June 4, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Singapura: Drums of Heaven
Fussy Asian expats may find this Malay fry lacking but I’m eager for another try.
Go to Singapura to revel in a full peppery blast. Don’t bother if you’re not into the burn. It’s probably silly to hit this tricked-out narrow little storefront in Curry Hill for anything less than the multi-lingual flavors of Thailand, Malaysia, India and Hakka China, at least as Singapura attempts them.
Technicolor Lotus Lamp Shades march down the narrow room above our heads.
I am going for the real deal on my first visit, letting my companions, a Tiger from Singapore and a Lion from Malaysia, handle the ordering. We’re amused by the use of the abacus as room divider and décor and by the bold march of blowsy lotus lamp shades - red, scarlet, turquoise, Astroturf green - just above our heads. A small room, half-filled with Asians. The welcome is warm if a bit shy.
How hot can it get? Incendiary, as this full-blast of chili paneer proves.
My pals debate what to try in the various categories. They are brutally critical. Clearly homesick for these familiars –Indian paneer, Hakka noodles, Malay rendang, Indonesian beef semur -- they are not about to yield a unit of jolt on the Scoville heat scale. I listen to their mourning that the sauce on the Malay boiled egg is not as torrid as that of our chili-detonated paneer cheese stew – a five-alarm fire.
A cooling hard-boiled egg in a torrid nest Malaysian-style is hot enough for me.
Inside its layer of crunch, the cool egg white and nicely turned out yolk are a bland foil for the devilish mix of onions, shrimp paste and chili heat. It’s definitely hot enough for me. “At least the egg is perfectly cooked,” one of my companions notes. And the yolk isn’t rimmed with green, as are most eggs peddled by Singapore street hawkers.
I’m biting into a Malay fried chicken wing, savoring its spicy aura, thrilled that my tongue is not too blistered to revel in the distinct layers of heat in the bright orange dipping sauce. “At home, the chicken would be more garlicky, yellower. Your fingers would be yellow,” notes The Tiger in the Kitchen to her website, Cheryl Tan.
Indonesian beef semur combines garlic and a sophisticated tangle of flavors
Well, maybe the meat is a bit dry. Having no taste-memory for comparison, I’ll take her word for it. Backup heat arrives with a tray of sauces: more of that same layered orange dynamite, a sweet sauce, a few slivers of tiny bird peppers in vinegar.
Hakka noodles are refreshing though bland as my Asian pals observe.
They dismiss the Hakka noodles as too bland and the Sarawak sambal udang with ginger and coconut cream as the victim of tight little shrimp. The critical ex-pats are happier with beef semur, a complex preparation with tamarind, soy sauce and fennel, than the lamb rendang. It sits in a swamp of coconut, curry, kaffir lime and chili paste, juicy with fat, but they find the flavors wanting. I’m happy sharing both.
Drums of Heaven are juicy and spiritedly hot. I’m addicted to the fiery orange sauce.
On my second visit, I order the Malay wings, so maligned earlier, for my guests to chew on as we scan the menu. Not till I taste the “Drums of Heaven” – spicy pulled-back wings, also fried – can I see the difference. Is it a fluke of timing or temperature? They’re crunchy too and wildly juicy. We’re running through a generous allotment of paper napkins.
My non-Asian guests don’t seem to mind pebbles of dry chicken breast in the larb salad.
There’s definitely a language problem with a few of the servers. “Some ice please.” Ice? It’s not on the menu. Our waitress runs off to get help. There are no cocktails, no vodka on the rocks, just beer – exactly what you want with this food – and very ordinary Malbec or Pinot Grigio for $8.50 if you must. The booths are smallish, intimate for two side-by-side.
Still, the upside is that a $4 bowl of peppery vegetable soup – a big stylishly tilted bowl with strips of carrot and daikon - has layers of seductive flavor. The Manchurian cauliflower is a dish I’d still recommend, though it’s not the spitfire thrill I recall from early days of Devi.
The lamb sizzles as promised but is otherwise listless and tough.
It seems that by cautiously requesting medium-to-hot spicing on a second outing with non-Asian companions, we’ve crippled the kitchen. Though I rather like the subtle flavor layering of the Malay fish curry – coconut, curry, peppercorns – and the fish itself is carefully cooked.
Tonight my friends are more enthusiastic about the chicken larb than I am. Rice powder, mint and chilies are tuned too low to make up for boring crumbles of white meat chicken. I miss the incendiary challenge of the paneer as I remember it. Sizzling lamb, an old favorite from the days when New York was an outpost of Szechuan, is tame too, unless you’re careless enough to bite into a whole red pepper, and the meat is tough and chewy.
I consider taking the leftovers of excellent drunken noodles with beef home for breakfast.
All five cultures are covered in the noodle choices. I consider pad Thai or Singapura curried noodles, but I have a weakness for the gumminess of rice noodles. Indeed, the marvelous drunken noodles with black soy sauce and red chilies don’t suffer at all from timid spicing.
Singapura, of course, is the original name for Singapore. In Sanskrit it means “Lion City.” Legend has it that in the 15th century, a Sumatran prince sailing by spied a lion on shore (though lions are not indigenous). He saw that as a good omen, and decided to settle there.
I’ve never been to Singapore. It’s been on my list of food destinations since long before skyscrapers chased away the legendary street stalls. I dream of tagging along one winter when the Tiger is visiting her family. In the meantime, there is restaurateur Shiva Natarajan’s modest little homage to a city of fusion.
106 Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets. 212 684 6842. Monday through Saturday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Sunday till 10 pm.
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All right reserved