Singapore Slingshot

Straits Cafe
3300 Geary (at Stanyan), 668-1783. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended. Parking difficult on street; paid lot next to Coronet Theater. Muni via the 38 Geary and 33 Ashbury.

Singapore Malaysian Restaurant
836 Clement (at Ninth Avenue), 750-9518. Closed Tuesday. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Not wheelchair accessible; parking bad. Muni via the 2 Clement, 38 Geary, and 44 Penang.

I asked my slow-walking, slow-talking, world-traveling old friend John where he'd had the best food. He's a marine geologist who's mapped every sea floor from the Bering to the Weddell, and he answered with uncharacteristic readiness: "Singapore. In the street markets, there's this amazing array of foods and flavors. Fresh, and (hah!) real spicy. Not just hot -- complex, too."

Singapore's a city-state (like the Vatican). A bustling port on an island on the Java Strait, it's at the equatorial crux between the Pacific and Indian oceans -- the tip of the long peninsula stretching from Thailand down into Indonesia. With a location like that, it can't help being a world crossroads, and that always means a culinary humdinger. "Gastronomically, it is the culinary bazaar of the east," writes Chris Yeo (owner of Straits Cafe) and Joyce Jue in their cookbook The Cuisine of Singapore. The cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and India all contribute their vivid flavors, while a fourth style, "Nonya" (aka Nyonya, born of marriages between Malay Muslim women and Chinese-ethnic men) is quintessential "Straits cuisine." In addition, European traders (especially the ubiquitous Portuguese) have contributed culinary influences.

Ironically, the current "neatness counts" government is suppressing a lot of the spontaneity of street life, shutting down the vibrant food stands and replacing them with sterile government-sponsored indoor "food courts." But on our side of the water, the fabled street food seems poised for a breakthrough; two decades at other Southeast Asian tables have finally seasoned us to meet these flavors. New York already has a Singaporean restaurant chain, and San Francisco has two restaurants featuring this intriguing cuisine: Singapore Malaysian Restaurant and Straits Cafe.

One of them is a knockout. In fact, if Straits Cafe were a Singapore street stall, the business could survive on just one of its specialties, bak ku the ($3.50), spare rib herbal soup. A warming, clear dark broth perfumed with star anise and minced scallions embraces greaseless succulent chopped ribs, so tender you can chomp through the bones; sliced puffy Chinese crullers present a twist on croutons. The secret ingredient is Dong Kwei, a Chinese root considered especially beneficial to the circulatory system and to women. "This is to die for -- I mean, live for," TJ said.

Open 11 years, Straits has sunny decor with palm trees disguising the support beams; one wall is a street scene of balsa wood shutters over trompe l'oeil windows -- including a couple of open shutters with child-size T-shirts hanging from clotheslines. This playful nostalgia accurately sums up the style of the food: Yeo, a cooking school grad who worked at Singapore's luxury-class Mandarin Hotel, isn't an immigrant cook but a cosmopolitan chef, riffing on the homeland cuisine.

Take Duck Kapitan ($17). Tender, rosy grilled breast-slices and a "confit" of the leg, lightly battered and deep-fried, sat atop a complex mild red curry sauce, sheltered by a fan of crisp, lacy pancake evoking a rattan peacock chair. The dual-duck presentation of breast and leg-confit is Gallic, Alain Rondelli's signature dish when he was chef at Ernie's. When Yeo dropped by the table, asking, "Was everything OK?," we asked whether the dish exists in Singapore. "No, I really love French cooking," he said.

He's about to open a second branch in Palo Alto, where he intends to debut an appetizer of caramelized pineapple and foie gras. "I can't do that in San Francisco," he sighed. "With so many competing Asian restaurants, people expect moderate prices; I can't charge $30 for foie gras. But in Palo Alto, the competition is Wolfgang Puck." He's sure that Straits' standards will continue without his constant supervision. A recent illness took him out of the restaurant for several months; "Everybody in the kitchen pulled together," he said. "My customers tell me the food was even better while I was gone."

The results of Yeo's approach are enchanting; we liked or loved everything we tried. A full bar made good, goofy umbrella drinks that complemented this food, including (of course) a mean Singapore Sling. The combination appetizer plate ($10) covered a multitude of virtues (all available separately, as well). Big luscious grilled oysters were lightly warmed with a spicy, refined "barbecue" sauce mingling with the bivalves' juices. Chicken satay had sweet, tender charbroiled bird with a honey-peanut dipping sauce. Samosas, filled with potatoes and spicy red chile paste, flaunted a bold sweet note. Delicate fluted pastry cups (kway pal ti) were filled with jicama, carrots, and prawns in a subtle, mild chile sauce. Rojah ($7.50), an incendiary sweet-sour salad featuring pineapple, jicama, and (in this version) Chinese crullers, was billed as "an acquired taste" perhaps because of the aggressive dried shrimp-paste, but if you've been eating much Thai or Vietnamese food, you've probably acquired it.

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