Singapore can be such a by-the-book place that when you come across something truly creative, you can’t help but stop for a moment to marvel and think: This must be applauded.
Dinner at Fifty Three, a fairly new addition to the Singapore dining scene, is filled with moments such as these. From the amuse bouche of a crispy potato chip dusted with sour yogurt powder to the inventive finale of a melt-in-your-mouth gin and tonic gummy candy, the restaurant had me enthralled through and through.
Chef Michael Han, a former lawyer turned chef who’s an alum of the Fat Duck in the U.K. and Noma in Denmark, may only be in his early 30s but his hand is sure, his vision is appealingly playful and his dishes will remain with you long after you’ve left.
First things first: Be warned — it can be hard to get in.
Located in a small, two-story pre-war shophouse in central Singapore, the modern and spare main dining room only has six tables. It also has a sizeable private dining room that gives diners front-row seats to the restaurant’s small open kitchen.
We began our meal with a series of amuse bouches — the first was a yogurt powder-dusted potato chip accompanied with a large, flat sheet that turned out to be an incredibly delicious fried chicken skin that had been brushed with birch syrup and dusted with whiskey salt. I’d be in trouble if they sold this in stores — I could seriously eat these by the dozen.
These were served with a little spoonful of green dip that was a salty oyster emulsion. Again, just delicious.
Next up, we had a little nibbly bit of jamon iberico sandwiched between two small cheese crisps. And then something rather unusual appeared before us: a small cup of what looked like soil but was a bed of roasted malt with two radishes — one Japanese, one French — and little daikon leaves embedded in it.
The dish was meant to recreate “the gardening experience,” our waiter explained, urging us to eat the entire radish, leaves and all.
The raw, crisp sweetness of the vegetables coupled with the cocoa-tinged flavor of the grainy malt “soil” was a lovely combination of contrasts. The daikon leaves, though tiny, had an especially potent honeyed taste.
As I nibbled on the last of my leaves, I looked over at my friend Willin, who was clutching his cup and seriously pondering just tipping it back so he could scarf down the rest of the “soil.” I understood his desire, if just a bit gauche – I, too, didn’t want this dish to end.
At some point, bread appeared — the small potato and yogurt rolls were perfectly fine, nothing to write home about. And the creamy butter flecked with roasted barley was a lovely pairing with the slightly sour bread.
But I loved the fact that the miniature gunnysack it came in was filled at the bottom with hot cherry stones, which kept the bread warm for a good portion of the meal.
Finally, our meal began in earnest.
First, we had a dish of tiny Japanese tomatoes that were as sweet as candy, paired with burrata, basil and a mound of a sort of horseradish granita.
I loved the combination of the sweet with the spicy, topped with the crunchy coolness of the horseradish ice chips.
Artfully presented, the dish reminded me of a Japanese painting. I almost didn’t dare to touch it.
In that tableau was Japanese mackerel, wood sorrel with mini, super crisp and sweet cucumbers and slivers of smoked eel, topped with dill oil and a side of more granita. Our waiter explained that the mounds of ice chips were meant to resemble mountains of “melting snow.”
We figured we should dig in before the big melt set in — the combination of sweet, salty and spicy, again, made for several memorable bites.
Small Sharpe’s Express potatoes from the U.K. that had been cooked for seven hours and were served on a slab of stone with duckweed, crispy chestnut chips and a cocoa and coffee crumble. As interesting-looking as this dish was, I thought the potatoes themselves, the main act, after all, were rather pedestrian.
For the final savory course, we had little slivers of wagyu beef (pictured at the top of this blog item) with onions, wild sorrel and bone marrow, topped with the tiniest onion ring and edible flowers. The dish was tender and tasty — no complaints there.
Our first dessert was a combination of strawberries and green peppercorns …
The final offering, however, could not be passed up — gin-and-tonic gums that we were told to place on our tongues and let them melt.
These gums were deceptively innocent-looking — if you’re not much of a drinker, these really pack a punch.
As we wrapped up our meal, I tried to think back to some of the memorable meals I’ve had.
The best ones always surprise you at every turn and leave you just a little sad as you wipe your mouth that one last time before you fold up your napkin.
Fifty Three, I’d say, fit that bill.
Fifty Three, 53 Armenian Street, Tel.: 6334-5535, www.fiftythree.com.sg