Flurries of Curries

Mission invisible: Many of chef Tee Belachew's specialties are on menus you can't see
Trish Lease
Singapore! Restaurant
5554 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis

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 least a 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.

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.

Personally, I would tend to skip the good but less accomplished Ethiopian dishes, such as the sweet and gamy Ethiopian honey wine chicken ($10.95)--though I will note that if these African preparations were presented anyplace but alongside Lee's masterpieces, they'd likely show better. And I also have to admit that, to my eternal regret, I only ordered off the visible menu.

Yes, you read that right--the visible menu. Because get this: Singapore! also has an invisible menu. Kin Lee sprung this fact on me when I talked to him on the phone for this story. Actually, there are two invisible menus, one for Ethiopian specialties from chef Belachew, and another of Malaysian specialties. Which of course brings up the question, Why is there an invisible menu?

According to Lee, it is because a woman down in city licensing looked at the Maplewood location's menu and decided that it was too long. They could never serve all those dishes and keep them fresh, she surmised. So Lee trimmed his menu to 25 items. No, said the woman, and sent him back to the drawing board. I actually heard this story once before, from the very sweet, amazingly energetic server who takes care of the entire restaurant single-handedly. The first time I heard it, I assumed the story spoke mostly to the difficulties immigrants encounter in a foreign land, having to file papers and forms without assistance, in a language not their own. I mean, I don't even know where to begin imagining a world in which the city would start enforcing 10-item maximums on restaurant menus. Grandé? Venti? Whaddaya need so many for? Crème brûlée or panna cotta--pick one, there, buddy, and quit your whining! Worse, Kin Lee told me, the woman from licensing has been in to check on him, sitting unsmiling in the dining room, making sure the menu doesn't get out of hand. "That's really weird," I marveled. "It's true!" Lee said, and pointed out that the invisible menu also has Ethiopian tea and Malaysian tapioca desserts, both of which I missed.

I dwelt on that for a bit, all the things I've missed in life, the conversations I didn't have with people who are gone, the Malaysian desserts I never imagined ordering, the nine-tenths of life that lives outside of the commonly known rules, and I dwelt on it some more. Rules, they are governing by consent, now, aren't they? And so now, now, I have decided to believe in the unsmiling inspector, and her skulking, haunting visage, enforcing her own imaginary, draconian regulations. Because without the rules of the unsmiling inspector, how could we ever have the limitless possibility of the invisible menu?

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5554 34th Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55417



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