Our chat with John Sikhattana this week revealed a chef whose beginnings are the very definition of humble. From growing up on a farm in Hawaii to his first real job washing dishes as a teenager, his promotion to executive chef the same year that he hit legal drinking age, and opening new restaurants and then opening his own restaurant, Sikhattana has shown a remarkable resilience, a willingness to work hard and get the job done.
Now, as Executive Chef of Straits Asian Bistro in Houston, Sikhattana has been tasked with introducing multifaceted Singaporean cuisine to Houstonians, me included.
Though I've traveled to various Asian countries, I've never been to Singapore. Its cuisine has therefore been a mystery to me, until now. After chatting and tasting with Sikhattana, I'd say that the best way to describe it is in terms of how it exhibits influences from its neighboring countries.
Take our first dish, for instance, the mee goreng. This wok-prepared noodle dish, described as Indian street food noodles, is typically found offered by Singaporean hawkers or on the streets of Indonesia and Malaysia. When it was placed in front of me, the aromas were reminiscent of a pad Thai, and the flavor was similar to that of a pad Thai but a bit spicier and more tomato-y, with hints of Asian spice I wasn't quite familiar with -- something like a curry but tinged with a stronger aromatic.
I'd asked him to take it easy on the spice, so I only experienced a pleasing tingle on the lips. The noodles were a round, thicker noodle, thinner than an udon, thicker than a soba, and for protein the dish had shrimp and fried tofu. It tasted very "authentic," like something you'd get in an Asian hole-in-the-wall somewhere, not watered down like what an "Americanized" version would be. I loved it. Couldn't stop eating it.
I've been trying to keep the carbs to a minimum dietwise, but the roti prata, a flour-based pancake somewhere in between an Indian naan, a Taiwanese onion cake and a Mexican flour tortilla, was, quite simply, impossible to stop eating. The Straits equivalent to bread service, this simple starter dish is served with an almost watery, sweet, yellow coconut curry dip. You tear pieces off with your hand and dip it into the sauce. I found myself doing so again and again in between bites of spicy noodle, eating until it was all gone.
The spicy basil chicken came next, a yellow curry with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Thai basil. This was good also, but next to the noodles and roti prata, which I'd never tried before, this was more standard fare like you'd find in a Thai restaurant. Still good, but not as special as the others.
Our final dish had a French-Japanese-Chinese feel to it. Called "Origami Seabass" and baked en papillote, the dish is delivered in a covered rectangle paper boat. When the paper lid was lifted, a steamy whoosh of aroma was released -- ginger, rice wine and briny oceanic aromas -- capturing the senses immediately.
The cooking method was the French part, the flavors, a cross between a typical soy-ginger-based steamed fish topping and a Japanese konbu base. "It's just rice wine, soy, sugar and ginger," Sikhattana told me as I enthusiastically sampled the dish. The seabass, a thick, almost spongy, naturally moist fish, was juicy and flavorful, a perfect entrée to eat by oneself or to share.
What I learned about Straits, and Singaporean cuisine, is that the food is not very different from what I'm used to eating in Chinatown. The flavors are strong and authentic, not watered down. The portions are generous. And people who wonder about how much more expensive it is than Chinatown need not be worried.
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The roti prata was only $7; the basil chicken was only $12. The noodles may have been a bit higher than in Chinatown at $14, but these prices are in line with what you'd pay inside the Loop for Thai food. And the bonus at Straits is that the setting is gorgeous -- soaring high ceilings with low-hanging, tubular chandeliers that are a modern interpretation of Chinese paper lanterns.
If you visit, you might see Sikhattana working in the long, open kitchen, his initial few-month stay extended over the last few years because he "gets" the lifestyle and the people here. Let's show him that we can embrace Singaporean cuisine, and give him even more reason to feel welcome in Houston.