By Brian Spencer
One of my favorite places to eat in Singapore is a right shithole.
Faded plastic tables are fossilized with remnants of decades’ worth of sauces and beers and seafood hastily wiped away with scuzzy dish rags. Lighting is more foggy than flourescent, which may have less to do with the light bulbs than it does the layers of dust it’s filtered through. Algae and god-knows-what-that-black-shit-is stain the glass of bubbling tanks home to the fish, crabs, lobster, scallops, and other living things you’ll be putting in your mouth.
The central indoor area, used mostly by staff, is a sort of de facto living room that doubles as an open-air supply closet and wash room. Rubber hoses stuck in plastic tubs filled with water on the floor over here, metal cabinets filled with dishes and sinks with glassware there, and staff members smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and watching soap operas on an old television with family and friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they do clean the place, at least once a week.
Welcome to Sin Huat Eating House, one of the more polarizing restaurants in Singapore. Many think it’s overpriced, particularly given the dingy setting, while others detest chef Danny Lee, often dressed in rubber boots and a long apron that looks like it needed to be washed last week. He’s been described as pushy, obnoxious, and arrogant; many cute writers and reviewers are fond of calling him a “food nazi”. That’s rare discord for a chef of Lee’s culinary acclaim, but then most head chefs don’t also take your order.
There are (in)famously no menus at Sin Huat—just Lee shuffling to your table when he’s ready, notepad in hand, not so much asking what you want as strongly suggesting it. He does so rather bluntly, with what some might construe as annoyance, the process moving along more like bargaining and negotiating at a street market than an amiable exchange with a chef using flowery hyperbole to describe what’s available. I find it refreshing, even if you do have to be firm when Lee either pushes too many plates on you, or something you’re just not interested in. You may indeed have to say “no thanks” a few times–and then say it again–which isn’t something many are accustomed to doing when dropping a pretty penny on dinner, and at a shithole, no less.
About the pricing: it’s certainly not cheap. Eating out and eating well is one of the joys of living in and visiting Singapore, and though like in most major cities you can spend as much as you’d like, you don’t have to spend much to score meals you’ll be raving about for days. Many of Singapore’s pricier restaurants provide some kind of distinguisher beyond the food–a celebrity chef, spectacular views, trendy design–to help make the gouge seem “worth it,” but though Sin Huat has costs comparable to some of the city’s low-end upscale establishments, it doesn’t look any different than the hundreds of other hole-in-the-wall eating houses serving a similar style of food at a fraction of the cost.
Still, for all the criticisms leveled at Lee’s customer service, the prices, and the unremarkable setting, few complain about the most important thing of all: the food. Lee’s cuisine has a simple, yet uniquely nuanced complexity to it, with flavors you sometimes can’t quite put your finger on but don’t really care. When I eat here, as the plates begin rolling out of that dirty fucking kitchen you’re trying to ignore, the inevitable scene is one of greedy chopsticks, eyes rolling with pleasure, and more drawling ooohs and ahhhs than the grand finale of a fireworks display.
I’ve not tasted everything on Lee’s non-menu, but there are three dishes I order every time. Start with the kailan, flash-fried fresh greens flavored with garlic and a light XO sauce. It’s a simple dish and one done well by hundreds of other Singaporean chefs, but there’s something about Sin Huat’s kailan–the subtle seasoning of a well-worn wok, the crisp snap of the greens–that makes it special. Lee will almost certainly suggest/push his scallops (pictured at top) on you; acquiesce without discussion. Served on the shell and slathered in black bean sauce, these are tender hunks of briny goodness you’d rather not share.
You may have seen Anthony Bourdain digging into a plate of Sin Huat’s most famous (and controversial, because of the price) dish, the crab bee hoon, during a segment of No Reservations. He loved it, since naming Sin Huat one of the “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” and describing its crab bee hoon as “giant Sri Lankan beasts cooked with a spicy mystery sauce and noodles—pure messy indulgence.”
I’ve actually not had the crab, once because it wasn’t available, and a second time because the replacement Lee offered us the first time–prawn bee hoon, above–was too good to pass up (and the crab is considerably more expensive). If you’re just passing through Singapore and don’t mind the splurge, I’d say go for the crab and savor every last bite of both the crab, which I’m sure is fantastic, as well as of the decadent noodles, some of the best I’ve ever had. If you’re on more of a budget, the prawns are massive, juicy, and a more cost-effective alternative.
You won’t know the financial damage until the check arrives, but expect to pay S$60 – S$75 per person if you order the above; more if you go for the crab, which is priced by weight and market rate. I don’t feel that’s unreasonable, and if you’re worried about the crab, simply ask Lee if there are any crabs on the smaller side and/or if he can give you a cost estimate. If you want a smaller portion, say so. Despite his gruff reputation, I find Lee reasonably friendly. Sure, he’s a little blunt–big deal.
In fact, I like the indifferent staff and the grungy ambience. I like the sidewalk seating on Geylang Road, the flimsy plastic chairs, and the faded plastic tables. I like that bad Chinese soap operas are the Sin Huat soundtrack, and that chef Lee wears big rubber boots and dirty white aprons and shows displeasure if your order doesn’t meet his expectations. I really like the food.
I love this Singapore shithole.
Sin Huat Eating House, 659/661 Geylang Road, +65 6744 9755. Open daily 6 p.m to 12 a.m.