It has been over a decade since I last visited Singapore, though it never takes me long to get reacquainted with its 19th-century, pastel-painted shophouses, 21st-century retail and art scene, open-air hawker centres and street food markets. But what is predictable about Singapore is how unpredictable it often is.
Most recently, the city-state’s Made In Singapore tourism campaign put a fresh spin on its Passion Made Possible destination brand, curating a series of unique experiences that spotlight the quintessential passions of its locals — to highlight how the ordinary can be made extraordinary. For instance, I got to tour the Civic District in the sidecar of a vintage Vespa, with my gregarious Chinese-Singaporean driver spilling the beans about the nightlife. I signed up for cookery classes — where I learned to make chicken satay and laksa with self-taught chef Ruqxana Vasanwala, and made friends with some of the neighbourhood cats — and visited a gin distillery and a chocolaterie (skip the rose petals and marshmallows and try the dried, spicy prawns if you craft your own bar).
But, as always, I spent most of my time trawling social media and getting recommendations from the locals for the best new dining options in town. Here are five spots that made an impression.
The Dragon Chamber
The first night in Singapore, I walked into a restaurant at Boat Quay only to be asked to step into a refrigerator! It is not quite Narnia that I find on the other side, but a speakeasy with the vibe of an old Chinatown gambling den, an eclectic cool crowd, and guerrilla-style food. With wallpapers that give a hat-tip to The Dragon Ball comic book, it is bold, brash and complete fun.
The food is an unconventional take on Chinese nose-to-tail dishes. With the generous portions on offer, I suggest asking for tasting portions so that you can try more. While the Beef Hor Fun (wok fried flat noodles given a luxe twist with wagyu beef and truffle gravy) and crowd favourites like the Firecracker Chicken and Maple Fritters (laziji or deep-fried Sichuan chicken with sweet youtiao or wheat flour chips) are a good place to start, the dish to try is the Dragon Claw — no mythical creatures here, rather a flaming serving of braised crocodile foot. Not quite pork, not quite chicken, it comes with a healthy layer of collagen (aka fat), and is wholly delicious.
Keng Eng Kee
Anthony Bourdain once sat on the bright yellow plastic chairs here. More recently, you would have seen this hawker stall on Netflix’s Street Food Asia. Keng Eng Kee in Alexandra Village is one of the city’s most loved zichar (a food stall providing a wide array of dishes) places, so the tables are always full.
The chilli crab may be the bestseller on the menu, but Jia Min suggests a few other favourites to sample: their black pepper crabs with soft steamed buns, moonlight hor fun, coffee pork ribs, clay pot pig liver with rice that is tossed at the table, and deep-fried squid dusted with salted egg powder. I regret not packing a second helping of the salted egg squid to take back with me.
Absurdities by Andsoforth
If there is one thing I love about the dining culture in Singapore, it is how they try to inject a sense of fun into everything, be it through the food, the treatment, or the space. Pulling up to an old, unkempt industrial estate building and climbing up four flights of stairs is not quite what I expected when I signed up for an immersive dining experience. But once inside, Absurdities lived up to its quirky reputation.
Themed around Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in 80 Days, it had us crafting cocktails, eating butter chicken kulcha wraps while meeting Kiouni the elephant, learning how to make sailors’ knots, and pulling ourselves up in a rail trolley before trying katsu chicken sliders inside a mine. With stunning sets, authentic outfits and hosted by professionals with a flair for the dramatics, the interactive experience is one of a kind. The theme changes every few months, but not the creativity. Word of caution: wear comfortable shoes. You never know when you will have to climb up ladders, crawl through tunnels and eat without a table.
Royal Albatross Dinner Cruise
Sentosa Island has several new offerings: HyperDrive, an electric go-kart circuit; UltraGolf, an 18-hole mini adventure; and the Tipsy Unicorn Beach Club for some after-hours partying. But something special is docked adjacent to the Sea Aquarium: a 150-foot, four-masted, 22 sail super yacht. It featured in the 2008 Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight, but today, has left Batman and the U.S. behind to sail Singapore’s coastline, with dinner, drinks, and music onboard. Sign up for the sunset cruise to enjoy a four-or seven-course meal — think sous vide scallops, grilled octopus, baked miso-glazed salmon, lobster with somen and laksa gravy, xôi gà with chicken roulade, and a pavlova with mixed berries. And if you are lucky, you can catch some fireworks on the two-and-a-half-hour trip. With two fully-stocked bars, and a spacious top deck with retractable awnings, there’s also an air-conditioned middle deck with plush sofas for those who may have trouble finding their sea legs.
My last meal in Singapore is a four-course splurge at a contemporary Italian restaurant housed in the extended wing of a restored colonial bungalow on Scotts Road. With just 10 tables, the omakase-style set meal by chef Denis Lucchi from Lombardy in Italy has earned Buona Terra (Good Earth in Italian) a star in the 2023 Singapore edition of the Michelin Guide Book. The understated setting, counterpointed by bright, quirky paintings on the wall, is the perfect backdrop for Lucchi’s innovative cuisine.
A trio of amuse-bouche sets the tone: mini brioche buns stuffed with whipped cod fish puree; black squid ink tarts filled with avocado and raw tuna; and ‘Just Tomato’, a rich gazpacho encased in a red-coloured chocolate orb. The yellowtail carpaccio appetiser with a citrus sauce — which gets a dash of horseradish ‘snow’ sprinkled tableside — is a delight, followed by a resonant risotto with white truffle shavings, and a dry-aged A5 wagyu beef with parsnip puree.
Dessert — a delicate yogurt, panna cotta and white strawberry creation with a piped tangy strawberry soup — rounds off the meal perfectly.
The writer was a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board.