POSTCARD: Strait-Laced Singapore

The Singapore Skyline

Exploring the liquid landscape in the clean and controlled city state

By David Spanton

My first visit to Singapore was a mixed bag to say the least. The trip included some all-time food highlights when I visited the city’s street markets to an all-time drinking lowlight when I visited the home of one of the world’s most famous classic cocktails.

But before I delve into these visits, let me throw in some facts about this city because I found the local laws and the general set-up pretty damn interesting.

ADVERTISEMENT
 

Firstly, this place is small! The whole country could fit into Tasmania three times over and is Asia’s second smallest country. The modern history of Singapore starts in the early 1800’s when an Englishman called Sir Thomas Raffles was instructed to establish an Asian port for the British Empire and settled on the Island of Singapore. Over the years it grew to become a major city port that has continued to this day. During the late 1960’s the country’s leading political party the People’s Action Party (PAP) commenced a major modernisation programme to deal with poverty and lack of housing. This party has been in power ever since and are revered for turning this small nation around and providing one of the highest standards of living in Asia.

“The whole country could fit into Tasmania three times over and is Asia’s second smallest country.”

I was fascinated by the political set-up of Singapore. Everything is closely controlled in this town. It’s the cleanest place I have ever seen with hard penalties for littering – a world away from the poverty and poor infrastructure of neighbouring Indonesia. The government controls how many cars can be on the road so traffic is kept to a minimum and people are encouraged to use their super efficient and cheap public transport. This comes in handy if you want to shop till you drop as this town is obsessed with shopping! There is literally high-rise building after building full of designer shops. And they all seem to connect above or below ground so you never have to face the 35 degree heat and 100 percent humidity!

I think one of the most interesting laws relates to real estate. The law stipulates that an apartment owned by a Chinese person for example can only be sold to another Chinese person to maintain an equal mix of any one religion or nationality in any one apartment block. This simply wouldn’t be possible in an Australian style democracy, but it’s interesting to see how the Singaporean government addresses modern city problems like racism, traffic, litter and crime. And while it can certainly claim the mantle of safety and modernity, it unfortunately lacks the personality that a bit of grit and grime can add.

Here are the highlights of my trip that include some fantastic food destinations that you really should explore if you’re in town. I would have mentioned more good bars, but in my short time in this town I sadly I didn’t find any more worth writing about.

Best Hawker Food: Golden Mile

Beach Road, Kallang

Local treat: Sup Tulang

I remembered the Singapore episodes from two of my favourite TV shows – Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Bizzare Foods (check out the video below). I clearly remembered Bourdain visiting the Golden Mile Hawker’s Centre and eating Sup Tulang, mutton bones (from Australia, I’m told) stewed in a spicy, sweet chilli, tomato sauce. I’m obsessed with weird food especially offal and this dish sounded right up my alley. There is very little meat on the bones so the best way to enjoy this dish is to use a straw to suck out the marrow from the bones while a little bread helps soak up the spicy sauce!

One other thing you have to try is the pure sugar cane juice offered throughout these food centres. These drinks are natural sugar hit and keep the locals going for hours. Makes sure you ask for it with plenty of ice as there is nothing worse than a warm drink in this tropical heat!

As a consequence of the Singaporean obsession with cleanliness and food safety, the government have moved the street food vendors off the street and piled them into these multi level open aired centres so they can be better managed and regulated. As exciting as the food stalls are and as grateful as I am that they adhere to such high food service standards, it does seem a bit of a shame that you can no longer see ‘street food’ on the ‘street’ like you can in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Sin Huat Eating House

659 Geylang Road, Geylang

Sin Huat Eating HouseThis place was recommended to me by Joel, the bartender at Tippling Club who insisted I try their signature dishes; the Fish Head Curry and the Black Pepper Crab. Incidentally, this is also one of Bourdain’s 13 Places to Eat Before You Die. So I headed over there at lunchtime to sample their top dishes only to discover that the Fish Head Curry was only available at lunch and the crab only available at night!

I settled in with a few icy cold Tiger beer (their national lager) and ordered up the Fish Head Curry with a little extra spice as encouraged by the lady of the house. What came out could feed at least two people and was truly the most enjoyable curry I have ever tasted. I pride myself on enjoying things on the spicy side but this was hot with a capital H! You know it’s hot when the waiter keeps asking you are you ok because you’re sweating bullets. But I was in curry heaven enjoying one of my favourite all time food experiences. This place has charm and personality in spades and was rammed with people from local office workers, taxi drivers and the odd out-of-towner, like me. I decided to go for a stroll and head back later for the Black Pepper Crab which was amazing. This place is a must visit if you’re in town.

Raffles Long Bar

1 Beach Road, Singapore

www.raffles.com

The Long Bar at The Raffles Hotel

I was repeatedly warned not to go to this place, but how can you not pop in and sample such a great little piece of cocktail history. Let’s be honest, there aren’t that many old school bars still in operation that can lay claim to inventing a true classic cocktail that has stood the test of time.

Sadly this place has completely lost its way and become a tacky tourist destination living off the heritage of their classic drink while at the same time completely abusing it by serving up a mass-produced, sickly-sweet, train-wreck of a beverage. Cocktails are priced generally on the expensive side in Singapore and be prepared to fork out over 30 Aussie dollars to sample this bit of history in a glass. The bartenders work fast sending out tray after tray of Singapore Slings and have them lined up ready for the next unlucky punter while pouring up huge yard glasses of Tiger beer for the blokes in the bar.

“This place has completely lost its way and become a tacky tourist destination living off the heritage of their classic drink…”

Raffles' Singapore SlingJust over 20 years ago they introduced massive bowls of unshelled peanuts that are on all the tables and free for guests. The floor is literally covered with peanut shells like a monkey cage. I’m sure some punters would find this great fun but for me it just looked out of place in this beautiful 1920s plantation styled bar. Add to that the deafening sound of Johnny Farnham’s greatest hits blaring from the speakers. Call me old fashioned, but I would prefer to see a place trying to stay true to its classic cocktail bar heritage with a much greater focus on quality drinks, service and atmosphere. How about a pianist or some simple jazz? They have the decor they just need to get rid of all the tacky crap.  Unfortunately, the world is full of loud yard glass swilling themed bars and this is the last thing a beautiful bar like this should have become! How many people would chop off their right arm to operate a bar with half as much history and style as this?

Another example close to home is Sydney’s Marble Bar on George Street. I haven’t been to the bar for over 12 months, but over the years I have had similar issues with this classic heritage-listed bar. I have never understood why, in the past, the management of such a grand dame of a bar would be so behind promoting flair competitions along with a long list of desperate happy hour focused promotions. It’s just out of place and at odds with what makes this place so different and special. Tailoring the experience to be more in line with its appearance seems like the right path, especially considering it has more history than most bars in the country.

Tippling Club

8D Dempsey Road, Singapore

www.tipplingclub.com

Matthew Bax Pouring a drink at Singapore's Tippling Club

The Tippling Club is the most progressive bar I have ever seen! Set amidst lush rainforest in Dempsey Hills (a strong ex-pat district) this visit was to be a three hour mind-blowing sensory experience. The co-founder is our very own Matt Bax who also owns Der Raum cocktail bar in Richmond, Melbourne, which itself has won every award imaginable for its own drinks creativity and stellar service. Matt’s partner in the Tippling Club is former head chef of three hated Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde, British born and trained Mr Ryan Clift. These close friends have set out to redefine the dinning and drinking experience not only in Singapore, but internationally. These guys really are at the forefront of food and cocktail innovation.

The Velvet FogI was lucky enough to be present for their local media presentation of their new drinks menu which ranged from cocktails inspired by jazz kings to MacDonald’s. One that caught my eye was the Velvet Fog consisting of Gin, Crème de Violette, Champagne, Citrus and “Floral Violet Fog”. Inspired by the flavours of the Blue Moon cocktail of 1917 (yes folks, that one) with their exciting ‘flavour fog’ technique (which makes use of liquid nitrogen) that rests on top of the drink.

I have nothing, but admiration for this venue, I only hope that Singapore is the right place for it. It’s an extremely niche concept they are trying to push and I struggled to see the enthusiasm that you might find in London or New York. I don’t see this working as a multi-venue idea and the boys have to be hands on in one venue for this concept to work. I just hope it’s getting the support it deserves otherwise pack it up and head home! If you open it up here  I’m sure such talent would be appreciated in Australia.

ADVERTISEMENT
 
5 Comments
  1. Just left the Raffles Hotel Singapore about 15min ago and still feeling the beautiful warmth of an alcohol glow, the humidity and lightly drizzled with the tropical rain. My man Subra who has been behind the stick for approximately 10 years has (and as we calculated for him) has produced over 600 000 Singapore Slings in his time, and is a beautiful man to boot. Not a bad thing to say about Raffles; sure I could balance one a bit better, but when the odd bartender coming through is a fraction of a percent of your customer base, why would you cater for them? Basically I can totally understand why they are a bit sweet.

    I also learnt a few interesting tid bits and possibly some quite controversial information whilst I was there. Excuse the bullet points but I am waiting for my plane watching a thunderstorm roll over:

    – They are all made with Gordon’s Gin (although this was not specified on the receipt where the recipe first appeared in print)
    – They make across the approximately 1000 per day 600 of those coming from the Long Bar and a further 400 from other areas of the bar.
    – You can throw all your peanut shells on the floor (awesome, get over yourself if u aren’t in to this). They go through 50kgs per day of peanuts.
    – A lot of celebrities visit the bar, Jenson Button had a recent function where he made them himself. David Beckham, Beyonce, Lewis Hamilton to name just a few, are some of the A listers our man has served recently.

    AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: I think a lot of tourists take a look around the museum and probably take a photo of the original receipt of the earliest known recipe of the Singapore Sling. It is recorded by an American re-counting his memory of the drink he was made by Mr Ngiam Tong Boon. Surprisingly a lot of tourists do not even take the time to read it. The woman manning the gift shop didn’t even know that the recipe was different to the one given out in the bar. To my experience (now 20 min ago, photo evidence available upon request) the original recipe was and is as follows:

    1/2 Gin
    A few drops of cherry brandy
    A few drops of Angostura bitters
    1/4 Glass D.O.M Liqueur
    1/4 Glass Marachino Liq
    1/4 Glass lemon squash
    A few pieces of ice

    (TO THE WORD)

    Now an interesting fact also came up that a few less to the wise / uneducated drinkers out there think there is a dash of Chartreuse in the drink. Well I brought this up with our man Subra to which he said in pretty much the same words ‘I was interviewed for an article a few years ago for a European Magazine that said the D.O.M. was too expensive and could I suggest a substitute to which I said Chartreuse would do’, the original and correct ingredient will always be D.O.M.

    My experience at Raffles was nothing short of being one of those (actually 2) experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. Thank you Raffles and Subra.

    P.S. Tippling Club is AMAZING!!!!!!!

  2. I don’t mean to sound like I am attacking Dave’s perspective of Raffles as we are all entitled to our own opinions it just seems like we had a different experience through different eyes. I guess I encourage all bartenders and drink enthusiast who go to Singapore to make the trip and form their own opinions and to walk in with an open mind. I also wanted to list the spec that they make their Singapore Slings to which is quite a bit different to the spec I listed coming from the earliest known recorded recipe on the cocktail receipt.

    30ml Gordon’s Gin
    15ml Heering Cherry Liqueur
    120ml Pineapple Juice
    15ml Lime Juice
    7.5ml Cointreau
    7.5ml D.O.M. Benedictine
    10ml Grenadine
    A Dash of Angostura Bitters
    Garnish with a slice of pineapple and cherry

    And from my experience if you let them know you are a bartender and would appreciate one made up fresh for you they will be more than happy to accommodate.

  3. Thanks Greg, truly a wonderful afternoon spent at the Long Room in the Raffles hotel, I suppose sometimes the yard stick for a good time can be measured by the company you spend it with…anyway the purpose of this piece is to expand on experience that is the Tippling Club, because they are innovators in concept for food and drink.
    Fast forward past being hidden where civilisation meets the jungle and so-forth and lets get to the content of the food and drinks presented to 21 lucky Australian hospitality people.
    Seating is counter style (I love this) you can see all the preparation, and service is clinical if not almost perfunctory.
    We were greeted with a blood orange and aperol style of sour served in an inverted champagne glass, stunning to look at yet clumsy to drink from, the flavours were cleansing, and perfect for getting the tongue ready to taste.

    Once seated we were served an array of small starters, the standout of these being the charred peppers with an egg yolk gel, to be eaten with tweezers, the char on the pepper, the sweetness of the charred pepper itself and the egg yolk emulsion forming a trinity of flavour balance truely unique to me. This was matched with a liquid nitrogen chilled kettel 1 martini., Like a martini but really cold.

    First course was of fresh crab meat served with the seaweed it was caught around, egg yolk and distilled chilli sauce. This was mached with a soy, yuzu and chilli michelada (Beer cocktail). The quality of the crab was undeniable and the marriage of the seaweed with the egg, a total triumph.The distilled chilli sauce lingered moreishly in the front palate long after the dish was finished. Mr Clift, head chef, (and a wonderful host) explained the chilli sauce as being ‘put through a rotary evaporator, in order to keep front palate heat but to remove any back palate or finish heat’. The Michelada to a less experienced palate might have been quite an assault, and from what i saw, its assembly was quite straight forward.

    Course two and in my opinion, the pinnacle of the dishes was the escargot, seared with garlic and parsely, and served with a moss of dried herbs. Flavour and texture of the snails were heavenly- garlicky and buttery yet lifted by the parsely, crispy on the outside smooth and soft on the inside. The moss of wild herbs delivered such a powerful aroma, i was instantly taken to my childhood, and happy memories of helping dad do the garden in the suburbs, were evoked. This dish was matched with a cocktail named muddle, muddle toil and trouble, an earthy yet etheral mix of tomato, black olive, rosemary and thyme, aromatic and flavoursome, served in a riedel ‘O’ series.

    Course three was the Foie Gras, served with gaufrette biscuit (gaufrette explaination is a job for google) and granny smith apple, this was matched with Mat Bax’s own apple pie cocktail, served in a rectangular vase and cased in a box designed to look like a cross between a ‘straw in the top’ juice carton and a McDonalds apple pie case. The foie gras was wizzed into a mousse texture, and somewhat lost its “foie gras-ness” and this dissapointed me as I love foie gras especially its bitey liverish texture. The apples in this were dominant, with both apples in the dish and the main part of the drink as well. The apples in the drink were described as ” dehydrated and then rehydrated with calvados” with the intension to intensify apple flavour yet i reckon even the most attuned palate could not descry this method of applisation within drink.

    Course four was a clean fillet of hirasuma kingfish cooked ‘sous vide’ (in a vacuum sealed bag). This was absolutely stunning in that the fish was cooked, yet it retained its sashimi integrity throughout. Totally knockout good! Chef Clift, once again an informative host explained a cooking method of creating a soy tofu with this dish, it seemed difficult, complicated, lost to my memory and unfortunately lacking in flavour for so much effort. This course was matched with a floral sake cocktail, an impeccably balanced pretty little ditty, erring on the sweet side in my opinion, yet i could see this drink burning brightly for the masses.

    To finish was a dessert course, and in my opinion the finest match between food and drink, and true innovation of flavour and balancing. The dessert was called aloe vera , it effortlessly combined flavours of yuzu, thai basil and peanut crumble, rich yet refreshing, the yuzu with the thai basil married together to create a flavour of the most clean rainwater on a garden, and this was matched with an avocado and agave syrup concoction served in a test tube. Aloe vera, agave, avocado, yuzu, lime and peanut butter need i say more? You know that combination is heading in one direction, and to quote a couple of sherpas- “straight up flavour mountain”.

    I’m really sorry this piece has gotten way out hand, however I will leave you with this, the Tippling Club is truly world class, and dining here allowed me to walk out enlightened and inspired.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.