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.
Roti prata ($4), similar to the Indian bread of the same name, was a bit doughy, but proved even better than rice for sopping and soothing with the spicy dishes. Poh pia ($6.25) were desperately addictive steamed spring rolls, their delicate white wrappers pregnant with crisp vegetables, shrimp, Chinese sausage, peanuts, and vibrantly fresh herbs.
Nasi Goreng ($8) was not Hitler's henchman but coconut fried rice, here rendered greaselessly with tender little shrimps and cubes of top-notch Chinese lapchong sausage. Less perfect, Nyonya daging rendang ($11), beef stew flavored with a garden of tangy kafir lime leaves, had meat so lean it emerged somewhat dry. Mee Goreng ($8.25) was an incendiary Malay version of chow mein, Chinese pan-fried noodles.
Several friends whose tastes we trust told us to try the salmon in banana leaf at Singapore Malaysian Restaurant -- but, frustratingly, the kitchen there was out of it on both our visits. At Straits, however, it was readily available on demand (if you paid $15) and demonstrated what the fuss was about. The fish emerged from the wrap ultratender and flaky, slathered with a deep, complex marinade with a ground-peanut flavor and a kick of spiciness that tasted like the source might be habanero chiles, with their distinct fruity undertone. "I usually find salmon an overpowering flavor, but this sauce bites right back," said TJ happily.
Singapore Malaysian Restaurant was out of many other dishes besides the salmon. On a stormy weeknight, we sloshed in shivering an hour before closing, to find ourselves the night's final customers in a chilly, decor-free barn. The cute, impatient waiter made it clear that everyone wanted to go home and wished we would, too. We managed to get decent rojah ($4.25), the spicy shrimp-paste-dressed salad of pineapple, jicama, and cukes, but our other dishes (satay, fried pomfret) were fast-shriveled over high heat to get us gone. Evidently we'd hit on an off-night. We went back a few months later with several of the restaurant's partisans -- Robert, Gail, Dave, and Joey, who'd variously praised the food's freshness, authenticity, and affordability. At prime time on a Saturday night, the restaurant was half-full but ill luck placed us next to Lena the Laughing Hyena, her shrieks amplified by unadorned hard surfaces. Once again the house was out of our friends' favorites -- the wrapped salmon, the Javanese fried chicken, the achar (pickled salad), and even the night's "special" of chicken wings. The same cute, indifferent waiter forgot to bring two other items we ordered.
A few fine dishes stood out. Mee siam ($5.50) was a tangy rice-noodle soup with a spicy sweet-sour red curry broth. The roti prata ($3), flaky, multilayered Indian-style bread, lived up to Robert's raves. "With sausage and tomato, it'd be a great pizza," he said. "What's this, a staple?" asked Gail as she unwrapped orta orta ($3), a tasty appetizer of fish mousse wrapped in banana leaves. "Sure, it's a staple of Singapore," I said, flicking my own Swingline ort from the wrapping.
The rest ranged from middling-good (lamb satay, spicy shrimp sambal) to middling (deep-fried pomfret, daging rendang) to dire (two different but equally perfunctory versions of spring rolls; fried chicken breast swamped in soy; and chow kwei teo, a Malaysian version of strip-mall chow fun). All dishes were well under $10, but Robert and Dave were shocked at the array's quality, compared to narrower-focus meals they'd recently had there. Clearly the restaurant is fatally inconsistent -- it must be terrific some of the time, just not for me.
We'd been rooting for the "purer," funkier Singapore Malaysian; our dinners slingshot us back to splendid Straits. But in any rendition, this cuisine is hot and getting hotter: The Singapore Sling is the coming thing.