This is the story of a crushing disappointment.
We love Malaysian food, and since in the US there are not that many opportunities to eat it we take each one we get. In the Twin Cities metro area our options, as we knew them, were Peninsula, where pretty decent iterations of some iconic dishes can be found, and Satay 2 Go, which is a bit spottier but still plausible. Thus I was very intrigued when there was mention on Chowhound earlier this year of a place called Singapore re-opening in south Minneapolis. Conversation about it indicated that it had been well-respected when it was previously open but details were hard to come by. Then a few weeks ago someone else posted, noting that they had just been, that it was the same ownership/chef as previous and that it was still good. We resolved to go and this past weekend we did. And it was very, very, very, very, very bad; possibly worse.
Before I get to the meal itself, a little bit about the murky history of the restaurant as I’ve been able to desultorily (and probably inaccurately) piece it together from online sources and our server at the restaurant. More than 20 years ago there was a restaurant in Maplewood called Singapore, run by a chef named Kin Lee. Reviews were strong—and photocopies of most of these were readable under the glass on our table, including one by the Star-Tribune’s Rick Nelson, then writing for the Twin Cities Reader (at least I assume it was the same Rick Nelson). By the mid-2000s Kin Lee and co. had purchased the south Minneapolis location and the restaurant now apparently served some combination of Chinese, Malaysian and Ethiopian (!) fusion (see here for a review from that era). Then at some point Kin Lee passed away and the kitchen passed into the hands of his wife, the current chef. Our server, who said he is the son of Kin Lee and the current chef, noted that she had not previously been cooking in the restaurant and that they then had to close the restaurant for some time due to problems with the co-owners till finally re-opening this year.
Frankly, I’m sorry that we’d never heard of the restaurant during its apparent glory days under Kin Lee, for it does sound from the reviews as though it was interesting then (see here as well for a cached review by Dara Moskowitz from her City Pages days). Though I’m not sure if this version still existed when we got to Minnesota in late 2007—this blog post from 2007 notes that Kin Lee and his wife had separated by then and that the south Minneapolis restaurant was being run by her (and that the Maplewood location had been closed). But the version of the restaurant we ate dinner at on Saturday is an utter, farcical disaster and it’s not clear whether the chef actually knows how to cook Malaysian food or whether they’ve decided to peddle off generic fare with Malaysian names. By the way, most of the interesting items from the menus/reviews available online are not actually available; the current menu is rather limited.
Yet almost nothing was anywhere close to what it should be. But the problems don’t end there: ingredients were not fresh (the cabbage that was a part of every dish had blackened edges; the chicken was stringy, the beef, gamy); three separate dishes were made from the exact same sauce and none of them should have been made in that way: the vegetable curry that came with the roti-pratha, the captain’s curry and the so-called “curry laksa” all featured the same grey, unappetizing pool of sweetened coconut milk; the exact same sliced vegetables were in every single dish; the alleged beef “rendang” seemed to have been made from a mix of ketchup and soy sauce; even the goddamned rice was hard and gummy!
Perhaps the regular chef was off that night and somebody with an evil sense of humour was subbing—there’s no other explanation. How on earth could they have thought that we would not be able to tell that three of the five dishes we were eating were basically the same sauce with different things added to it? Also, why are they calling things that are just not rendang or laksa by those names? Call one sweet and sour beef, call the other noodle soup with coconut milk: they won’t taste very much better but they’ll at least not set false expectations. The menu, by the way, says that the current captain’s curry is Chef Kin Lee’s classic recipe. If the earlier reviews are to be trusted, then this is just false; if it’s true then I don’t know what to say about the earlier reviews: if you ate this dish in the previous incarnation of the restaurant please look carefully at my picture of it below and tell me if it even resembles it. Actually, it might help anyone not familiar with Malaysian cuisine to take a look at the results of Google image searches for “rendang“, “curry laksa” and “captain’s curry” before looking at the pictures below.
There’s not much more to be said about the food but I’ll say it in the captions.
All of this came to $70 with tax and tip, which is about $50 too much. We didn’t eat much of the food and didn’t take anything home. On this basis I cannot recommend anyone eat here. Part of me is hoping that this was a wildly unrepresentative experience, that the real chef was in fact not present and some completely unqualified person was attempting to cook, but I’m not going back to confirm—unless others who’ve eaten there recently look at these pictures and say that this is not what they were served. Are you one of those people? Or had you eaten at the restaurant back in its prime? Do write in below.