Land of 1,000 Specialties 

If you can navigate its massive menu, Raffles Cafe offers all the flavors of Singapore.

There's no such thing as a Singaporean restaurant in Singapore. You can find Malay, Thai, and Indian restaurants throughout the city-state, and stalls serving Fukien, Teo Chiew, and Hainanese ethnic Chinese dishes. The only cuisine, in fact, that this ethnically diverse nation can call its own is the complex, subtle food of its disappearing Straits Chinese (Peranakan) population, the ethnic group formed by the intermarriage of male Chinese traders and Malay women in the early 19th century.

But there's a unique institution in Singapore that brings all these cuisines together: hawker centers. All of Singapore dines out at these large, roofed open-air food courts, which can contain up to one hundred specialized stands. One stand sells Hokkien fried noodles, say, another only satay. You find a table and send your party out to the different stalls to order food, and it gets delivered to wherever you're sitting.

Raffles Cafe in Fremont, like the other Singaporean restaurants around the Bay Area, tries to re-create the experience of the hawker center -- all in one kitchen. Owners Michael Ho and Charles Moo opened the restaurant almost a year ago and have staffed the back of the house with Chinese-Singaporean cooks.

The restaurant's mee goreng is a perfect example of how the cultural exchange in Singapore keeps expanding and doubling back on itself. According to Audrey Wong, my source on all foods Singaporean and my guest at Raffles, you get mee goreng from Indian food stalls. But its name is Malaysian (meaning "stir-fried noodles") and both the thick, chewy egg noodles and the technique of stir-frying the noodles in a mix of seasonings are quintessentially Chinese.

Where's the Indian influence? In the tomato-based sauce, apparently, which is pumped up with aromatics and Malaysian shrimp paste. Whatever their source, the spicy, wok-charred curried noodles are one of the best dishes on the menu.

It's easier to suss out the Indian influence in the roti prata, one of the nation's great street foods. Unlike the traditional Indian flatbread, the deep-fried rounds are formed by rolling, oiling, and folding the dough several times so that when you pull it apart it separates into gossamer layers, a deep-fried croissant. I enjoyed the interplay of the crisp and silky sheets of dough, dipped in a thin, classically seasoned lentil and potato curry.

The same spice mix shows up in the curry puffs. These turnovers, the hot snack-cart food of a decade ago, are small half-moon pies wrapped in French-style pastry dough. The stuffing, curried chicken meat and hard-boiled egg quarters, was flavorful but quite dry.

Singapore's current "it" snack, according to Audrey, also makes it onto the menu: Squid-paste eu char kway. Described as rice-flour sticks, the stuffed fried-dough rolls are actually Chinese crullers -- those long, savory donuts you drench in soy milk for breakfast or in broth for lunch -- filled with a marvelous squid-fish mousse.

But I wouldn't recommend the eu char kway until the chefs get better acquainted with their deep fryer. The temperature of the oil is set ten or so degrees too low, so anything deep-fried comes out golden but sopping with oil. The cooks could have doubled up on the doilies underneath and all of the paper would have still ended up slick and translucent.

Picking out a good balance of food from such a wide-ranging, multicultural list of dishes can seem a little tricky. Half of the items on the massive menu are marked with a miniature logo, indicating a signature dish, so even if you stick to the highlights of Singaporean cuisine you have four dozen dishes to choose from. On my first visit, everything we ordered fell toward the Malaysian-curried end of the spectrum, and it was spectacular but way too rich and fragrant. We started eating the curries over classic Singaporean garlic noodles -- tossed with a buttery sauce and crispy garlic -- but after a few minutes asked for bowls of more ascetic steamed rice. On my second visit, we ordered on the Chinese end, and I could have stood for a little more fire and spice.

Here is what stood out after two visits:

The kangkong sambal belachan is easily going to make it onto my top-ten list of best dishes of the year. Kangkong, called water spinach in the States, is a hollow-stemmed plant with bright green leaves and a light, crisp flavor -- sort of like the green part of bok choy. It's seasoned with belachan, one of those magical ingredients that fleshes out the middle ground of any dish and transforms it into something bigger and better. I'd rather shovel out a cow barn after winter than be in a room with an open jar of this fermented shrimp paste, but a tiny spoonful fried up with garlic and sambal (chile paste) turns into an addictively robust coating.

Among the Chinese dishes, Audrey pronounced the Hainanese chicken almost authentic. A half chicken, simmered in broth until it becomes more moist than you thought cooked meat could ever be, is served over bean sprouts and a sweetened soy sauce. The chicken is meant to be dipped into bowls of sambal and pureed raw ginger, for a sharp burn that enlivens the mild-flavored meat and flies up the nose, and eaten over rice cooked with the remainder of the chicken broth. Both of us also loved the delicate flavor of bak kut teh, pork spareribs braised in a clear soup fragrant with black peppercorns and star anise.

Chicken rendang straddled the border between Thai and Indian curry. A good half-chicken or so was braised with a voluptuous coconut-milk curry emitting whiffs of coriander, ginger, lemongrass, and chiles. Sometimes, however, the richness of the food becomes overpowering. Thinking we should have a light dish to counteract the rendang chicken and kangkong one night, I ordered "steamed fish." A pale white pomfret fillet, as soft as meringue, was topped with a chunky-looking brown paste. It had the toffee-like flavor of Vietnamese fish-sauce caramel and a graininess from being thickened with ground candlenuts, key to Straits Chinese cuisine. It was great for a couple of bites and then overwhelming after that. And the aroma of a soupy "mixed vegetable curry" promised lemongrass and galangal, but after their fragrance dispersed in the mouth there wasn't enough there there, just coconut and chiles. Plus all the veggies were overcooked.

If you're actually craving anything sweet after a meal filled with such heady flavors, try the ice kachang, a mountain of feathery shaved ice overtop squares of grass jelly, red beans, corn, and gelatinous palm seeds. The brown caramel melting into the ice is palm sugar, the pink stuff rose-flavored syrup. The combination of the two turns the milk moat surrounding the mountain an unappetizing gray-brown, but it tastes great.

Viewed from the street, Raffles Cafe isn't impressive. But the owner has taken what looks like an old Chick-n-Shack across from the auto mall and put a lot of money into renovating the barn-shaped building. Now the inside is painted in soft greens and yellows, and is brightly illuminated by a web of halogen lights. It's still informal, but you wouldn't feel out of place in a suit.

My first encounter with the restaurant's service unnerved me. A po-faced waitress dropped off the menus and stuck around, lurking behind me, as we tried to figure out what to order. Occasionally, as I was flicking through the menu, a disembodied finger would come around my shoulder and point at a specific dish. We ordered drinks. She didn't move. We ordered appetizers. She didn't move. After five minutes, I told our silent observer we'd make up our mind about the entrées once the appetizers came, and she headed back to the kitchen. By the end of the meal, we had ordered so much food that the other server, a chatty, sweet woman, offered us a free dessert. On my second visit, she took over, welcoming me back effusively and charming everyone at the table. Even our lurker stopped by briefly to smile and say hello.

Audrey says that even when Singaporean food in America is good -- and, like me, she liked Raffles Cafe -- there's always something missing. Compressing the expertise of hundreds of cooks of different ethnicities into a best-hits restaurant may be an impossible task. Raffles rises to the challenge, though. Become a frequent and adventurous customer and you'll find your way to some of the best Malay-Indian-Teo Chiew-Peranakan food in the entire Bay Area.


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