Dazzling Singaporean Food at Straits
To see more colorful photos from Straits' Singaporean kitchen, visit our slideshow.
I once read in an interview with Straits executive chef John Sikhattana that the chef not only lives in CityCentre — the upscale west Houston "town square" development filled with tony restaurants — but that he rarely leaves, either.
"I don't leave CityCentre unless I'm forced to," Sikhattana laughingly told Houston Press blogger Mai Pham this summer. And although that prospect may sound grim to some, it's sort of easy to see how Sikhattana could remain in CityCentre almost all the time without losing his mind. The development is rich with restaurants — including favorites such as Mediterranean-European bistro Flora & Muse, health-conscious Ruggles Green, Houston Tex-Mex chain Cyclone Anaya's, seafood stronghold Eddie V's, pubs like Yard House and wine bars like The Tasting Room — and it's equipped with a fancy gym, huge movie theater and plenty of shopping options, among other ways to while away your time. There's even a fledgling farmers market now on Wednesday evenings.
And San Francisco import Straits fits right into the mix, offering a dazzling menu of Singaporean food that's a blend of Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and even Thai influences. Straits's Singaporean cuisine is as much a melting pot as Houston itself. And a half-Chinese, half-Laotian chef born in Thailand and raised in Hawaii — like Sikhattana — is more or less the cuisine's perfect match.
More important, Sikhattana's constant presence in CityCentre and at Straits means that the food has continued to steadily improve since the restaurant opened in September 2009. After a somewhat rocky start, it's now possible to go into the hip, loungey Straits with the confident knowledge that nearly anything you order will be a winner. Your chances improve even more significantly when you stick to Singaporean classics such as fragrant Hainan chicken or the addictively soft-and-crispy roti prata.
That roti was the first dish to hit the table during a recent weekend lunch with my parents, both of whom were novices to Singaporean cuisine and who were fascinated by the hot flatbread that spread out gently along its outer edges before curling up into itself like a begonia. Roti prata has the same addictive texture as a buttery French croissant: tender and chewy inside, flaky and barely crunchy outside. And the gently flavored yellow curry sauce that's served with it is equally addictive — I even caught my father pouring it in a greedy stream onto his flatbread instead of dipping it like the rest of us.
Later, as his dish of Hainan chicken arrived, he cautiously dipped his finger into one of the two dipping sauces — a dark, thick ginger-soy sauce — and proclaimed that it tasted "like Brer Rabbit molasses," a Southern staple that I grew up eating on pancakes. It was a compliment from a good ol' Texan boy whose palate is generally unaccommodating to new flavors. But so much of Singaporean food is accessible in that way, constructed with ingredients and spices that may be exotic in their specific combination but are familiar nevertheless.
Hainan chicken, for example, is a Chinese dish that's been adopted part-and-parcel into several other countries' cuisines over the years purely because of how comforting and enjoyable it is: plump chicken that's boiled whole in a rich chicken broth flavored with garlic and ginger, then deconstructed into more manageable pieces and served over lightly floral jasmine rice. The two dipping sauces provide you a choice of additional layers of flavor for the delicate chicken — at Straits, the bright-orange chile sauce packs a surprising wallop, while the syrupy ginger-soy provides a dark, pleasantly bracing sweetness — and the broth served on the side makes an excellent finishing sauce for the rice itself.
My father enjoyed his Hainan chicken, eating as much as he could before admitting defeat, but I was pleased to see that he'd left plenty behind, too — which I took home and warmed up for lunch a couple of days later, knowing full well that I was going to Straits that night for dinner.
And what a dinner it was, I thought as I enjoyed every last flaky piece of flesh I could pick off a fried whole striped bass. It was served in an elegant curved shape, as if the fish were making a last-minute U-turn in the water to evade its captors. Between digging out tender flesh from between the bass's sturdy bones, I snapped off pieces of its skin — crispy and sweet from the rich chile-basil marinade, with an underlying smokiness — and crunched through them like peanut brittle. There was a bright citrus note of tamarind in the fish, too, mirroring the tamarind beef tenderloin my dining companion had ordered.
This tenderloin was a dish I'd been wary of: My previous experience ordering an Americanized dish at Straits had resulted in some brief disappointment when I found that an "Asian crab cake Benedict" at brunch was served on top of some tough, odd little pan sausages in lieu of, say, English muffins. I didn't mind the substitution in concept, but the sausage was a poor choice.
I found myself thinking of how wonderful the dish would be — especially the excellent crab cakes, which were almost all crab and very little binder — if served on top of roti prata, which could soak up the dense yolks from the perfectly poached eggs along with the tangy "butter laksa" sauce that made for a lovely Hollandaise replacement. (This said, the bottomless Bloody Marys and mimosas at brunch went a long way towards making up for the one misstep.)
But the tenderloin was a great success, the meat tender and cooked to our requested medium-well with a tangy tamarind glaze that paired nicely with the smoky Brussels sprouts served on the side, hot and smoky from a run through the wok. In fact, the only disappointment of the night was the sashimi platter ordered inadvisedly from Straits's "raw bar."
The fish arrived still blanketed with a chill, the tuna rubbery and the yellowtail nearly flavorless. Only the fatty salmon was any good, but I felt quite taken paying $19 for nine pieces of mostly bland fish. Sashimi is best left to RA Sushi across the way at CityCentre (where I've had some terrific sushi in the past few months).
My dining companion and I certainly didn't let it ruin our night — a night spent outside in one of Straits's beautiful cabanas with a cool breeze ruffling the curtains and a view onto CityCentre's plush central lawn, lazy waterfalls and tufts of decorative flames dancing from fire-breathing sculptures in the main square.
Not only was the bland sashimi a miss, the price was too. But while some dinner dishes can can climb into the mid-$30 range, Straits is normally quite accessible at lunch, both food- and price-wise. The crisp and cool dining room with its tall ceilings and swift, friendly service makes for a relaxing lunch hour, too.
Another one of the Americanized dishes that absolutely works is the Roti John sandwich, a heap of braised chicken (or beef, should you prefer it) on top of bread that mimics the buttery flake of roti prata. Tucked in along with the chicken are fairly standard accompaniments of lettuce, onion and tomato — and the whole thing is served with pretty standard french fries — but the sauces make the sandwich (and the fries). In lieu of mustard or mayo, you get a spicy and creamy tomato sauce — and along with regular ketchup for your fries, you also get a spicy housemade version of the stuff that's yards better than Heinz. It's a huge plate, and for only $10 it's easy to see why it's one of the most popular items on the menu.
Equally filling are the soups — which come in bowls big enough for three people to share — and the salads, especially the Fuji apple and prawn salad, of which I was only able to eat half. The six poached shrimp in the salad went fast, but the majority of the dish went home with me: julienned slices of sweet apples and crunchy jicama coated with a lemongrass-mint vinaigrette, a summery mix of flavors replicated in the lemongrass-mint soda that's my favorite of the house-made sodas on the menu.
Because I didn't realize the Singapore laksa (a type of coconut-based curry) noodle soup I ordered to go along with my salad would be served in quite so large a portion, it made several trips around the table that afternoon, to the delight of my dining companions. One even surreptitiously poured some into his own bowl, one that he'd already emptied of the broth that came along with his Hainan chicken, so that he didn't have to wait for the soup to come back around to him.
The creamy, curry-laced soup had an intriguing sour punch to it, livened up even more by little kicks of lime and crunch from the thick handful of bean sprouts that had been thrown on top. And as if it weren't already creamy enough, a poached egg swimming in the soup was breached to add an additional richness from the yolk that streamed out into the broth.
It was the kind of soup that was perfectly enjoyable on a warm, fall day — but one that I'm looking forward to guzzling down again during cooler temperatures. And one day soon when that crisp fall weather arrives, I'll be back on the sprawling, cabana-lined patio once again, with a big bowl of that creamy soup to kick off another trip through Straits's adventurous menu.
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