SINGAPORE — Like its moniker, the casually named 'The Masses Singapore' endeavours to serve the casual everyday men and women off the street who crave familiarity yet thrives in the discovery of the exotic. Sandwiched between a 3-star hotel and a traditional Chinese eatery, The Masses is a leisurely 15-minute walk from Bugis MRT in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it location thanks in no part to it being cleanly flushed against the facade. Step in and you'll be greeted by a painfully hip neon LED sign that reads 'Happy Food Inside' and another that asks that you 'Live Colourfully'. Ebullient declarations and positive reinforcements? Check and check.
The menu (now in its 7th iteration) exudes bold proclamations: 'Neo-Local Contemporary Cuisine. Asian grounded, yet embellished with the boundless possibility of world flavours. Journey with us on this culinary crossroad.' A cursory glance shows a nod to simplicity—Fried Soft Shell Prawn (S$14.90), Roasted Cauliflower (S$14.90), Burrata (S$16.90). But closer inspection reveals the exotic—The Egg & Sea Urchin (S$14.90), Drunken Chicken Roulade (S$13.90), A Bowl of Dylan's Memories (S$18.90). Well, colour me intrigued.
Dylan, of Saveur fame, is the chef-owner of this fine establishment, now celebrating its second anniversary. With bold promises to keep their prices wallet-friendly, Chef Dylan's mission has always been to offer remarkable food to the masses. He sees himself a maverick in the arena of neo-local cuisine that is mostly Asian-Franco leaning. For those of us less familiar with the jargon, it means food that is borrowed or inspired by local traditions but elevated with equal amounts of Asian and French influences.
Take, for example, the Crabmeat Kueh Pie Tee (S$9). Sitting atop a bed of mixed coloured rice, The Masses interpretation of the Peranakan classic takes inspiration from Dylan's mum's recipe with the addition of braised Jicama (pronounced HEE-Kah-ma), Sakura Ebi shrimp, and juicy, full flavoured crabmeat.
A dark plate soon appears at my table filled with Purple Cabbage (S$14.90). Dylan's treatment of this oft-maligned cabbage—braised in a one-year-old stock with aromatics and seasoning, and charred on a Japanese binchotan—gives this dish the star treatment it deserves. It is soft, smoky, and impeccably salted. When served with Ikura (salmon roe), crabmeat, and Beurre Blanc (a French emulsion of shallots, white wine, vinegar, and cream), the humble purple cabbage feels like it has found home.
The other starter worthy of mention is the Burrata (S$16.90)—fresh Italian cow milk cheese made from mozzarella and cream. At The Masses, it is accompanied by the sweetest Japanese Shizuoka amela tomatoes I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Crumbs of sweet basil soil and a pool of green basil oil brightens this simple dish, here, elevated with the thoughtful inclusion of extremely fresh produce.
In this iteration of the menu, Chef Dylan finds ways to pay tribute to his family heritage of tzechar hawkers. This is reflected in dishes like the Nagano Pork Tomohawk (S$24.90)—a hulking chunk of tender pork liberally breaded with Jacob's crackers in the style of the Hainan. A generous scoop of sweet and sour sauce with the creative addition of strawberries reminds me of the familiar, orange-reddish tray of sweet and sour fish—a staple at every tzechar stall worth its grain of salt.
But the dish that genuinely took my breath away was the Golden Pomfret (S$19.90). Rothko-esque in its plating but complex in its execution, the plate features the humble pomfret—brined and grilled to smoky and tender perfection. The fish is sourced from Singapore-owned Ah Hua Kelong and served skin side down. A savoury, crunchy, and acidic vinaigrette-based Ravigote dressing lies on the white flesh, topped off by garden herbs that are equal parts earthy and minty. A dollop of decadently creamy cauliflower puree sits on the side with a small pool of prawn head hollandaise—an ideal condiment for an already perfectly-cooked pomfret.
Not to be a cop-out, but I was also equally enamoured by the Chargrilled Australian Octopus (S$16.90)—sold at a price point that is way too low for seafood this impressive. The octopus is cooked sous-vide and then flash grilled on the binchotan. Do you know what happens when something is cooked sous-vide to a precise and constant temperature? Magic. That's what happens. Here you get octopus that is fork tender; it's briny seafood goodness coaxed out and interlaced with a robustly smoky flavour.
No sooner had I had the time to mull over the culinary brilliance on display thus far, out comes dessert: A Deep Fried Camembert (S$9.90) still hot off the fryer sits side by side a quenelle of yoghurt ice-cream. I love inventive desserts like this—desserts that toe the line between the savoury and sweet. There really is nothing odd about eating the slightly sour camembert with a mildly sweet ice-cream. Instead, each brings out the flavour of the other, not unlike a sexy tango. This dessert gets textural assistance from crunchy granola, gula Melaka crumble, and pickled grapes. I start to wonder: who spends this much time constructing a dessert? Dylan, that's who. Because he knows an excellent finish is the one thing a diner will remember for a long time.
I want to like The Masses, I really do. Instead, I find myself falling head over heels with this mecca of gastronomic creativity. It's a rare thing for a restaurant to be this audacious both in its culinary choices as well as its prices. But if this is what chef Dylan can conjure over the short course of 2 years, keeping up with The Masses might just be the hardest and the most rewarding thing to do.
The Masses, 85 Beach Road #01-02 Singapore 189694, +65 6266 0061
Mon–Fri: 1200–2130, Sat-Sun: 1030–2100