More than just a cool respite for joggers in Botanic Gardens, The Garage is a charming 1920s Art Deco black and white bungalow housing two different dining destinations helmed by one promising young chef.
Born to a Malaysian-Chinese mother and Singaporean-Indian father, Chef Sujatha Asokan, also known as Chef Sue, takes great inspiration from flavours she grew up with. The 29-year-old creates plates that celebrate the myriad Southeast Asian flavours and regional produce.
On the first level of The Garage is Bee’s Knees, a casual café and relaxing hangout spot where you’ll find hearty fare like the Spicy Duck Loaded Fries – a hefty sharing portion of thick-cut fries tossed with chunks of savoury smoked duck and dressed in mayonnaise, mozzarella, an addictive Sriracha cream and scallions. Cheesy, spicy and incredibly umami, it’s a dish that’ll keep you reaching for more.
If you love your spice like we do, get the Fiery Shrimp Pizza to share as well. Each slice is topped with a good amount of housemade squid ink garlic aioli, tiger prawns, mozzarella, Parmesan and drizzled with a piquant spicy chilli dressing for that satisfying spice kick.
While we thoroughly enjoyed the casual fare at Bee’s Knees, it was the food at Botanico on the second floor that truly impressed. Here, Chef Sue gets a little fancier and reveals her culinary vision in a more complex gastronomic experience.
We started with the Beef Tongue Tacos, with baby bokchoy leaves as the “shells” to wrap tender Australian beef tongue that has been brined for 48 hours in herbs and spices, sous vide for 18 hours then grilled and sliced. Top the meat with a dollop of cashew cream and some punchy jicama slaw, then enjoy it all in one moreish bite.
If we had to pick a favourite dish, it’s the Corn Pani Puri that we unabashedly had second helpings of – and would have readily gone for thirds. Upon arrival of the golden puffs at the table, we were told to waste no time taking photos of the attractive little orbs and to immediately pop them in our mouths.
Chef Sue’s version of the Indian street snack are filled with a smokey, creamy curried Japanese corn espuma and baby corn sautéed in a mix of oil and spices like cumin, coriander, fenugreek, mustard seeds and tumeric, then finished with lime juice, raw shallots and fresh coriander. If left too long, the freshly fried round shells can get soggy but when eaten straightaway, they are small crisp parcels bursting with big flavour.
While we don’t often get excited seeing a salad on the menu, we believe the Asian ones tend to be superior in terms of textures, flavour and variety. We’d take a Thai papaya salad over a Cobb any day and now after tasting Chef Sue’s Wing Bean Salad, we stand even more strongly by that statement. The dish is inspired by ulam, a Malaysian-style salad and was often made for staff meals by a member of chef Sue’s kitchen team.
Thinly sliced raw wing beans are tossed with hardboiled egg, Spanish onions, chilli padi and housemade chickpea tofu in a punchy housemade dressing of belacan, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, ginger and a lime aioli then sprinkled with deep-fried ikan billis for added crunch. The belacan lends a funk to the salad that we love, but might not sit well with those for whom the fermented flavour is unfamiliar.
Chef Sue shares that some of her younger diners have not quite taken to the dish yet but it’s been a hit with the more mature crowd. It is controversial dishes like these that pique our interest; indicative of a chef confident enough to venture beyond the safety of crowd pleasers. For what it’s worth, we’re glad chef Sue is taking the risk.
In another daring move, Chef Sue confronts what is arguably Singapore’s national dish (no, not chilli crab), chicken rice. We know what you’re thinking – there’s no chicken rice better than the one from your favourite hawker. But Chef Sue’s “Herbal Chicken” version does not claim to be traditional.
The tender slow-cooked chicken breast sitting on a bed of fragrant ginger-and-garlic-laced couscous is typical enough, but the biggest difference is in the sauce. She reduces a classic Chinese herbal chicken broth of dang gui (angelica), huai shan (Chinese yam), yu zhu (Solomon’s Seal) and red dates into a rich, aromatic sauce that complements the chook and base.
For dessert, we enjoyed chef Sue’s interpretation of two local desserts: ondeh ondeh and pulut hitam. Instead of a kueh, this Ondeh Ondeh is presented in slightly different textures but similar flavours of pieces of pandan mochi cake, kaya ice cream, coconut foam, gula Melaka and freshly grated coconut. In the BGR (Black Glutinous Rice), black glutinous rice mochi cake is served with toasted rice ice cream, coconut flesh and a bed of black glutinous rice foam – a combination of familiar earthy flavours and a comforting end to a memorable meal.
The Garage, 50 Cluny Park Road, Singapore 257488, 9831 1106.
(Main and featured image: Herbal Chicken; all images courtesy of The Garage)