SINGAPORE — Is it too much to ask that awards be given out to Singaporean owned dining institutions that have survived for longer than five years? Not least because of the accomplishment in longevity but also because of its extreme rarity. We dole out awards in lavish settings to chefs and restaurants in praise of their food, so I don't think it's that far of a stretch to accord the same level of accolade to places that have managed to stave off Singapore's love for anything new and shiny and then discarding it for something else newer and shinier.
There really is no one formula that guarantees longevity on a food-dense island such as Singapore. Every restaurant owner I speak to tells a different version of their success story. But none tells it like Bjorn Shen of the esteemed mecca of dudestronomy at 161 Middle Road: Artichoke.
According to Bjorn's cookbook, Artichoke was borne out of an exercise in random picking. A quick flip of a recipe book and a finger jab later, and Artichoke was born. While its namesake was accidental, its success is anything but. Here, dude food is given a new lease of life under the capable hands of Bjorn and transformed from a lowbrow selection into something that tastes as complex as its execution. And it's a complexity that truly deserves the highest of praise.
Artichoke doesn't take itself too seriously either. It prides its identity as one that is brash, unassuming, unapologetic, and untraditional. I know he would abhor to admit it, but from the cheeky wall art to random stickers that adorn the door, in steering away from the expected, Bjorn has inevitably created an interior that is as polished and well thought out as the squawking rubber chicken that crows each time a dessert is ready to be served.
Having stayed this long in the game, I find it best to approach this review as not just merely a recommendation of what I feel is groundbreaking and heroic, but rather, what a long-time patron would enjoy from the new selections and which dishes a virgin Artichoke diner must order to experience the food hospitality of Bjorn in its entirety.
Mezze is a selection of small dishes served as appetisers in parts of the Middle East. We would call it appetisers, but that would be unfortunate knowing how neglected this course of the meal can be. Not here at Artichoke where light bites are given the same reverence as everything that comes out of the kitchen.
The Hummus & Iraqi Spiced Mushrooms (S$14) has been a mainstay on the menu and is something I'd recommend a new diner at Artichoke. Its ingredients are simple and invariable—chickpeas are blanched and then blended with cumin, whipped creamed tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. The result is a smooth paste that comes served with chunky abalone mushrooms seasoned in sweet and smoky baharat and is an inventive iteration of a Middle Eastern classic. Wipe it clean with Artichoke's Turkish bread that comes in a marked nondescript brown paper bag. But be careful not to over feast on these carbs, addictive as they may be.
Regular patrons with inventiveness and adventure on their side will be better served with the Sea Asparagus (S$12), a little-known vegetable, here, sourced from Israel where it grows in a salt marsh near the sea. It is cooked and tossed in shallot oil (an Artichoke mainstay used throughout all dishes) and seasoned sans salt owing to the vegetable's natural brininess. A sprinkling of crispy fried buckwheat and a dollop of creamy labneh (Greek yoghurt) rounds up this new addition to the menu.
For a vegetarian delicacy, look no further than the Housemade Hashbrown (S$14) which technically looks closer to that of a square layered cake but tastes much better than what one would imagine a hash brown to be. The soft hash filling has been beautifully seasoned while the outside is baked to a satisfying crisp. It's an elevated take on the typical in a restaurant that's anything but.
Both evergreen and first-time Artichokees will thoroughly enjoy the Cuttlefish Shawarma (S$25) and Green Harissa Prawns (S$24). The former takes on the familiar appearance of shawarma but here, expertly prepared with sashimi-grade cuttlefish that are at once tender, juicy, and chock full of flavours that dance in your mouth. I reckon it's the schmaltz (chicken fat) dressing that's oh so sinful but worth every ounce of calories. Or it could be the special shawarma blend it's marinated it. Who knows? But what I do know is that my dining partner and I wiped this clean—a sure sign of taste superiority.
The Green Harissa Prawns employs the double 'pecah minyak' technique where the cream is simmered until it splits. A blend of rocket, mint, parsley, coriander, spring onion and green chilli gives the sauce a deep green, the colour of grass in Spring. I only wished the prawns weren't cooked with the cream. When left to sizzle on the hot pan for too long, the prawns tend to overcook, which was what happened to ours. It doesn't detract from the positives of this dish, though. It's still all sorts of tasty, with distinct and unmistakable umami that lingers.
I don't say this lightly, but I've fallen in love with the Cauliflower Kushari (S$24). It comes served in a deep bowl that on the first impression, makes me wonder if it's a noodle dish or a rice dish. It's neither. Instead, it's a bowl of deep-fried cauliflower that has been tossed in shallot oil and seasoned with salt and amba. Oh, the amba. A popular tangy mango pickle condiment, amba (mango in the Marathi language) has origins in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine—almost like savoury mango chutney. Here, it brings every element in the bowl brilliantly—rocket leaves, onions, lentils, mint, puffed corn and fragrant basmati rice. It's the combination of sweet and savoury in one dish that makes me swoon. It makes me uncomfortably full, yet I keep reaching out one bite after another, each spoonful a discovery of a different flavour and textural profile. Everyone should order this, finish it, and then order another to take away.
A bold and sweet ending to a meal is never an easy task to undertake. You're full, satiated, and perhaps have reached the limits of what your body can handle. Or, you could be the rare few who believe that even when thoroughly full, there's always room for dessert. If that sounds like you indulge in selections such as the Malabi (S$16), a potently sour concoction of Passion fruit ice, creamy avocado pudding, basil, and meringue. This was a sourness that was much too much for me to handle. I strongly recommend it to people who love the intensity of a jaw tingling finish.
Or perhaps, a Date Pudding (S$16) that comes served in a shallow bowl drenched liberally in smoked milk and garnished with cashew caramel, cocoa, and cubes of coffee jelly which is unabashedly bitter but delicately complements the sweetness of the entire bowl.
I am personally partial towards any dessert that manages to be creative, inventive, and unique. That it fulfils the tripartite of flavour and texture is a bonus. Artichoke's Baklava Cheesecake (S$22) ticks all the boxes of what I demand of a dessert. Essentially it's an inside out Baklava built around a thick round of Basque cheesecake that's so very on-trend now. You get a soft centre cheesecake topped with a swirl of honey and a garnish of rhubarb and Pistachio. It's the perfect epitome of how Chef Bjorn Shen breaks all the rules of gastronomy to create something that's not merely a product of synergy but also boasts of wild courage, passion, and a curated madness that only serve to uphold Artichoke's reputation as the #bests**trestaurant in Singapore.
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Artichoke is located at 161 Middle Road Singapore 188978
Tuesdays - Sundays: Hang Time, 1600 - 1900 | Dinner, 1800 - 2145
Weekends Brunch, 1130 - 1445