SINGAPORE — There’s an eclecticism, an energy that is impossible to ignore as you step into Adda, Chef Manjunath Mural newest restaurant at the Diner’s Club building, serving up Neo-Indian cuisine, post Song of India fame. Even when blocked by divider shrubbery across the street at Haji Lane, the glow that emits from Adda’s high octane light fixtures that don its facade is unmistakable. It beckons you forth to this drab-looking building—strange even for a bank—not unlike the biblical star of Bethlehem beckoning the three wise men from the East to travel to Jerusalem.
Taking over the space once occupied by Magic Carpet Lounge, Adda is, in some ways, Chef Mural’s one-Michelin star Song of India version 2.0. Here, marketing spiel declares the cuisine Neo-Indian—that is new Indian for those less attuned to Greek— and promises a marked change from the now-shuttered Song of India and its aspirations of pan-Indian fare. In an interview with CNA Luxury, Chef Mural shared that Adda is a partnership between himself and the Genie Collective which counts in its portfolio, F&B joints such as Beirut Grill, Kebabs Faktory, and Magic Carpet Lounge.
And so, to the million-dollar question. What is Neo-Indian? It is a question to which I’m attempting to gain clarity at dinner one weekday evening surrounded by swathes of rambunctious Caucasian diners, making Adda feel more like an Indian restaurant in SOHO, London, than a place where pride of authenticity takes centre stage. It’s also tough to get the servers’ attention here, as repeated arm flailings by my partner and me proved.
Much has been said of Chef Mural’s Michelin-star feat over at Song of India, being the only Indian restaurant in Singapore conferred that title. He’s also often credited for Song of India retaining its star three years running. All this fame and glory, yet, somehow, faultlessly juicy and moist Fried Chicken (S$18++) seems like such a tall ask.
Is that why it’s served in the cargo bed of this toy lorry with the words “Horn OK please”? To be fair, the rub is packed with well-intentioned spices, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a fried chicken by a Michelin chef to excite me. If I wanted common fried chicken, I could have easily gone to the Western stall at the nearby food court.
Perhaps Adda's traditional options would fare better, fingers crossed. Skewers of Paneer Tikka (S$24++) come served in a makeshift vintage iron-shaped contraption, suspended over a bed of glowing charcoal. The paneer purports to be marinated overnight in Indian five spices but is noticeably less robust than expected. Also, even when served on a bed of charcoal, it turned cold very fast. I suspect it’s the blast of aircon behind me which I had to ask a server (when I could get their attention) to turn up.
Mirchi Ka Salan (S$18++) are pan-seared chillies stuffed with a paste of potatoes, garlic, turmeric, mango spice and served in a faultlessly creamy Hyderabad style sauce. The sauce is praiseworthy but only for the first three to four tablespoons. After that, it becomes a tad too one-note, with every bite a rude blast of rich and creamy indulgence. It comes with a side of Naan, too, but these naans are too crispy for its own good when it should be pillowy, billowy, light, and airy beyond reproach. Here, it just tastes and looks like flatbread.
Where Chef Mural shines is with his Lamb Biryani Dum Pot (S$28++), pearlescent grains of Basmati coated evenly in a rich hue of gold, with spices in the right balance such that I can taste every element that has gone into this pot. The dum method of cooking ensures every grain is amply perfumed with the aroma and bouquet of the meat it's cooked with—all that intense flavours of bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, saffron trapped and ripe for maximum infusion.
I only wished Chef Mural had used a fattier part of the lamb instead of this lean option that, while healthy, does nothing for the mouthfeel.
Thus far, I’m not really grasping the idea of Neo-Indian at Adda. It could be because the dishes I’ve ordered leans more towards classic interactions of Indian cuisine. Just as I was about to dismiss this whole Neo-nonsense, here comes a vibrant and colourful plate of Gulab Jamun Cheesecake (S$14++) that made me laugh.
Someone plated this and thought, “Yes, let’s festoon this with coloured powder”. It’s hilarious. I feel like I’ve been transported to 2010. But what’s important is taste, and here, the cheesecake has beautifully salty undertones that promise a good time. That is until you cut into it and reveal a Gulab Jamun ball that is intensely sweet (as it should be) and not at all entirely necessary. The cheesecake is enough on its own, Adda. Not everything needs to be elevated.
As I made my way to the exit, I wonder how I should describe Neo-Indian cuisine to readers of this column. I reckoned describing what I ate and hoping for the best would, in some ways, work because, even as I sit here weeks later typing this out, it escapes me. Adda thinks it needs to bring sexy back to Indian cuisine. I say leave it be and focus instead on improving flavour, adopting plant-based products (which they already have with Tindle), and sticking to what works.
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