I can’t pinpoint the specific instance when I decided I would spend the rest of my life in New York. There were many: spring break my freshmen year and I was absolutely electrified by the buzz of the city. Or my semester abroad junior year, reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Perhaps it was the Wednesdays when I religiously picked up the New York Times for its dining section. (Although at Newhouse we were “encouraged” to read it everyday, not just for its dining section.)
In my last days in the city, I fell in love with it even more. I was on borrowed time. I remember the specific day, when I embraced everything the city had to offer. Lunch at David Burke, Monty Python on Broadway and then dinner at db bistro. I remember having that last glass of sauternes and walking out to hail a cab that I would, like a lover separated, miss and long for this city. I never got a chance to visit those restaurants again, I haven’t been back and I don’t think I will for some time. Time hasn’t healed those wounds.
When I think of New York, I think of my friends, the city and its food. I don’t think there is a better restaurant city in the world. But Singapore is becoming a great restaurant city too, and probably the best foodie city in the world.
Singapore, with its already amazing street food scene is fast developing a sophisticated fine dining one as well. It makes for an unmatched range of food. The Integrated Resorts have become a pantheon for the Michelin-starred giants, Guy Savoy, the late Santi Santamaría (who unfortunately had a heart attack at his Singapore restaurant) and Robuchon. Lacking stars, but equally acclaimed, Tetsuya Wakuda. Many other famous chefs have deemed Singapore important and set up shop here. Top Chef filmed its season 7 finale here, the first outside the States. The recent Madrid Fusion featured and focused on Singapore. It is an exciting and heady time.
Daniel Boulud is here.
I didn’t need to go back to New York for db bistro. It came to me.
When I was in New York, I wanted to try the famed db burger. But K-Dubs ordered it so I took something else, to sample more of the menu. 3 years later, in Singapore, I had my burger. It was a towering stack: minced sirloin, braised short ribs and foie gras. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was juicy; the braised short ribs gave an extra hit of that mineral beefy flavor. Although the texture of the ribs was slightly mushy, not a bad thing, it is after all braised. But I prefer my burgers solid. Still it was a fair tradeoff, texture for taste. This burger was better than the one in New York, which K-Dubs said was dry.
The word bistro in db bistro is a bit of a misnomer. Don’t expect rustic working-man’s fare here. What you have are elegant interpretations of bistro classics, like bumping into an acquaintance or friend at a club all dressed up, sometimes you have to do a double take. It is not necessarily a bad thing.
It’s executive chef, Stephane Istel’s responsibility to dress up the food at db bistro moderne Singapore. The food is executed with the same verve, as when I tried it in New York. The native of Alsace seems to be chef Boulud’s standard bearer (in more than the normal sense of the word) having been the head chef at db bistro Vancouver before this.
The first indication that I was in chef Istel’s good hands was the amuse bouche that mark the start of the meal. It is a looking-glass into the chef and his kitchen, his ideas and their competence. On one visit they were crisp fried rice balls, a very satisfying snack. On another visit they were airy gougères. Both executed perfectly.
Charcuterie is good. There are good quality cured meats in the Assiette Lyonnaise, which included a great terrine and a prized pickled mushroom. Another terrine, made with foie gras was smooth, well seasoned, with a hint of sweetness. But I remember the same dish in New York having a more defined flavor. Perhaps the quality of foie in Singapore just isn’t that great.
The tomato tart tatin is a winner. The tomato confit bursts with concentrated sun-kissed (or rather heat kissed) flavor. Goat cheese adds a heady-funk and body. Fresh cherry tomatoes brighten up the ensemble. Combined with the basil pesto sauce, it is what I would imagine the south of France would taste like.
The db Tartiflette didn’t fare as well. There is nothing wrong with its execution. The Reblochon had a light broiled veneer, the bacon crisp and juicy at the same time, the potatoes cooked just right, tender with just the slightness hint of a bite. However the dish was one-dimensional. Potato-cheese-bacon, a classic combination, but it hits you over the head again and again. It is heavy. Order it if you like that sort of thing.
Alsatian rabbit “Fleischnecke” was smooth and moist. The mustard jus gave a sharp counterpoint to the meat.
One of my favorites was the snail & chicken oyster fricassee with hazelnut späetzle. I love that they used chicken oysters, an often neglected but flavorful and tender part of the chicken, on the back, near the thigh. The skin was crisp, a sprinkling of salt highlighting, lifting and intensifying the chicken. The späetzle was subtlety nutty with a gnocchi-like chew. So many flavors and textures served on a canvas of bright parsley.
I tried the burger again, this time ordered medium. It was a mistake (never go above medium-rare,) it was dry and lacking in flavor compared to the one on my previous visit. The fries though were excellent on both counts with a crunchy exterior and pillow-y soft interior.
The John Dory bouillabaisse was another disappointment. The John Dory as well as squid, prawns, mussels and clams weren’t overcooked and you would think with all those ingredients it would be robust, but it lacked flavor. (Sadly I have no pictures of this as my camera fell on the soup bowl; thankfully there was no permanent damage to the lens or body. Or to the dish.)
db bistro is one of the rare places in Singapore that dessert doesn’t feel like an afterthought. Pastry chef Ludwig Hely does a great job; most of the desserts are excellent, head and shoulders above what most restaurants offer here.
The coupe au poire, served in a glass looks like a miniature terrarium. It was refreshing and light, a contrast of different textures. The Verbena tea foam and cassis-pear sorbet paired beautifully with the pears and walnuts.
Profiteroles were decent; airy and decadent, if a bit over the top with the chocolate sauce, dulce de leche and coffee rocky road ice cream.
There was an ethereal Ile flottante, the lemon floating island dissolved in my mouth, it’s like eating a cloud. It came with a sophisticated armagnac crème anglaise.
A multi-layered Gateau chocolat-myrtille was moist and luscious. Each layer had a distinct role of either taste or texture. The blueberry-orange complemented and eased the richness of the cake.
Pineapple, mango and guanabana/soursop might be exotic in New York or Vancouver (although probably not Miami) where there are other db bistros. But definitely not in Singapore. Which might be why it isn’t on the menu anymore. But it was light and refreshing, the medley of fruits didn’t compete with each other and I loved the little surprises of candied ginger, which with its slight spicy heat elevated the dessert, like Louboutins on women, it made it sexy.
Even though I liked the sundae exotique, I’m glad it’s off the menu because it made way for the sundae aux marrons, which is fantastic. I’m not usually a fan of chestnuts, but this had all that chestnut flavor without the “pastiness.” The ice cream was smooth on the tongue. No ice crystals there. The swirls of chestnut puree too felt smooth, refined.
The db bistro in Singapore doesn’t give mignardises at the end of the meal like I had at its New York branch, but an order of warm madeleines makes it a moot point, you wouldn’t want anything else. It amazes me that something so simple as butter, eggs, flour and sugar can, with an expert hand, be turned into something so delicious, so satisfying yet always leaving you wanting more.
Wanting more. I’ve been hoping for this, a restaurant like db bistro. The Singapore dining scene, though blossoming, has been relatively insular. I’ve seen the same dishes on too many menus, the same inadequate technique. It seems that’s the way things are done and chefs take it with them from restaurant to restaurant. Culinary inbreeding is never a good thing. Sure the menus at the various db bistros are similar, but it is quite unlike what you get at French bistros here. It is elegant, well-conceptualized, well-executed food.
I’m hoping that in the years to come, technique and talent will trickle down to other restaurants in Singapore. It’s already an exciting time for Singapore’s dining scene. But I’m waiting for when the mid-level chefs at these restaurants, the db bistros, Guy Savoys, Robuchons and Santis would open up their own restaurants. Hopefully one of them will define Singapore cuisine.
db bistro moderneBasement 1, across from the Theater. (Wonder why there isn’t a specific address) The Shoppes (as in ye olde?) at Marina Bay Sands 2 Bayfront Avenue Singapore 018972 Tel: 6688 8525
HOURS Monday to Friday, lunch, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $13 to $26; mains, $26 to $45; db burger, $38, with black truffles, $88; Cote de boeuf for two, $150; desserts, $4 to $15.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Foie gras terrine, tomato tart tatin, snail & chicken oyster fricassee, db burger (nothing above medium rare), coupe au poire, Ile flottante, sundae aux marrons, madeleines.