Tingling Taste Buds in Singapore

Eating in Singapore

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but ever since we had Josephine, we’ve opened our minds to the idea of eating in our hotel at least once per stay (not including breakfast). It makes life so much easier to bathe her and head downstairs than to worry about getting transportation and carting her home after a late meal. Thankfully, that transition in our lives coincided with a serious across-the-board improvement of hotel restaurants. And Singapore was no exception.

Because of the unexpected change in travel plans when my dad injured himself, we lengthened our stay in Singapore from three days to five. However, we couldn’t stay at the Raffles all five nights, due to availability issues. Instead, we had to start out at the Ritz-Carlton for two nights and then move to the Raffles for three nights. Why move, you say? The Raffles is iconic and magical. It’s a destination unto itself. I wasn’t going to miss it. So, we wound up eating at both the Ritz and the Raffles, as well as a couple of places on the town. Here’s the rundown:

1.       Summer Pavilion at the Ritz-Carlton

The Chinese restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton has a Michelin star, which it has retained for 6 years. I felt a little odd getting Chinese food in Singapore, thinking I should be eating Singaporean food, until I realized that Singapore is truly a fusion of cultures. Chinese food is Singaporean.

The menu at Summer Pavilion has a zillion things that Jamil and I aren’t interested in trying, like “Bird’s Nest” anything. I just can’t get into eating it. But they also have plenty of things we can get excited about.

We started with the Peking Duck. I’m beating myself up for not taking a photo of it. Who knew the waitress was going to go carve that little dude and bring him back wrapped in pancakes? It was phenomenal. And I love that they serve what they consider to be the less desirable part, the meat itself, as sort of an on-the-side afterthought. What a delicious afterthought! We also got the Roasted Crispy Chicken, which I mention here because it was so good it could have been overlooked because it is relegated to the short appetizer page. I don’t want to bore you with descriptions of our other selections, including my first abalone (!), but I want you to know it was all phenomenal.

For years, I’ve heard that Chinese food is better in the United States than in Asia, but the meals I had in Singapore (which, granted, isn’t China) made me question how the people who hold that view define Chinese food. Perhaps they’re firmly committed to Lemon Chicken or General Tso’s? Maybe they are looking for a Chinese version of P.F. Chang’s? I probably won’t solve that mystery today, but I can say that Chinese food is better in Singapore than in the U.S.

2.       Jumbo Seafood Signature

Everyone told me that I had to try the Singapore Chili Crab, so I dutifully made a reservation at a well known seafood restaurant in the Marina Bay Sands. There were places that had better reviews, but they were all booked, and this restaurant was quite popular. The Signature restaurant is the top-of-the-line iteration of the Jumbo Seafood brand. It’s a white tablecloth affair, and the prices are quite high – quite high. I might have opted out, but we went the first night we arrived, when we were too tired to quibble.

In hindsight, I’m not sure what all we ordered. I know that the wine selection was decent. I know that the chili crab and the pepper crab were flavorful. I also recall that there were some tasty noodles for Josephine. But nothing was super memorable.

Looking back, I wish I’d spoken to a taxi driver or two before going to eat chili crab. I learned from one great driver that the Maxwell food hall is renowned for its chili crab offerings, and the vendors there are regulated by the government. They can only charge certain amounts for their crab, and they have to adhere to a certain quality; otherwise, their right to operate in the Maxwell center may be revoked. After eating in a food hall, I feel confident that the better chili crab would have been at Maxwell, not at the uber ritzy Jumbo Signature, but what can you do? I guess learn from my mistake!

3.       Din Tai Fung

This place is a classic! We’ve been there once before, that time in Glendale, CA. However, I think the food was way better in Singapore. And I don’t think that’s attributable to the romance of Singapore itself, I think it’s because the audience in Singapore is critical. Very, very critical.

The restaurant is famous for its soup dumplings, called Xiao Long Bao. Rumor has it that the Xiao Long Bao chefs at Din Tai Fung train for a full year before being let loose in the kitchen!

While the Xiao Long Bao are quite good, the other dumplings on the menu might even be better. We had delicious little pork dumplings in vinegar and chili and a wonton noodle soup. We also had one other variety that I can’t locate on any menu for some reason! I thought those three types easily rivaled the soup dumplings. Other dishes were equally tasty and super fresh. The spinach was so crisp and green, no overcooking here! The various steamed buns were excellent, too. Truly, it was one great dish after another.

Be prepared for a wait at Din Tai Fung. It’s extremely popular with locals and tourists. But while you wait, I recommend you head over to Bacha and get a pot of coffee. That’s a treat in its own right.

4.       Lau Pau Sat

If you ask anyone in Singapore about a local food hall, they’ll likely recommend Lau Pa Sat before any other. Housed in a building from the late 1800s, Lau Pa Sat is emblematic of Singaporean culture. Unlike most other food halls we’ve visited, there’s no questioning the cleanliness or the quality at Lau Pa Sat. Government officials patrol the hawkers to ensure the highest standards of hygiene, rating them regularly. Too many demerits, and they lose their stall in Lau Pa Sat. Given the popularity of the joint, I’d say that’s a punishment no food purveyor would willingly endure.

You can find a startling array of culinary options at Lau Pa Sat, but the only ones I can speak to are the satay, found on Satay Street, which billows with smoke from rows of grills right outside the food hall, and the Hainanese chicken and rice.

The satay appears intimidating at first – there are so many people cooking exactly the same thing on exactly the same equipment in exactly the same lineup. How could you possibly decide which hawker to order from?! Turns out, you don’t have to make that choice. There’s a stall at the very end that takes all the satay orders, making sure all the hawkers have business and that all the prices are consistent. So, don’t stress. Find that dude, pay him about $40, and get a huge set of satay skewers to share with your crew.

With respect to the Hainanese chicken and rice, there were two places I saw that had it for sale. I just chose the place with the longer line. You can order the chicken roasted or boiled, or you can get a combination. I went with the combo because I wasn’t sure what to expect. Both were fantastic, and the deeply flavorful rice was habit-forming. I am still thinking about that dish, and I’m going to try to recreate it at home. But, honestly, nothing can ever top what I got in that food hall for about $5.

Finally, on a totally different, merely practical note, be aware that there are NO napkins at Lau Pa Sat. You’re expected to bring your own. If you should forget to bring napkins (as we did), there are sinks right outside to wash your hands.

5.       Tiffin Room at the Raffles

Singapore has experienced a huge Indian influence. Note the fact that there’s a Little India in Singapore, rather than a Little Italy.

So, when Josephine looked a little exhausted after a day of endless walking, we decided to have dinner downstairs at Tiffin Room, whose Indian food possesses an excellent reputation.

It was undoubtedly the best Indian dinner I’ve ever had! Even if you don’t stay at the Raffles, you should come to Tiffin Room for dinner, and don’t under-order on the bread front. We got regular naan, garlic naan, and onion kulcha. That may sound like a lot – and actually, it was a lot – but it was so good that I’ll never apologize for the indulgence.

And, everything else on the menu deserves the same level of enthusiasm. You should go!

6.       Mott 32

Mott 32 is another Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore. It has multiple locations around the country, and I kind of wondered if it could live up to the hype. I’m glad I let that go because it exceeded all expectations!

The restaurant prides itself on its Peking duck, which it had sold out of when we arrived.

But, that didn’t faze us. We really only darkened the door of Mott 32 because of the persistent rain and because of my many promises to Josephine of a dumpling-laden vacation. Mott 32 has a dim sum menu with several dumpling options, so it checked that box, and it’s right inside the Marina Bay Sands, so it was super convenient.

Jamil felt like the Chinese food there exceeded the quality of what we found at Summer Pavilion, but I think they’re just different. Summer Pavilion adheres to traditional Chinese recipes, while Mott 32 fuses truffles with shumai and avocados with rolled rice pancakes. It’s bolder. It’s newer. It’s also “vibier” because of the amazing cocktails and the hip décor.

If there were a Mott 32 in Houston, it would be a shimmering hit. Look how well Benny Chow’s has done, despite its many negative reviews! Houston desperately needs a place like this. Not a Yauatcha, isolated in the Galleria and destined to be forgotten by Houstonians themselves, but a great Chinese spot, plopped right in the heart of River Oaks or Montrose. Alas, none appears to be in the works, so you’ll have to fly to Singapore and try Mott 32 instead.

Other miscellaneous photos from the trip:

Author: Jessica Givens