp sent to American restaurants because we prefer to think of our food as never having had a head, legs, eyes or life before arriving on our plates -- is soft and sweet like fresh lobster, with just the slightest tinge of salty deep-sea musk. Suck the heads, eat the shells (yank the legs off first) and leave nothing but the tails. Like whole game hens and whole fish, whole shrimp are the only way to go.
Just don't attempt a dramatic re-creation of the gravedigger scene from Hamlet with the heads. I don't understand it myself, but for some reason, women don't find this kind of thing amusing.
When I returned to Isle of Singapore solo for lunch, I went straight for the nyonya seafood soup. I'd tried to order it as an appetizer at dinner, but my waitress had wisely warned against it. While it's listed under the soups-and-salad portion of the menu, she'd explained, it is a meal for two in itself. She wasn't kidding. A huge serving dish arrived at my table, steaming and full of shrimp, scallops, rosettes of squid, green onions and Chinese celery in a seafood broth bolstered by egg. I ladled some into a small bowl and tasted it.
Nothing. Thin, weak -- there was almost no flavor at all. I tasted it again.
Nothing. Sure, the scallops and shrimp had flavor, and the squid was kind of squishy and briny, but beyond that? Zilch. I refilled my bowl and kept going. Slowly, a flavor began to develop. It was murky, hidden deep within the silky broth that coated the tongue like an expensive, wispy jacket. It was there, then gone. I had to chase it -- and did so through three bowls -- but never quite caught it. Surprisingly, even after all that, I wasn't full. That much soup should make anyone slosh around like he was wearing rubber shorts filled with seafood stock, but it didn't. Were Isle of Singapore some other kind of place -- say, New York City's Nobu or one of those super-trendy uber-hip grazing spots in Napa -- this nyonya would have been listed as a fifty-dollar soup de fruits de mer, and stars would have swooned over its mystery. But Isle of Singapore is not Nobu; it's a storefront Malaysian restaurant plunked down next to a Starbucks in the University of Denver neighborhood, and nothing on its menu hints of this soup's subtle charms. While at first blush the squid might have the texture of calamari bubblegum and the whole thing taste like nothing more than scallops in egg water, keep trying. Resist the urge to add salt or pepper (a mistake I made with my first bowl). Your patience will be rewarded.
Then again, if you don't appreciate subtlety and are looking for something that will transport you instantly about as far into the realm of gustatory mythology as you can go, move right on to dessert and have yourself a durian fruit smoothie. I can promise you only this: It probably won't kill you, but you might wish it had.
I can't say it was bad, because it wasn't. I can say that I hated it, now suffer from an entirely rational durian phobia and will forever have nightmares about my first taste. But some people out there (mostly in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Malaysia and that area more than half a world away) love the durian, consider it a powerful aphrodisiac and have dubbed it the King of Fruits. All I can figure is that these people are insane.
Durian has a smell that is indescribable by any words in the human tongue, familiar only by comparison. Like decaying meat, but greener. Like yogurt on a rotten foot. Like growing onions in a dead body. Online, there are people who swear that this foul reek is mitigated by the heavenly flavor of a fruit the color of piss and shaped like calves' brains, but they are lying to you. There is a sweetness to it, yes. A certain sickly, custardy, gray sweetness washed over by competing flavors of carrot, melon, sweat and grass clippings. And after you've tasted it -- just when you think that the experience is over and everything is going to be all right -- durian shows you the true depths of its evil.
First, you can't use alcohol to wash the fruit's foul taste from your tongue, because while durian by itself causes a mild asthmatic reaction in many people, when mixed with alcohol, it can reportedly kill you. No one told us this when my wife and I fled to the closest bar and tried to drown the memories of our durian smoothie with tequila shots and Corona chasers. We only found it out the next day, when we tried to crawl out of bed and wondered if somehow we'd poisoned ourselves. Surprise! We had.
Second, durian doesn't go away once you've swallowed it. It hangs with you for days. You'll taste it every time you burp, you'll smell it in your hair and on your skin like garlic, you'll walk in a cloud of its funk noticeable at twenty paces, and even dogs won't come near you.
In my time, I've eaten rat, fish eyes, jellied duck's blood, that Malaysian ice-cream sundae at Singapore Grill and a hundred other weird things simply for the experience. I do food the way some people do drugs: because it's there. And like some reformed junkie speaking to a bunch of middle-schoolers about the dangers of shooting smack, I can tell you to stay away, but secretly I'm out here urging you to go and try it for yourself. You've only got one life: Can you go through it having never sipped a durian smoothie?
I couldn't. For the same reasons that I tried roti for the first time, and foie gras and sweetbreads, I had to have a dance with the King of Fruits. And while I don't think there's any danger of it replacing roti on my desert-island dream menu, I don't regret trying it for a moment.
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