SINGAPORE — I hate that there are food trends in Singapore that cling stubbornly to the psyche of the hoi polloi, seemingly unable to detach itself from the nation’s consciousness. Newer, shinier, and more grating food fads come and go, often unravelling over months, yet some trends still refuse to budge no matter the number of years: Ondeh-ondeh desserts, doughnuts, salted egg, and most annoyingly, mala.
A few years back when it arrived on these shores, it was a novelty, as throngs of crowd clamour for that elusive taste of tongue-numbing spiciness they remember from holidays in China. It was all good for several years—I would even go as far as to say that it’s impressive given the food innovation that arose from this sudden peak of interest. But now, mala is as common as umami, and, naturally, often misunderstood. Diners associate mala with the Xiang Guo iteration—a comically huge bowl filled with vegetables and meats of your choice, topped with crunchy roasted peanuts. It all gets tiring very fast.
Enter Chef Eugene See from Birds of A Feather, who says that he wants to “challenge the public’s (read: me) perception of Sichuan food, and capture the many depths of this beloved cuisine through the lens of refined contemporary Western far.” A tall order, no doubt, though hardly impossible—a thought I briefly entertained as I sit under this huge light dome at Birds of A Feather at Amoy Street, eager to witness this aspiration come to life.
It starts with an intensely curated interior of plush velvet chairs begging for you to sink into, handsome slabs of wood table tops, hanging light fixtures in the shape of a cloud, and a skylight that lets in streams of light that change as day turns into night. It is undoubtedly breathtakingly beautiful.
Of course, there are baskets of Chongqing Fried Chicken chock full of the signature dried red chilli it's fried in—that cliche, unavoidable. But what Chef Eugene has done at Birds of A Feather that deserves unreserved praise is in carefully curating a tasting menu of seven dishes that I feel, successfully and succinctly captures the spirit of Sichuan cuisine and made it exciting for me again.
A tasting menu such as this (S$89++ with an optional beverage pairing for S$60++), unfortunately, is not without its limitations. According to Chef Eugene, mala has a range of 24 different flavours, but for this menu, he has chosen to focus on only seven. Although contained, his oeuvre is nonetheless impressive. He leans on culinary finesse and deep insight of food pairing to elevate something as simple as butter by adding dried, pickled mustard greens, served with homemade pickled vegetable focaccia. Bordier can’t even.
The first tinge of familiar numbing spiciness comes from the Bird’s Snack, an awe-inspiring thing of a starter of ravioli made with a gyoza-like skin and filled with mildly burnt chilli eggplant and opulent foie gras. The whole thing sits on a subtly seasoned celeriac purée and makes for a great first tingle of spice. Oh, it’s a snac, alright.
If the starter leaves you longing for more, the next course of Octopus Carpaccio will boldly remind you of that extraordinary power the spice of mala holds. Sure, it looks pretty and dainty but that Sichuan mustard dressing does pack a potent punch. It’s like eating a pungent horseradish paste with sushi except here, you get slices of sous-vide and torched Octopus instead. It hits you right in the nose, but not in an off-putting way because I find myself going back again and again although these eyes are slowly tearing up.
The 'Yu Xiang' Carabinero Prawn is so named after the classic Yu Xiang sauce made with garlic, chilli, fermented chilli bean paste, and vinegar. This is easily my favourite course for the night no thanks to the Carabinero Prawn that currently holds the record for the biggest prawn in the world. Apart from size, it is also intensely robust in flavour and needs little else to help elevate.
Well, maybe it is helped slightly by the pistachio hazelnut soil that lends a certain poetic balance of sweet and sour to this presentation. There’s a singular prawn head served as is, which I insist you suckle—cholesterol be damned. Just, you know, run one more lap or something, because the juices in this prawn head are meant to inspire, honey. I no sooner polished everything off quickly and with a huge grin on my face.
All these fabulousness from before makes me less enthused about the Sichuan Fish Stew, though the finishing at tableside is a welcome theatric. It’s not that it’s any less inspiring, but I did just suckled on a prawn head. Some of the stew’s redeeming qualities worth mentioning would be that luxurious broth, in a lovely hue of green that comes from pickled green chilli. Chef Eugene gamely brings out several stalks for us Sichuan plebeians to try, and upon a teeny, tiny, cowardice bite, I finally understood where this undertone of spiciness comes from.
Like all food writers, I know the power of a Wagyu Striploin MBS 4. But I also know how easy it is for chefs to dole such excellence out for lack of creativity. But here, Chef Eugene has gone over and beyond to curate a plate where beautiful tinges of bitterness pervade.
There’s the spiced butternut squash purée which see-saws between pleasantly placid and boldly bitter; the Brussels sprouts are served raw and fried which balances quite daintily (and I can’t imagine I’m saying that about Brussels sprouts) with the tea tree mushroom jus, which, in itself has overtones of unbridled umami. But what I enjoyed most is the Sichuan pepper salt that brings everything together quite cohesively, especially when every part on the plate is presented individually.
Mandarin (first name only, like Adele, Madonna, Cher) after a whole meal of food that tingles on the tongue is a whole mood. But by now, I’m unsurprised by these bold pairings of bright citrus baba cake with Mandarin orange ice and luscious Chantilly cream with pink peppercorn. Pink peppercorn on dessert is a huge, albeit humblebrag but I’m all for it. It’s proficient both texturally and in temperature, this in addition to a cornucopia of flavours—bitter, sweet, mildly spicy.
This Golden Sun Bird tasting menu is Chef Eugene’s attempts at not only elevating the cuisine of Sichuan but also, in his efforts, a welcome education for the jaded. It's an effort that pays off in leaps and bounds as he carefully manoeuvres the winding road of Sichuan flavours and its collaboration with familiar Western techniques and ingredients. Consider this task and cuisine finally and fully redefined.
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