Best & Worst 2017

Best & Worst 2017: Dishes

The blue rice is startling and cool, but Jia Xiang's nasi lemak is not just about optics.
The blue rice is startling and cool, but Jia Xiang's nasi lemak is not just about optics.PHOTO: JIA XIANG NASI LEMAK
Milk Moons’ Pulut Serunding.
Milk Moons’ Pulut Serunding. PHOTO: MILK MOONS
The Pork Satay Hainan skewers do not come cheap but these are hefty sticks and love has gone into making every bite pleasurable.
The Pork Satay Hainan skewers do not come cheap but these are hefty sticks and love has gone into making every bite pleasurable.PHOTO: VIOLET OON SATAY BAR & GRILL

BEST

Chicken Rendang Nasi Lemak Set, Jia Xiang Nasi Lemak, 01-08 CT Hub 2, 114 Lavender Street, tel: 9889-3466; open: 10am to 3pm (weekdays), 11am to 4pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays; go to www.facebook.com/jiaxiangnasilemak

Longing for a taste of home can make people do crazy things.

The Lim brothers from Kedah, Kenneth and Shawn, gave up good jobs, in information technology and with an established restaurant group respectively, to recreate their grandmother's nasi lemak.

At the family home, it is a breakfast dish. The octogenarian uses butterfly pea flowers from the garden to colour the rice blue, not knowing that this little touch would set off a torrent of Instagram posts when her grandsons recreated her dish to sell in Singapore.

So yes, the blue rice is startling and cool, but Jia Xiang's nasi lemak is not just about optics.

The rice is cooked with just enough coconut milk so it is rich, but not cloying. The sambal is a little sweet, but also has gravitas from chilli. That achar has the right degree of tang and crunch.


Jia Xiang's nasi lemak PHOTO: JIA XIANG NASI LEMAK,

Go on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when chicken rendang is available. There is nothing wrong with the fried chicken the brothers serve, but the rendang, Shawn's creation, is especially good - the rich rempah scented with lots of aromatic kaffir lime.

Mix the gravy in with the rice and experience bliss on a spoon.

Out of all the things I have eaten this year, Jia Xiang's nasi lemak embodies everything I look for in a dish. It is soulful, its flavours sing and it takes humble ingredients to the next level without gimmickry, whiz-bang theatrics and/or a craftily written press release with an overwrought "story".

Who needs fireworks and frills when you can make nasi lemak that is just plain good?

Pulut Serunding, Milk Moons, B208-5 Takashimaya Food Hall, Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road; open: 10am to 9.30pm daily; go to www.milkmoons.com


Milk Moons’ Pulut Serunding PHOTO: MILK MOONS

Nubbly pandan cake frosted with buttercream, topped with berries and full of zing from lime zest; that same cake sandwiched with coconut tasting of deep, dark caramel; wobbly kueh kosui logs covered with long shreds of coconut; that incomparable kueh salat.

There is so much to love at Milk Moons, the new offshoot of Chalk Farm, Bryan Koh's cake business. This takeaway kiosk offers luxe cakes with a decided Asian twist.

But it is the one savoury offering that I cannot forget.

Milk Moons' Pulut Serunding (above) is an antidote to all that passive-aggressive food that some chefs are putting out. I am talking about chefs who list scores of ingredients that go into the dishes on the menu, never mind that these are not discernible on the (inevitably) hand-thrown plates.

The rich, heady spices permeating the shredded coconut topping are front and centre. So are the sweat-inducing chilli punch, the beguiling scent of kaffir lime and the umami from the chicken floss.

Then there are the soft balls of glutinous rice, each grain separate, but all of them soft.

They make the perfect landing spot for the shower of serunding.

But if I could, I would buy jars of the coconut and sprinkle its magic on everything - buttered bread, coconut rice, sayur lodeh and, heck, why not pasta too?

Pork Satay Hainan, Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill, 01-18 Clarke Quay, 3B River Valley Road, tel: 9834-9935; open: 6pm to midnight daily; go to violetoon.com/violet-oon-satay-bar-grill-at-clarke-quay


Pork satay. PHOTO: VIOLET OON SATAY BAR & GRILL

Oh those skewers at Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill are the stuff of dreams.

They do not come cheap; $16 gets you three, but these are hefty sticks and love has gone into making every bite pleasurable. Pork tenderloin manages not to dry out on the grill. The meat is juicy and the marinade has gone in deep. Then there is the peanut sauce, just the right balance of chunky and smooth, and even better mixed in with the dollop of grated pineapple.

When putting together this list, I thought hard about whether or not the Tripe Satay was better.

After going back and forth on this, I'm going to say that the pork satay (above) wins, but that I will always also order the creamy, dreamy beef tripe. Any offal lover should.

 

WORST

Fish Noodle Soup, Swee Kee Fishhead Noodle House, 96 Amoy Street, tel: 6224-9920; open: 11.45am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 10.45pm daily

You would think that after decades in business, Swee Kee or Ka-Soh would have nailed the recipe for its fish noodle soup. The place is practically an institution, the sort of fail-safe, reliable restaurant to go to.

I headed there in April, about a month after it underwent a revamp. The restaurant had been spruced up and is a lot more comfortable, but I was really there for the comfort food. Of course, I ordered the fish noodle soup.

One sip of that horrendously fishy soup sent me reeling. It was undrinkable. The noodles had soaked up some of the soup, so they were inedible. The chunks of fish carried the stink of the soup.

I was flabbergasted. Why was the whole restaurant calmly eating this travesty of a dish without complaint? Surely my tureen cannot have been the only smelly one?

At the end of the meal, the server asked why we had left the dish untouched. I let it rip and told her exactly what I thought of it.

The response? A shocked look. And a shrug.

Never. Again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Dishes'. Print Edition | Subscribe