Friday, December 17, 2010

Restaurant critiquing: "It's good.... for Singapore"

Today in conversation, my editor asked me if it was difficult coming from New York to not be openly critical when writing my reviews.  Familiar with the unforgiving culinary journalism scene in Manhattan, she was wondering how I felt about writing in Singapore, where most food critics are only neutral at worst.

In addition to the relatively conservative culture here, it's a small town with a tiny industry network in Singapore.  Very few are brave enough to step on some toes (there are of course, the overly obnoxious sorts, who go beyond plain honesty and enter the realm of being diva-levels of disrespectful).  Answering her question, I feel my biggest dilemma is deciding how to scale the critiques--do I base my experience according to world standards like New York, Paris, Tokyo?  Or do I keep it on a local scale: "Yes, it's good... for Singapore."

Over dinner the other day with fellow New Yorker, Notabilia, she pointed out with amusement, "I notice everyone who has lived abroad at some point says that.  'It's not bad... by Singapore standards'."  She moved to Singapore just 6 weeks ago. 

Singapore is rapidly changing.  It's an exciting time.  Within just one year, countless chefs of international acclaim are opening up their doors here- Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Tetsuya Wakuda, Guy Savoy, Susur Lee, Santi Santamaria, just to name a few.  And while there are still only a small handful of talented homegrown chefs who can keep up with the big boys, programs like the Culinary Institute of America are coming in and the culinary scene here will only continue to get better.  Thus, I can only be inclined to compare Singapore restaurants according to world standards.  I have great expectations of this mini island country.


  1. What I find really interesting about your post is the converse of it. That when I briefly visited Singapore a couple of weeks ago I had three meals that were better than months and months and months of average meals I have had in London or New York.

    One hawker's centre in Singapore turns out a higher quality of better dishes than most of the restaurants in London put together. And the price is near free.

    Whilst Singapore may be getting an influx of 400 SNG a head priced super restaurants, it is the immediacy and honesty of the local food which is aweinspiring to an ex European.

    I think Singaporean food and foodies should stand up a bit taller and say, stuff this, CIA / superstar chefs ok, but the stuff I can get on each and every corner blows away 90% of the stuff in your so called culinary destination cities...

    Tom (a deeply impressed Londoner, ex NY- London commuter and now HK resident)

  2. Hi Tom,

    You make a good point and I completely agree. While I am hard pressed to name my favorite fine-dining restaurant here, I can easily rattle off dozens of my favorite hawker stalls.

    But for the purposes of this post only, I was speaking more of the international cuisines that are becoming more prominent, even moreso than its rival Hong Kong (and much like HK, western vs local cuisine is a totally different ball game). I think it's a great thing, because this celebrity food culture will only draw more attention to Singapore... More ways for everyone around the world to eventually learn about the local cuisine as well. Unfortunately, Singapore is a tiny place and hawker stalls don't have many great PR firms backing them up like the big names do. These big names will help put Singapore on the average non-Asian Joe's map.

    Which is why the title of this post is "It's good... for Singapore." Naturally, local Singaporean food in Singapore is better than anywhere else.

    I can assure you that Singaporeans are extremely proud of their local cuisine! And rightly so.

  3. Agreed with your conclusion that Singapore is going through an interesting time re: culture (food included). There will be a day not in the too distant future that the Singaporeans I meet won't tell me, "It's good... for Singapore. It's just good!"

  4. It is unfortunate that a lot of the great hawker stalls are going extinct due to the lack of their descendants or similar to take over their trade. One common phrase among people at my parents age is "xxx dish used to be better at xxx hawker stall but it closed down 20 years ago". The other one is "this dish used to be better xx years ago when it was the father cooking it"

  5. Hello Tom and Victoria,

    As a dual citizen of HK and SG who has extensively eaten his way through both great cities, I completely agree with you.

    While the quality of food in HK is legendary, SG trumps in variety. The hawker's centres in SG don't only provide affordable meals to the masses, they constantly remind residents (thru the kaleidoscope of cuisines) of the hallmarks of SG's social fabric: truly multicultural and bursting with vibrance.

    This is sadly missing in HK's dining scene. Yes, there're similar institutions like the "cooked food centres" (often in markets, like the one in Sheung Wan). But they are often soulless (housed in dull multi level concrete buildings) and lack the excitement of a good SG hawker's centre, which is dotted everywhere around the tiny city. And don't get me started on the soon-to-be extinct dai pai dongs. The HK gov must be absolutely bonkers to not allow these culinary gems continue to work their magic into the future.

    As for Victoria's dilemma on critiquing, I feel that SG is in real need of bona fide critics. Yes, the in your face critics that London (AA Gill) and NY (Frank Bruni) are used to. I'm not about to point out names, but the feeling I get from many "critics" from local papers are, at best, writers sent out forcefully to eat and review restaurants, completely devoid of a sound and opinionated palate. I hope for a firm, opinionated and critical voice to speak up in the name of passion for food and the progress of gastronomy in SG. Only then do chefs and restauranteurs sit up and revaluate their game plans and see that a dynamic dining scene means constant interaction between diners and restaurants. This is something rather new to the generally conservative Singapore, where dining can be viewed as a one-way, top-down affair: you eat what the chef serves, and don't comment unless it's absolutely unbearable.

    Looking forward to the next issue of Appetite. ;)

    Daniel C.

  6. Isn't the heart of the issue a question of why the restaurant is to be featured in the first place? There are a lot of restaurants everywhere, and a lot of publications that publish with different frequencies. A monthly review has many more options to choose from that a critic who has to file a review every week or two. Also it becomes a matter of what the editor thinks the readers want. How often do people have discerning enough palates that they enjoy or understand reading a really critical review?

  7. Wow Its restaurant very very amazing and wondering . really fantastic restaurant in Singapore. i just planning tour for singapore and really i came in its restaurant. i loved that and cool ideas for restaurant so thanks

    1. It has been described here that restaurant critiquing is good. The post is very informative

  8. There's always a "it's good... for (fill in country)". I can't travel out of Singapore, without thinking of our super local food : fish ball noodles, bak chor mee, chicken rice. The same way i can't go on too long without getting my US alien stamp having a good burger back in with USDA (right in your backyard kinda fresh beef) burgers, or pizza, and surprisingly tofu houses, or pho. Or going to HK and get some of that Australian Dairy breakfast.

    But i must say, fine dining in Singapore is now so good.. it's starting to make the world smaller. And also our taste buds a little more picky

  9. i think you were right saying that most food critics in Singapore are only neutral at worst. But it is also encouraging to see more and more food connoisseurs coming out to educate diners on what's good and what's not good. Let's hope for the best to come for Singapore where the locals are more and more exposed to international cuisines



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