As Singapore restaurateurs heave under a litany of restrictions, you might not fault them for cutting corners, whether through ersatz ingredients or crunched down processes. Thankfully, you’ll find none of that at Rempapa, chef Damian D’Silva’s newly opened restaurant that sings as a well-structured ode to local heritage cuisine.
Like his previous labours of love, Folklore and Kin, Rempapa – as its not-so oblique name proclaims – trots out its flourishes in the rich, velvety rempah synonymous with Eurasian, Malay and Peranakan cuisine. I was told that the complex spice pastes binding various dishes here are hand-ground with a stone board and pestle, which is remarkable, considering Rempapa’s impressive repertoire of them.
And there’s no doubt that D’Silva wields an intuitive mastery of spice medleys that transform a slab of meat into a dish worthy of your family’s matriarch. The Braised Beef with Raita & Roti, for one, sees tender brisket cloaked in a savoury-sweet base of sweet paprika powder, fresh red tomatoes and blistered red bell peppers, brightened by the citrus notes of daun salam, a bay leaf native to Indonesia.
Also noteworthy is his signature Lamb Leg Rendang, which is prepared with both wet and dry masala spice blends, and can be traced to the Minangkabau of West Sumatra. Here, slow-cooked lamb brings added depth of flavour to a classic dish, and its fall-apart texture gives the rempah longer legs, so to speak.
But that’s where the similarities between Rempapa, launched in collaboration with OUE Restaurants, and D’Silva’s previous restaurants end. With the more accessible eatery at Park Place Residences at PLQ, the long-minted ‘grandfather of heritage cuisine’ makes bold overtures to further reimagine multi-cultural mod-Sin fare. This is evident in his one-bowl Fried Chicken Curry Rice, which – while it could be mistaken for a starchy Japanese curry with karaage – features lashings of a light, piquant curry with Indian, Eurasian, Malay and Chinese inflections. Here, ground cumin and coriander seeds, turmeric and light soya sauce plus a 12-spice masala chicken marinade make for unlikely bedfellows.
That may sound discordant, but the spices lift a hearty dish while not overwhelming the palate. And while rich, spice-forward flavours can coalesce after you’ve hoovered up several dishes at a Peranakan restaurant, Rempapa keeps its creations distinct and surprising – like the Seafood Curry Mee that is light on the coconut milk, plumped with fresh cockles, fish cake and fried pig skin, and gets its moreish quality from sand prawns and dried shrimp. We’d pair the robustly flavoured courses with a crisp white wine from their beverage menu, which includes the dry Junmai Ginjo sake.
In representing the ever-evolving weft of South-east Asian cuisine, Rempapa’s menu is arrayed with the intensely savoury Peranakan Yong Tau Foo with Chee Cheong Fun, Stir-Fried Chee Cheong Fun (think, Penang char kway teow with more bite) kissed by the searing breath of the wok and created by his Malaysian chef, and the star anise-spiked Sri Lankan Chicken Curry and Tomato Chutney with String Hoppers. It’s decidedly unfussy brunch fare served in ample portions.
D’Silva may exercise creative licence with what he characterises as ‘Singapore New Heritage Cuisine’, to strike a chord with a younger generation of diners, but still hews to traditional slow-cooking principles. The rice in his Nasi Lemak is soaked overnight, then cooked in a laborious three-hour process with fresh coconut milk. This fastidious approach is translated across some 50 dishes that, while multifarious, feel familiar, are well-balanced in flavour profile and none too transgressive as, say, fried rice with chilli jam (we’re looking at you, Jamie Oliver).
In that respect, the MasterChef Singapore judge hits the ball out of the park, to borrow from American baseball parlance – though the 65-year-old may contend that our food culture is so much more exciting than hotdogs from a stand.