SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - The restaurant is new, but the chef is not.
Damian D'Silva has been around the F&B block enough times for you to lock him blindfolded in any kitchen - fine dining, gastrobar, greasy hawker stall - and he will find his way out, clutching his batu lesung and a pot of freshly cooked rendang.
He has been cooking for a long time - about as long as he has spent as Singapore's most under-appreciated chef. He has his core group of supporters (us included) but it was never enough to keep afloat a man who still faithfully follows the original recipes gleaned from his Peranakan grandmother and Eurasian father.
When you spend that kind of time marketing, prepping, grinding, frying and basically cooking your heart out, to serve a clientele who does not give a wild boar's tootsie whose grandmother's food it is eating - much less pay a premium for it - it is really a no-win game. Neither did it help that his past few ventures were either too hot (Timbre and Big D's) or too hip (Immigrants Gastrobar) to enjoy his food in comfort without any distractions.
All the stars seem to have finally aligned at Folklore, chef D'Silva's new heritage restaurant in an unlikely location - the modest, semi-budget hotel Destination on Beach Road, managed by the Park Hotel Group. It sits like a squeaky-clean teenager between his rough and tough cousins - the mini-Bangkok Golden Mile Complex and the Malaysian tour bus terminus Golden Mile Tower. Parking at this skinny building is via car lift - if you drive anything bigger than a hatchback, there is no guarantee you are going to fit into it, but get used to it because you are going to be making many repeat visits.
Without the pressure of running his own restaurant - he is basically an employee here - chef D'Silva is free to focus just on cooking and the results show it.
If Peranakan buffets are anything to go by, hotels have this special knack of turning even the best-intentioned hawker or ethnic cuisine into assembly-line mediocrity. So kudos to the hotel management for letting this chef buy his own ingredients and giving him a free hand to turn out some of the best home-style cooking we have ever had in a restaurant setting.
Some caveats first. Expect to wait. Chef D'Silva is a great chef, but not a fast one. The manpower shortage in the kitchen is another reason.
The restaurant is still new so the staff are still being broken in. The menu is already comprehensive, but there are still more things to be added, namely the noodle dish of the day whose day has yet to come.
But there is so much good stuff to eat that you will hardly miss it. It is hard to categorise the food as Peranakan although much of it is. It is mostly Peranakan, partly Eurasian but 100 per cent chef D'Silva. There is so much love and care in the cooking, like the way the pork is ground in a specific way to best hug large chunks of prawns and water chestnut before it is massaged with a bit of five-spice and deep-fried in a wrapping of beancurd skin. The resulting ngoh hiang ($14) is a heavyweight that knocks its lesser rivals out of the ring.
Peranakan chap chye ($16) is another heavy hitter where the chef does not skimp on ingredients - the long cast list includes cabbage, crunchy black fungus, mushrooms, tau kee, lily bud and glass noodles simmered in prawn and pork belly stock with just enough preserved bean paste for flavour without intruding on the sweet rich braising sauce.
Pork trotters and salted vegetable soup ($16) is the real McCoy (although the original uses duck). Again, the secret is in the full-bodied stock, with the mellow saltiness of the kiam chye. It is enjoyable as it is, but when the chef adds a dash of brandy and a squeeze of lime juice, it is a whole new dimension. The saltiness levels out, the alcohol adds depth and the lime juice disappears and leaves sweetness behind.
Hati babi bungkus ($18) is something we have heard of but never tried because no one bothers to make it except you-know-who.
He patiently cubes firm, almost crunchy liver and mixes it with minced pork and coriander before stuffing it into caul fat and shaped into perfect, bouncy and juicy globes of goodness. Ayam sio ($24) has a similar flavour profile but different treatment with chicken legs marinated in coriander powder, tamarind and ground shallot before being steam-baked to retain its juiciness and pan-fried to order.
His trademark singgang ($20) is as good as ever - an Eurasian dish of meticulously deboned Spanish mackerel mixed in an almost creamy sauce of candlenut, galangal, shallots and turmeric. We much prefer this to the aberjaw ($24) - rather dry pork ribs cooked in a similar-hued sauce flavoured with fermented beancurd. The same with the chilled tofu and century egg ($12) - where pickled ginger is added to the two mashed ingredients which is pleasant but does little for us.
The standout dish is the masak lemak ($14) - not-to-be-missed addictive, mildly spicy prawn broth amped up with a spice paste of dried shrimp, belacan, onions and candlenut. Timing is of the essence as the sweet potato leaves are dropped in at the last minute to ensure they stay slippery-tender but not mushy. Fresh prawns complete the treat.
For carbo, there is no alternative to the sambal buah keluak fried rice ($22) - heady, earthy black nut tossed in a wok with rice for a fragrant and umami-rich dish decorated with a fried egg.
The show ends with some beautiful jelly-textured kuih kosui ($6) in a blanket of snowy grated coconut, and the best kuih bengka ($10) ever - baked to wobbly resilience with a good chewy bite and the extra depth from the slightly charred top for extra crunch and contrast. Dip it into the accompanying gula melaka syrup for extra enjoyment, and vanilla ice cream if you need that.
Folklore is perhaps the best embodiment of chef D'Silva's cooking and dining comfort.
Compared with his previous efforts, where the food could be quite hardcore, this is a compilation of accessible hits that you can eat every day. Yet everything is authentic and highly nuanced - if you are new to this cooking, you will find it enjoyable, but if you go deeper, you will appreciate the effort that goes into cooking at this level.
Yes, we have always been fans of chef D'Silva, but even with that bias, we think he is cooking better than before.
There is no other restaurant with Peranakan or Eurasian claims - even our other favourite, Candlenut - that is cooking at this level in Singapore. It will not be easy to maintain it this way and aim even higher. We can only hope the hotel management truly believes in Folklore and do whatever it takes to keep this tradition alive.
Level 2 Destination Singapore Beach Road, 700 Beach Road; tel: 6679-2900/9021-9700; open: noon to 2.30pm and 6 to 9.30pm, daily