We love eating with fellow Singaporeans. We love how we can all be strangers obliged to eat together in a communal setting – in more friendly countries, everyone would be best pals by the end of the night, but here, it’s socially acceptable to ignore everyone except the ones you came to dinner with.
It adds to the uniquely Singaporean bonhomie of Mustard Seed, the long-running cult pop-up/restaurant-in-waiting that’s finally taken root in the quintessentially suburban Serangoon Gardens estate. If you, like us, had never succeeded in scoring a spot in chef Gan Ming Kiat’s oversubscribed home dining operation, now’s the time to see what the fuss is all about.
Still, it’s not a place for impulse dining. The shophouse space fits 13 at most around a counter, and only odd dates are available on the website – your only means of reservation. Everyone is served at the same time at 7.45pm, but doors open at 7pm. It feels like you’ve been invited to Chef Gan’s home but instead of bringing flowers, you pay him S$138 plus service charge – in cash – because his shoestring operation doesn’t take credit cards at the moment.
The place is simple but tasteful, and there’s a warm, happy, youthful vibe thanks to the down-to-earth and cheerful charms of Julian – the jovial third wheel to the laconic but earnest Chef Gan and his smiley, winsome girlfriend/chef, Shin Yin. The trio are all ex-Candlenut, which explains the Peranakan influences in the menu, with a slight Japanese accent that Chef Gan picked up in the three years he worked at the now-defunct Goto kaiseki restaurant.
Chef Gan has certainly picked a potentially fiddly cuisine to specialise in – his own. Because that puts him in the so-called mod-Singaporean territory – that vague, yet to be defined category that Singaporean chefs who are neither cooking modern European cuisine nor hawker fare are plonked in.
Is it fusion, is it masak-masak, or old wine in a new bottle? For example, Mustard Seed serves superior stock like a Japanese dobinmushi – in a teapot with a dainty tea cup that you pour the soup in.
The original dobinmushi is a light dashi broth but Chef Gan’s version – served in the middle of the nine-course meal – is a nutrition-infusion of rich old chicken and pork broth, packed with a lovely home-made chicken ball studded with black fungus and celery leaf for extra fragrance, mushroom, fish maw, shrimp and dried scallop.
It’s the kind of potent brew you want to slurp from a bowl, so it’s hard to reconcile sipping it in such a genteel manner. You rather feel a much lighter, double-boiled Cantonese consommé might suit the presentation better. But teapot bias aside, this soup makes you feel comfortably warm and fuzzy enough to almost want to commiserate with the diner beside you, before the Singaporean conservatism kicks in.
That’s where the chef-trio come in as they keep the banter going with the diners, serving and clearing between the counter and the open kitchen, which everyone is free to amble around in. Everything is so neat and organised that Chef Gan doesn’t seem to break a sweat as he sends out each course in perfect timing.
His skill lies in his ability to extrapolate the flavours of a familiar dish, say curry or chilli crab, and re-assembling them to get the profile he wants. Take his white curry, inspired by Candlenut’s Ye Ye Curry, made from a rempah that has all the richness and kick of a curry, but without the chillies. Oddly, he pairs it with a sizeable piece of Japanese kinmedai roasted in a salamander. It seems a waste to overwhelm an expensive piece of fish in an assertive sauce.
But our bigger beef is that the curry lacks a milk bun to go with it. Yes, the signature bun which we’ve heard so much about – shamelessly omitted here because the chef is afraid of diners getting over-stuffed. He needs to learn that good intentions cannot overrule certain laws of nature – curry and bun are non-negotiable.
There’s some carb compensation with a very good crab porridge, where the essence of chilli crab gravy permeates every grain of tender, chewy Japanese rice, topped with fresh peeled crabmeat. It’s a small enough portion that there’s still room for slinky, slippery mee sua in a full-bodied duck and pork trotter broth, garnished with slices of excellent ngoh hiang stuffed with chopped duck meat and water chestnuts. The bonus is that the chef goes around handing out extra ngoh hiang pieces and crispy end bits.
So far still familiar – including his star creation of deep-fried crushed rice cracker-crusted turmeric frog’s legs – but there are some surprises. He starts off the meal with a very Japanese amuse bouche of cold chawanmushi topped with a layer of Shaoxing wine jelly, edamame and raw shrimp, and a first course of vichyssoise made with lily bulb instead of potatoes – it’s pleasantly garlicky, with pickled bangkwang as a surprise counterpoint. The scallops used, though, are a letdown.
Dessert – featuring interpretations of soybean – is an inspired combination of soy milk ice cream, creamy yuba skin, soy sauce caramel and pressed tempeh chips. It’s got just enough Japanese input while still rooted to Asia, not to mention being sticky, chewy, and creamy good.
You can foresee the questions that follow after a meal like this: Where’s he trying to go with this? Is it really modern Singaporean when it tastes like “normal” local cooking albeit done well? Does it require “talent” to just do makeovers of the tried and true?
Following the adage that you are what you eat, Chef Gan is a chef who is what he cooks. He shouldn’t – and he doesn’t – apologise for his cooking which is sans fermentation, liquid nitrogen or even pasta. If he wants to make a luncheon meat and egg sandwich, he should do it, because he would do it well.
But Mustard Seed is by no means a finished project. It is still very much a seedling and a long creative path is ahead of Chef Gan and his two partners in food crime. But for now, they embody a very real Singaporean persona that extends to the restaurant and the diners that come. No airs and graces. Just be yourself, and everything else will come naturally.
75 Brighton Crescent. Reservations through its website or Facebook messenger.
Open for dinner only Tues to Sat: 7pm to 11pm. (Dinner starts at 7.45pm)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Jaime Ee/BT