There’s no such thing as a pure cuisine. The current food of every nation, and every cultural and religious group, has been influenced from the outside. Contemporary Peruvian cuisine is unthinkable without Japanese and Chinese influences, Senegalese and Vietnamese and Russian without French, and English without Indian. Some cuisines, however, are even more fusion-y than others, showing so many borrowings that they qualify mainly as glorious melting pots. Our own country is one of those, par excellence, and so is Singaporean cuisine.
This island with a population of 5.6 million is off the coast of the southern Malay peninsula and north of the Equator, south of Thailand and barely north of Indonesia. As a center of international trade over the centuries, especially the spice trade, its menu is varied and highly flavorful. Over the last century, the island has come under the rule of England, Japan, and Malaysia, before becoming an independent city-state.
A further feature needs to be noted. The tendency of Singapore to gather its street food into orderly indoor and outdoor hawker centers has had more influence on New York City’s modern food court than America’s own shopping mall food courts. In fact, Anthony Bourdain had plans to recreate a Singapore-style hawker center on the Hudson River, featuring some actual vendors transplanted from Singapore.
So it’s a bit surprising that few Singaporean restaurants have appeared in New York City over the years, though the cuisine’s most famous dishes appear here and there on menus at various Asian restaurants. But maybe that’s changing. Singaporean restaurant Yummy Tummy recently opened in Queens, mixing Taiwanese, Italian, and Chinese-American dishes into its bill of fare. And now we have Laut Singapura, located midway between the Flatiron Building and Gramercy Park, offering us a more complete Sinpgaporean menu than ever before.
The restaurant is the younger sibling of Laut, a Thai establishment in the vicinity, also presided over by chef Salil Mehta. A colorful mural blazes on the left as you enter, depicting bright flowers and foliage such as might be found on Indonesian lost wax fabric. The mural is flanked by a giant round table, fit for extended families or large groups of friends. Next comes a bar still waiting for its liquor license, and then paired tables on either side of the room that march toward a kitchen at the end, where many cooks can be seen through a large picture window. The tables have white formica tops, making for easy clean-up. More about that clean-up later.
The menu begins with a section of rotis, the Indian flatbread modified for Singaporean tastes. The simplest and best is roti prata ($9.50), featuring a fresh and flaky flatbread with a cup of coconut-laced curry gravy. Dip and enjoy. This dish is similar to the roti canai found on Malaysian menus, but minus the flavorless chicken breast tidbits. The other roti selections at Laut Singapura feature flatbread stuffed with minced vegetables and ground meats; they’re not as elementally good.
Ultimately from the Muslim Middle East, but with many stops along the way, the satays here are particularly dope. The four chicken skewers ($10) are not provided with pallid dipping sauce, instead smothered in a meaty peanut paste. Another interesting starter is crispy rice kerabu ($12), orbs of the grain deep fried like Sicilian arancini, only this recipe comes from the Nyonya cuisine of the Peranakan people, descendants of Chinese settlers who migrated to the northern Malay peninsula centuries ago.
Not as interesting, perhaps, but also damn good, are spiral curry puffs ($12), potato-stuffed hand pies. These fall among the Small Bites menu, presumably intended as drinking snacks when the place gets its liquor license.
In the adjacent Noodle Soup section, though, are a pair of interrelated disappointments: Singapore laksa and Penang assam laksa. These complicated soups — the first laced with coconut milk, the second based on sardine broth — are centerpieces of Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. Neither version here has quite enough flavor, and an added drawback is that the kitchen offers to make the Singapore laksa with a choice of “proteins.” To say that it doesn’t really matter if you throw chicken, beef, tofu, or mixed seafood into a carefully balanced dish is to deny these soups’ fundamental nature.
But gems abound in the Signatures section. First and foremost is one of the city’s best renditions of chile crab, in this case a single largish crustacean struggling in a spicy, sweet, and thick red sauce. It’s served with a steamer of northern Chinese mantou dumplings. This dish was popularized in the city by the Fatty Crab chain a decade or more ago, and Laut’s version proves irresistible, despite a market price that was $50 when I went. Order it and begin to understand why white formica tables are the rule here.
From the island of Sumatra, Indonesian, beef rendang, cooked down in a ridiculous amount of coconut milk, is one of the richest stews you’re likely to find. And remember that the Indonesian archipelago was the source of many of the spices that caused European and Middle Eastern traders to come halfway around the world to get them.
The biggest disappointment on the menu, by contrast, is the Hainanese chicken ($22). The poached and sliced bird, though subtly flavored, has a rubbery texture at odds with the way this historic dish should be. Don’t worry, there’s a better version at Yummy Tummy, and at a slew of Thai restaurants in town that specialize in it. As for most of the rest of the Singaporean catalog of dishes, Laut Singapura is a fine place to experience them.