He’s back. It’s funny how we always seem to be saying that about Damian D’Silva’s culinary career. He’s back. Oh wait, he left. No, he’s making a comeback. Hang on, he’s gone again. No, really, he’s back….It’s not like this Papa of Asian heritage cuisine is a rolling stone; sometimes when you’ve spent your life as a square peg trying hard to fit into a round hole, all you want is a place to fit in.
So, he’s back. This time it’s Kin at Straits Clan. Will it finally be the one? It’s not a square hole, but at least it has adjustable sides. It’s a members’ club, but because of him, it’s opened up tables for the public. He gets to cook what he wants, the way he wants and he’s got the mandate he’s always sought – to uphold the traditions and authenticity of the food he spent his life preserving, and train a new generation of chefs to be proud of their heritage and continue his legacy.
When you’ve followed his career long enough, “legacy” isn’t a presumptuous word to use for Chef D’Silva. There isn’t one with the same depth and breadth of local cooking knowledge, and pig-headed enough to hold on to age-old cooking methods even though it worked against him in the money-making department.
Whether you were supportive of his doggedness or dismissive of his unrealistic, outdated idealism, one thing can’t be denied: let him cook in his uncompromising, time-consuming and meticulous way (and wait a long time for your dinner as well), and the food will be a knockout.
There’s still much of that old passion to be found in Kin, where Chef D’Silva has broadened his scope from Peranakan-Eurasian to include Chinese and Malay influences. We used to cry when eating his food in the early days of Folklore (his last gig before Kin), but now we can get through our meal with just a sniffle or two, depending on how much sambal belacan we smear on our rice.
As it turns out, you don’t even need a lot of the belacan, not when the gravies, dips and sauces are all flavour bombs in themselves.
While we wait for Kin’s renovation (it’s been delayed), we’re eating in Straits Clan’s private dining restaurant which is fashionably dim – good for privacy-loving members but not for curry lovers who want to see the colour of their achar. What are we, secret agents afraid to get our cover blown? Turn on the light already, we mutter as we peer at our ngoh hiang (S$15) trying to discern the prawn from the minced pork mixture stuffed into deep-fried bean curd skin. What we can’t see we can taste and it’s unfortunately over-fried with a dried out filling and heavy reliance of five spice powder.
We switch our attention to Chi Pow Kai (S$15) – little bundles of chicken joy, with hints of wine and intense juices collected within its deep fried paper covering. But what seals the deal is the old-fashioned dim sum chilli sauce it comes with that’s the perfect combination of sweetness and vinegar.
Pork satay (S$20) packs in more meat than your average 50 cents a stick of lean pork and fat but falls slightly short with a non-committal marinade that could be a little sweeter, with more depth.
But these are slight hiccups compared to the real strengths of the menu, which would be anything with gravy and the range of painstakingly made sambals.
The sambal sampler cost S$8 for a trio of green chilli sambal, belado (a kind of chilli tomato relish) and killer sambal belacan – so you can pick your own level of punishment. If you think S$8 is a lot to pay for condiments, then bear in mind the hours that go into the slow-cooking of chillies, garlic, shallots and all other good things that are melted down into these swirls of umami-packed boosters.
They go beautifully with Aberjaw (S$36) – a braised Eurasian pork rib stew with a harmonious blend of spices and bean paste – one of the must-haves of the menu for its mellow, addictive gravy that lets you pick out the different characters of onion, garlic, taucheo in all its gutsy glory.
Also not-to-be-missed is Ayam Lemak Chilli Padi (S$36) in which chilli padi and coconut milk are cooked down with rempah for a rich, slow-cooked gravy that snuggles up to you and tells you it loves you. You almost whisper back until you realise it’s a chicken drumstick you’re talking to.
Chef D’Silva shows a deft Teochew touch with the Fishmongers Haul (market price) – in our case, a fleshy pomfret steamed in a heady potion of ume plum, artisanal fermented beans and soy sauce sourced from old-timer producers that he’s been buying from for decades.
For dessert, order the dessert sampler (S$20) so you don’t have to choose between kueh kosui, sugee cake or kueh bingka because they’re all fluffy, floppy, custardy and every other happy adjective you can think of. You can even add on kedongdong and coconut sorbet (S$12), which is an utterly refreshing blend of coconut milk and the citrusy Indonesian fruit.
On the night we’re there, we can’t really tell that Chef D’Silva wasn’t in the kitchen, which bodes well for his team. But while they score well with braised dishes, ala minute ones like the buah keluak fried rice (S$32) feel lacking, with a slightly bitter, charred finish and none of the gasping, tongue-tingling chilli heat and smoky black nut paste that we remember.
There are times when you sense that Chef D’Silva’s personal magic touch – imagination or not – is missing here and there but it’s not realistic to expect him to be cooking himself all the time. It’s time for him to pass the mantle to his team, and like any transition, we expect it won’t be long before master and disciples fuse into a seamless whole. And the legacy is well assured.