Anchor Image: Smalls, the tiny table staffed solely by chef Bjorn Shen, seats a maximum of four diners.
Big, bold, boisterous. Bjorn Shen — the straight-talking and colourful chef-owner of Middle-Eastern restaurant Artichoke, MasterChef Singapore judge, TV personality, cookbook author, and fervent proponent of dudestronomy — can be described as a larger-than-life kind of a guy. And yet, he has now opened Singapore’s tiniest restaurant, the aptly named Smalls.
Occupying no more than a closet-like space right next to Artichoke, Smalls is a four-seat chef’s counter where lucky diners get up-close-and-personal with Shen and his culinary creativity. Shen explains, “The space where Smalls now is used to be my office. I wasn’t doing anything productive there, so I decided to turn it into a cooking studio that I’d use as a test kitchen. Then I thought it’d be cool to also have people come into this tiny space to eat whatever I was messing around with.”
Affectionately dubbed his “room of bad ideas”, Smalls is where Shen will be able to unleash his creativity, or as he jokingly puts it, “road-testing all my dumbest food concepts”. Diners will partake in an omakase experience like no other, with Shen personally cooking and presenting the dishes and his inspirations, ingredients and ideas. He explains, “As with most omakase experiences, a key highlight is in the chef showcasing unusual, small-batch ingredients and processes. The intimacy of Smalls allows me space and time to engage in that bit of uninterrupted show-and-tell, and guide diners through the experience.”
Given the compact area, figuring out how best to utilise Smalls’ space efficiently was a big challenge. “The place is a masterclass in small space management. I fussed over it for weeks, tweaking the placement of everything just to squeeze everything I needed into what’s essentially the size of an HDB toilet. I had to sacrifice quite a lot, like the ability to have an exhaust (too loud for a small space) and more cold storage. I’d really love to serve more drinks in the space but I’m already barely fitting in the food, so I have to keep my beverage list real lean,” Shen explains.
But the upside of going tiny means Shen gets more intimacy and interaction with guests and the freedom to change his menu. He quips, “I especially like that I get to geek out a bit and use cool ingredients that require explanation — something that I can’t do in a large restaurant like Artichoke.”
Smalls officially launched this month with an opening menu of a pizza omakase that spoofs Shen’s memories of pizza experiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Shen expounds, “My pizza dough is a high-hydration Neapolitan-style dough that’s aged for a minimum of four days for flavour development (no one else does this in a commercial setting), and many of my ingredients come from a fisherman friend in Lombok who sends me stuff like octopus eggs, fresh seaweed and clam varieties we’ve probably never seen before. The menu will feature a few little dishes, a variety of pizzas, and a couple of desserts; about 10 to 12 things to share across four people.”
Since Smalls seats only four diners at a go and is only open three days a week, diners can only make reservations for a full booking for four persons and bookings must be paid for online in advance. Shen explains, ”I’m not allowing cancellations, since a cancellation or no-show would mean my entire day’s worth of business is gone, and all my preparation work wasted. If guests can’t show up because of some understandable emergency, they can always transfer their booking to friends, or sell it to strangers, like how they’d do with movie or concert tickets.”
And indeed, a dining experience at Smalls will inevitably be like going to a show, complete with kitchen theatrics from Shen himself: “When diners get in, they sit along a counter opposite me and the show starts. I’m not just selling food here, I’m treating my guests to a whole experience with things like ingredient show-and-tell, hands-on interaction, dirty jokes, etc.”
Reservations for Smalls can be made at smalls.as.me.