SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) It's Monday, and we have just two words to say: Nasi Lemak. Not just any nasi lemak, but Damian D'Silva's nasi lemak.
Yes, the man who can't see eye-to-eye with other chefs who think a blender is the best thing to happen to rempah. This is the man who soaks rice overnight and steams it dry before adding coconut milk. When the rice has soaked up all the liquid, he steams it again. Three times. At different temperatures. And he hasn't even got to the sambal yet.
Possibly the most under-appreciated champion of heritage food in Singapore, D'Silva has for the longest time fought a losing battle between upholding the traditions of Eurasian/Peranakan cuisine, and convincing Singaporeans to pay for it.
After folding his last venture - the incongruous cocktail-bar-meets-chap-chye Immigrants Gastrobar in Joo Chiat - he's reviving the hawker centre model he had pre-Immigrants, when he ran Big D's Grill in a Holland Drive coffee shop.
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You'll find him now at the hipster food court Timbre+ at one-north - a massive heat capsule of an eating space where fishball noodles and bak kut teh are sold in a common area alongside mini-restaurant concepts carved into independent slots such as D's Joint, which has its own limited seating.
We've always been partial to D'Silva's cooking, in whatever premises it's served. He may not be in a restaurant context anymore, but he's still cooking like he's afraid his late grandfather will find a way to rap him on the head if he doesn't stick to original recipes.
In this cubby hole space he has now, he's managed to cram a decent-sized menu of both western and local favourites - starting today, he's introducing nasi lemak as a lunch special for S$7, including a glass of home made barley. We haven't tried it yet, but based on what we had last week, your S$7 will be more than well spent.
In fact, it's a wonder how he works in any profit margin at all, in between the high rental and his refusal to cut corners.
His fish and chips (S$14.90), for example, isn't your garden variety frozen John Dory but superfresh snapper that you can taste from its fluffy texture and clean taste, although it's slightly under-seasoned in its whisper-thin shatteringly crisp beer batter crust.
Home made coleslaw and shoe string fries (mixed with sweet potato) also add to the meticulous preparation. His signature anchovy pasta, burger and wagyu steaks are back too.
Even if you didn't grow up with Hakka fried pork (S$8) or Chicken Pops (S$8), there's no mistaking the depth of flavour in both.
Fragrant five-spice powder and preserved bean curd seep deep into the pork belly flesh, and the light crisp edges and comforting sticky-mouth feel remind you of what real flavour is. The same with the chicken pops, named after D'Silva's granddad.
They're not drumlets but strips of meat marinated with fragrant ginger called kencho - fried so well that the skin and fat pretty much melt in the mouth like feathery crackling.
Meanwhile, Kai Fun (S$8) is not chicken rice but apparently a street dish that coolies of old used to eat for sustenance. Here, it's a bowl of ultimate comfort - soft rice grains in delicate chicken broth with strips of chicken, lap cheong and char siew.
Now, all of this is just a prelude to the real show - D'Silva's arsenal of gutsy, old school specials that he's famed for. He hasn't got the space for the whole repertoire so you get highlights such as itek tim (S$16) which gets all its robust flavour from pork bones, duck and salted vegetables with just the right amount of tartness.
A thick slab of meaty stingray (S$15) is smothered with home-made sambal with its nose-tingling fragrance and lovely chunky texture that says, "Look, Ma - no blender!"
Seh Bak (S$16) is an intense braise of pig parts from intestines to skin, in a gravy reduced to syrupy thickness that needs rice to do it justice. Whole squid (S$12) - stuffed with its roe - is cloaked in an inky shroud of buah keluak sambal, the earthy and rich result of lots of slow frying, shelling of black nuts, pounding, peeling and more.
Like just about everything that you eat here, you can really taste the effort that goes into it.
Apart from the standard menu, there will be weekly specials on Wednesday and Friday (or whenever D'Silva feels like it). They change according to what he finds in the market but on the cards this week is Loh Kai Yik with mee sua and sambal belimbing with prawns. His idea is not to limit himself to just Eurasian and Peranakan but to extend to other ethnic dialect groups.
D'Silva's food is hardcore heritage compared to the mainstream equivalent - namely easy-on-the-palate, occasionally modernised but mostly short-cut variations of the real thing.
Modern palates won't always recognise everything D'Silva cooks and worse, won't pay an appropriate price for his recognisable hawker fare even as they queue up for S$15 ramen bowls.
But those who appreciate his cooking know that there's a lot of love and passion in it, which will keep him going until we finally shed our "ramen-better-than-mee-pok" biases.
Hopefully, we'll get there sooner or later. Want to make a start? Get the nasi lemak.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on April 11, 2016.
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