Singapore's Best Restaurant Blends East, Middle East

People are forever asking me which is Singapore’s best restaurant. I prefer to say I have many favourite restaurants and it really depends on my mood and what we feel like eating. I think it is also pertinent to categorise whether one is entertaining overseas visitors or clients, or maybe just going out with friends or on your own.

For me, showcasing Singapore to overseas visitors takes on a more local flavor, as in Asian, as I don’t see the value in taking someone from say Italy to an Italian restaurant here – capice? Moreover, we have a large and diverse repertoire of excellent local hawker stalls, eateries and restaurants that not only do the nation proud but will stimulate the palates and senses of the most demanding gourmand.

Right at the very top of my list for entertaining overseas guest and symbolising the very essence of Singapore - multi-cultural, multi-cuisine and a fast evolving modern Asian metropolis - is Coriander Leaf, the consummate Pan-Asian restaurant in the whole region.

Pan-Asian, as Coriander Leaf’s Chef-Proprietor Samia Ahad says, "Is not just Southeast Asia. It is all of Asia; that’s from Japan to Pakistan, Jordon to India, China to Thailand, and don’t forget all the extraordinary cuisines of the Middle East”

And if you mention the word Asian fusion to Ahad, you will receive a sharp rebuke as this is the culinary F word as far as she's concerned. Her food is authentic and true to each country’s history and evolution with a contemporary approach along with her personal interpretation and flare with each dish.

Ahad herself is emblematic of Singapore’s multi-cultural society and crossroads of Asia. A dynamic and charismatic chef, she draws on her Pakistani roots and classical French cuisine training, earned professionally in New York, with a cooking repertoire that is a kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Asian and Western flavours.

Ahad’s menu is unparalleled in its scope and intriguing sphere of flavours and spices. When I bring guests here, I do so with complete confidence that there will be something for everyone, including vegetarians. Indeed, I would say emphatically, this is also the best vegetarian restaurant in Singapore, my wife invariably bringing clients here, many of whom are vegetarians who are totally amazed at the depth of choice and quality of the dishes they can enjoy.

Personally, this is one of my favourite lunch spots, largely because it is normally quiet at lunch with a noticeable absence of the business crowd. I have no idea why the suits don’t come here for lunch, as it’s close enough to the CBD, but I don’t question it and enjoy the serenity.

Sometimes at lunch we don’t order main courses, running through her repertoire of samplers in the way the Spanish eat tapas, along with loads of her totally addictive butter naan bread.

These unique appetiser samplers are brilliant for sharing and tantalizing the taste buds, for example; the Mezze Sampler with Labne Muhammara, Grilled Eggplants with Pomegranate Salad, Fried Haloumi, Falafel and Fattoush Salad. Or the South East Asian Sampler with Tom Yum Soup, Crab Cakes, Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls with shrimp, Salt & Pepper Tempura Calamari, Smoked Duck & Mango Salad and Cold Sesame Noodles.

This is not to say Ahad herself is not busy at lunch, to the contrary, the most successful facet of her business is her studio to the side of the main dining room where she runs a cooking school and corporate cooking classes that incorporates motivational teamwork and bonding elements that has proven to be hugely popular.

Ahad’s cooking classes are even more in demand with a fascinating array of themes and cuisines, including immensely popular Singapore classics, where you can learn to cook pepper crab or street food like Hainanese chicken or xing chou mifen noodles.

Or it might be a course covering a dinner menu, such as The "other" Mediterranean, spanning from Marrakesh to Mecca with intriguing and healthy dishes - harira (chickpea & lentil Soup), salad of slow roasted tomatoes with pomegranates & turkish white cheese, bamia di baradoura / roasted okra with shallots in a tomato sauce, shrimp pilaf with kebsa spices, tzatziki (yoghurt- tahini & cucumber relish with fresh mint), green herb salad with almonds & butter and umm ali (baked bread & milk pudding with burnt cream).

This aspect of culinary teaching takes more than just technique and it is Ahad’s natural charisma and a genuine anthropological inclination that keeps gourmands and people from all walks coming back for more.

Evenings at Coriander Leaf are more energized by a constantly, audibly busy dining room with the requisite buzz and gaggle of contended mouths and congenial ambiance that confirms you’re in the right place.

We often dine with larger groups as like most Asian dishes, communal dinning brings out the best in these cuisines, and usually we commandeer the cooking studio which has a wonderful ‘we are most definitely going to eat well’ semblance and can seat up to 16 people comfortably. A most memorable evening recently in this space was with the New Zealand actor and vigneron, Sam Neill, where a cabal of sommeliers toiled with pinot noir and one of Ahad’s amazing Moroccan feasts.

Equally, we have had many larger corporate lunches and dinners in the private dining space which seats up to 26, sometimes with specific country themed menus, or a tour of Asia where the Asian samplers are again very conducive, as much as platters of chicken, lamb and beef from their Tandoor will satiate the most voracious of appetites.

As incongruous as it might sound I find myself hankering for their Angus rib-eye steak with steamed spiced kipfler potatoes and pink peppercorn jus, definitive classicality and demonstrative of Ahad’s Western/French cooking credentials.

Whilst service here is intentionally not polished, it is genuinely friendly with a close-knit, regular team that maintain the informality that Ahad wants to achieve - it is after all in her view a bistro, although perhaps the boundaries are pushed towards restaurant status by the demands of an affluent clientele.

Now into its second decade, Coriander Leaf’s well-earned reputation is deserved, and yet Ahad is by no means resting on her laurels, having just renovated the restaurant, freshening up the decor with lacquered concrete floors and the ceiling a mosaic of evocative fabrics with an air of Marrakech.

There is also a new square bar at the top of the stairs intentionally designed for people to eat at casually, enjoying the Asian samplers along with a renewed emphasis on wine. Indeed, the space is specifically designed with a wine bar bent that also carries its Asian nibbles and multitude of offerings by the glass downstairs to their new outdoor area, which Ahad is calling the Lily Pad.

This is a really cool space, shared with the owners of the wildly popular Attica nightclub, to which Lily Pad will operate under Ahad between 5.00pm and 11.00pm, with the perfect riverside view and tropical alfresco aura that will make for a great place for compotation and a unique Singapore wine bar.

In the same breath, I have to mention the Screening Room, Ahad’s five floors of adult playground in Club Street with the rooftop ‘La Terazza’ bar one of the best alfresco spots in Singapore to enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail at sunset and in to the night.

There is of course an emphasis on film with an unconventional, very groovy theatre decked out in lounge chairs and sofas screening eclectic, art house film. The theatre and other spaces can be hired out for personal screenings and is awesome location for private events.

Ahad is also redesigning the dining room menu at Screening Room which will have a Moroccan flavor, astutely championing the Middle Eastern cuisines which are much neglected here yet flourishing all over the world.

Having personally worked with Ahad on the Singapore Sun Festival and other major events, there is no question in my mind she is the doyen of the Singapore dining scene, in all her roles; a professional chef, TV and culinary presenter, teacher and author.

She is at the cutting edge of Singapore’s evolving gastronomic culture, and yet predictably, much of the press and attention goes to the surfeit of new restaurants opening here. I recently read with bewilderment that 14 new Italian restaurants have opened here in the last three months. I like Italian, but I’m still struggling to find anything that really pushes my button.

If you like restaurants that have authenticity in everything they do – a dedication and obsession with great produce, a genuine desire to give a satisfying dining experience, honest integral service, owner operated, consummate contemporary Asian cuisine, and most of all, value for the money – then Coriander Leaf is your kind of place.

It is, in my opinion, objectively and unequivocally, Singapore’s best restaurant.

Visit www.corianderleaf.com and www.screeningroom.com.sg

(Curtis Marsh – The Wandering Palate, our veteran sommelier and independent wine and food writer, has over 30 years experience in hospitality, wine and media.)