Flurries of Curries

Reliable Malaysian favorite establishes new Hiawatha outpost, with Ethiopian accent

Singapore! Restaurant
5554 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.722.0888
www.singaporemenu.com

Rules and rule makers have a certain place. For instance, consider that old reliable rule about how to succeed with a restaurant: location, location, location. I can name at leasta dozen restaurant companies that base their entire food philosophy on that premise, and they succeed wildly. (I can even think of one or two chefs who have delusions of grandeur because they think they're great, but in fact they're merely convenient to rich people who haven't very high standards.) Rules. Good for the people who hie to them, sometimes. And yet there is the ever-present other side to the rulebook, which tells the tale of rule breakers who also succeed wildly.

For instance, I wrote about Maplewood's Singapore Chinese Cuisine a few years ago, and two things from the experience haunted me forevermore: one, the way chef and owner Kin Lee labored so mightily over his hand-ground spice blends, curries, bases, and stocks, imbuing each one with so many different flavors that a final dish might have, oh, a hundred ingredients. Literally.

Mission invisible: Many of chef Tee Belachew's specialties are on menus you can't see
Trish Lease
Mission invisible: Many of chef Tee Belachew's specialties are on menus you can't see

Two, the way he presented them night after night to a far-flung suburban crowd in a desperately lousy location, to customers who insisted he serve chow mein. Instead of dumbing down what he did, instead of following the rules of supply and demand, Lee continued to make the food that he wanted--though when the chow mein orders came in, he would trade places with the dish washers and let those wet fellows try their hand at cooking.

Over time, defying all rules, axioms, and sense, Lee managed to entirely redefine "destination dining"--into something closer to orienteering. Who brought the compass? Against all odds, the destination thrived because Lee's food is so very, very good--the curries like symphonies, the other curries like fairy tales--and now, on a Saturday, anyway, Singapore Chinese Cuisine is one of the most reliably hopping Asian restaurants in the state.

Having laid waste one suite of rules, Lee is at it again! Now, on the corner of 55th Street East and 34th Avenue South, steps off Highway 62, in the quietest, most forgettable part of town, in that section of the city locked between such significant barriers to navigation as the airport, historical Fort Snelling, the VA hospital, and Lake Hiawatha, in that village-like sector of the metropolis which is filled with sweet little ramblers perfect for the veterans returning from World War II, there, just there is a spic-and-span, stylish little restaurant called Singapore! serving daging goreng berempah, sambal sayur-sayuran, and a dozen other things that are as delicious and well made as they are surprising to find on a quiet, tree-lined Midwestern street across from a VFW hall. And, just to jazz things up, there are some Ethiopian dishes on the menu, courtesy of Kin Lee's partner in Singapore!, Tee Belachew, a longtime neighbor whom Kin Lee also had trained as a cook in the Maplewood location.

Singapore! had a confusing birth, opening doors in the spring only to close them for the summer so the Lees and Belachew could go on an eating trip through Paris and a half-dozen cities in Asia. They also opened with some expensive seafood dishes, which seemed out of place in a restaurant without a wine and beer license. Finally, though, the place seems to be settling into a groove. And Kin Lee tells me that as of press time Singapore! has received its beer and wine license, and will debut beer and wine by the time this hits the stands, so it seemed like a good time to bring the place to a wider notice. Highland Park, Hiawatha, Edina--lend me your ears! In fact, anyone who considers Highway 62 to be a local road, put down whatever you're doing and pay attention.

When you go to this spare, quiet, modern little corner box--which always feels, even when there are tables full of squalling kids, as though the movers just unwrapped everything five minutes earlier--you must, you simply must get the roti prata ($6.95). It's a circle of seared, translucent roasty flatbread arranged around a bowl of vegetables in curry, though when I say "vegetables in curry" it doesn't seem to begin to explain a dish of such smoldering complexity, such echoing layers of spice and dusk that it's more like a thunderstorm than an appetizer. Dip the bread in the curry, insert in mouth, be whisked away to the Malay peninsula. It's a miracle!

In fact, all the best things I had at Singapore! on a string of recent visits were curries: The "captain's curry" ($10.95) is a sweet and fragrant blend of coconut cream and the more floral curry notes, whereas rendang daging berempah ($10.95) is like a smoldering sunset of curry's fiery and woodsy possibilities, in this instance, cloaking strips of beef.

The "BB" rolls are another stunner: To make these, Lee takes thin sheets of tofu and rolls them around a simple, savory filling of pork, shiitake mushrooms, and shrimp. The rolls are steamed, then transferred to an oven for drying. Before being served, the filled tubes are cut into bite-size pieces and pan-fried with a forest-green, irony bok choi. The result is subtle and artful, and it showcases a deep knowledge of tricky recipes--no easy feat.

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