People say Joy Mahbubani is not a restauranteur because her motto is “To live is to give and to give is to live.” In opening the restaurant, her aim is to give and contribute to the society, not make money. For instance, although the restaurant has two storeys, “The Upper Room” is not open and is used mainly to host community events of NGOs and charity organizations (but you can also use it for weddings and company events). Which means the restaurant can only accommodate about 30 people. They can earn twice the money if they open the second storey but Joy doesn’t. Chiobu, my dining companion, called Joy the “Oprah” of Singapore.
Her philosophy of giving and sharing means that she wants food to bind people together. That is why there is no pork, no lard and no crustaceans on the menu, suitable for Muslims and Jews. When we were there, there was a table of 12 young Jews. (
They are currently applying for a halal certification, all their food suppliers are from halal sources. EDIT: They have received the halal certification.)
There is a separate menu for vegetarians, and if you are on a no-gluten, no-soy, no-whatever diet, you can just inform the server and they will be glad to customize your meals. (The small menu makes customizing easy.) Every friend, regardless of their eating habits, from Muslims to vegetarians to carnivores, can sit at a table together and enjoy a meal. Because the food is meant for friends, it means the portions are huge, great for sharing.
A third consequence of Joy’s motto is she only serves food to customers that she serves to her family. Joy’s restaurant is deeply influenced by her mother’s cooking. No MSG. The ingredients are fresh or chilled, never frozen, and there is high quality right down to even the tea (Gryphon brand) although this will cut into profits. Even Chiobu, the pickiest of our team, remarked, “The food is super fresh. You can taste the freshness.” Every morning, they collect fresh bread from a small halal bakery. Sauces, dips and creams are made from scratch. Friends tell Joy that “If you have a cow, you’ll make your own cheese.” So much effort goes into preparing the food–that’s why people say she’s not a restauranteur, she’s not making much profit.
But a good theory needs a good practitioner. I don’t know who is luckier: Joy who has such an enlightened philosophy on food or Chef Darence Wee who could execute the philosophy, source for ingredients, and offer advice to Joy such as buying heirloom vegetables? Chef Wee, a dashing chef who honed his skills at Les Amis Group, has a unique style to his food. No matter what the dish was, we thought the food tasted very clean. The only way we can explain what we mean by “clean” is through analogy. Everyone has drunk different brands of mineral water before but some brands cause revulsion that you’d never drink again but there is this particular brand that feels so clean it perks you up, cleanses you. That is how Chef Wee’s food made us feel–clean.
We ate almost all the appetizers on the menu! The salmon salad ($18) came with seared salmon, tart mango, and creamy avocado in mixed greens–not bad–but salads are salads. The braised beef meatballs ($16) in spicy chipotle and tomato sauce didn’t have that yucky powdery texture we hate in meatballs–good. We preferred the lamb tostadas (pictured above, $18), filled with tender shredded slow cooked lamb leg in spicy pico de gallo, to the vegetarian tostadas (pictured above, $14) of corn, chilli beans, and avocado. (Disclaimer: Chiobu dislikes all vegetarian food.)
But our favorite appetizers had to be poppers ($15) and scrambled eggs with salmon ($19). On the surface, poppers looked like croquettes but it was an entire Jalapeno pepper stuffed with mozzarella, breaded and deep-fried, accompanied with homemade guacamole. Different from the usual jalapeno we had, this one was spicy, packed quite a punch.
“How good can scrambled eggs on salmon be?” was the ungracious thought I had. Orgasmic. It came on brioche, baked fresh daily, which added a light sweetness to the salty smoked salmon, and the roes were just little burst of sunshine, popping, bubbling up the entire dish. This is a must-order.
Adobo Chicken Wrapped
Adobo Chicken Unwrapped
All the three mains were excellent, each better than the next. Chiobu’s favorite was the “Adobo” chicken ($28). It came wrapped in a bag which you have to untie. The chicken thigh was gigantic and the meat fell off the bone. When you add lime and the homemade cilantro sauce, the taste was explosive. Very delicious.
I didn’t have a favorite because they were outstanding to me. The other two mains we had: braised lamb shank ($32) was ginormous, extremely tender and fresh that it didn’t have that lamb stank. It was similar to the Milanese ossobuco but the tomato flavoring was very light and didn’t overpower the lamb.
The vegetarian enchiladas ($19) looked like baked rice: between layers of soft corn tortillas filled vegetable ragout (including mushrooms) and was eventually topped with a layer of cheese–then baked. Although there was quite a bit of cheese, it didn’t come across as excessive or heavy. On the contrary, it felt very light–and clean. It also came with a very tasty cilantro rice by the side.
The desserts were satisfying too. Bocas Negras (pictured right, $12) or flourless chocolate cake was very, very dense–and perhaps too dense for us–best for sharing. The intricate plating demonstrated how much effort was put in the making of this dessert. The homemade berry sauce and lime foam by the side really livened and lightened up the cake. The bread & butter pudding (pictured below, $10) is a must-order. Every order is freshly assembled and baked so it takes 15 minutes waiting time. Made of brioche, with hints of white chocolate, it was topped with peaches and vanilla gelato. Very hot and comforting.
Outstanding as the food was, there are two areas we are concerned with. Firstly, almost everyone in the restaurant ordered the fajita ($28 chicken/ $32 beef), which came sizzling on a hot plate–lots of smoke. Poor ventilation. Princessy Chiobu complained that the smoke stank. Terribly spoilt she is. Secondly, the restaurant markets itself as a Latin American eatery but the food here cannot be strictly known as Latin American. It has a mixture of Spanish and European influences? The wrong branding may cause confusion to some?
But honestly who cares about categorization as long as the food is good? In fact, this is one of our favorite restaurants of the year. A restaurant with ethics and simple, homely, quality food at reasonable prices. Highly recommended.
Rating: 3.711/5 stars
PS: Thanks to the generosity of Rubina and Joy for the invited tasting.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.