Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: John Sikhattana of Straits, On Singaporean Cuisine

John Sikhattana Executive Chef Straits Asian Bistro 800 West Sam Houston Parkway North 713-365-9922

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this space on Friday.

EOW: You spent a lot of time with the Roy's organization. How did you come to be at Straits?

JS: I met Chris Yeo [the owner of Straits] when I opened Roy's in San Francisco. It was after 9/11, and to promote our business, we did every single event that we could get our hands on in the city. And Straits was at almost every single event. I'd see Chris at the events, and then we'd go eat with other chefs, and then eventually we formed this nonprofit called Asian Chefs Association in San Francisco.

EOW: What was the purpose of the nonprofit?

JS: At first it was a networking thing, just getting to know different chefs, things like, "Hey, who do you use for produce? Who do you use for Asian goods?" That kind of thing. And then it turned into doing things for the Asian community, doing wine dinners and fund-raisers.

EOW: At what point did you leave Roy's and move to Straits?

JS: It wasn't a direct transition. I left Roy's because I was kind of burnt out, went back home to Hawaii, spent a couple of years in Portland, where I opened a small take-out Asian restaurant.

EOW: What did Chris have to do to get you to move to Houston?

JS: It was time for a move. He calls me up and says, "Hey, come help me in Houston."

EOW: And this was when?

JS: This was 2009. He flew me out to California to meet with the entire team, and he said, "Don't be there too long; try it for a few months, and then I want you back in the Bay." So I came here to Houston with all my preconceived notions of what Texans are like -- in the same way people think Hawaii is all about grass skirts -- and the eye-opener for me was how laid-back people were here. It was nice. And I could relate to it, being from Hawaii.

EOW: Okay. So tell me about Straits. What it's all about? What does Straits mean?

JS: Straits Restaurant is a modern take on Singaporean and Southeast Asian food.

EOW: How do you describe Singaporean food?

JS: Singaporean food is a melting pot of different cuisines, just like how Singapore is. It's a combination of Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indonesian, Indian food. Those components coming together. Singapore was a port, and you'd have to cross Singapore for trading purposes, and you'd have to pass through the Straits of Malacca -- that's the namesake for the restaurant -- to get from Asia to India.

EOW: What are the most famous dishes in Singaporean cuisine?

JS: Most people would consider the Hainan chicken -- the steamed chicken -- one of the dishes. Then there's the char kway teow, or stir-fried wide rice noodles, with dark soy and sausage or pork belly. People go nuts over it. In Singapore, there are all these hawkers that specialize in one dish, like the char kway teow.

EOW: So tell me about some of the best-sellers here.

JS: Best-sellers would be the roti prata, which is an Indian-style flat bread, served with a yellow curry sauce. Spicy basil chicken, more of Thai-style curry with coconut milk, bamboo shoots, is also popular. All of our wok items -- we do a pad Thai, and other noodle dishes. An interesting dish we do is the mee goreng, an Indian-style street noodle that incorporates Chinese noodles stir-fried with potatoes, tofu, shrimp, tomatoes and a spicy tomato sauce. Just in that dish, you'll see a lot of influences. And for me, the food makes sense, because growing up in Hawaii, it's the same way; you have so many cultures coming together, eventually the food and flavors will mix to make something interesting.

EOW: The clientele here is obviously different than the clientele in San Francisco. How have you had to adjust?

JS: The clientele here is much broader. You're dealing with different groups of people -- foreigners, foodies, people who travel, people from around here. I get all the time, "Hey, I've been to Singapore," and then there will be people who don't know what half the things on the menu are -- they're more used to Chinese or Vietnamese food. And we don't do the Americanized Chinese versions. You won't find sweet and sour chicken on the menu.

EOW: So what would you recommend for someone who's never been here before? What's the perfect meal for four? How would you order?

JS: I recommend to share everything family style. I'd order the roti prata, the beef carpaccio, which is rare beef with some lemongrass vinaigrette. I would definitely do a curry, whether it's tikki masala butter chicken or a yellow curry. I'd do a noodle dish from the wok, and probably a seafood dish, because Singaporeans are known for seabass. We do a whole fried striped bass, and a steamed Chilean sea bass that is really good.

EOW: So moving on to things about you. It takes a lot to open up a restaurant; what do you do on your off time?

JS: I work a lot. But I just got a puppy. He's a mini Australian shepherd. I live in apartments here in CityCentre, so I didn't want to get too big of a dog.

EOW: You live here? So you don't get out much, then, do you?

JS: (Deadpans) I don't leave CityCentre unless I'm forced to. (Laughs) I don't go anywhere. It's so bad.

EOW: Do you have friends?

JS: (Laughs, jokingly) Inside CityCentre, yes, outside of CityCentre, no!

EOW: How often do you go back to Hawaii?

JS: I was just back earlier this spring. I try to go back at least once a year.

EOW: When you go back, what are the things you absolutely have to do?

JS: I have to go eat all the things I can't get local plate lunch -- Hawaiian food, like laulau, kalua pork, poke -- those types of things. In Hawaii, instead of fast food, people eat plate lunch; it's kind of like peasant food. You'll have like Korean kalbi, macaroni salad, Japanese teriyaki, Portuguese bean soup...

EOW: So if you were to have a last meal, if you found out you were dying tomorrow, what would you have and who would you have make it?

JS: (Laughs) I would die of starvation because I couldn't decide! I would be sitting there thinking, "Oh my God, what am I gonna eat? There are so many things I wanna eat!"

EOW: Okay, Top 5.

JS: Top 5... First, it would have to be something Thai or Lao that my family would make; second, something from Hawaii -- laulau or kalua pig; third would be pho -- that is total comfort food...and then...(voice trails off)

EOW: You really can't decide!

JS: You don't even know, I go through this battle every time I eat. I have to sit there and fight myself awhile before I go eat.

Check back with us tomorrow when we try some of Sikhattana's favorite picks at Straits.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham