December 02 2012
If you ask me, one of Singapore’s finest restaurants can be found in an unassuming two-storey building in the shadow of the city’s tallest financial towers. Despite some renown, the chef-owner of Mag’s Wine Kitchen, Magdalene Tang, has shunned the high-glitz recognition perhaps courted by neighbouring celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Guy Savoy and Daniel Boulud, who each have eponymous outposts at the nearby Marina Bay Sands resort.
Whenever foodie friends pass through town, I bring them to this compact haven. From the street, Mag’s in no way stands out from the swath of eateries and louche lounges that characterise Boat Quay, but its chalkboard menu of around a dozen dishes never fails to impress. Diners choose any starter and main for £25 at lunch, £30 at dinner. I rely on mainstays such as the Hiramasa kingfish ceviche (second picture), in which Tang substitutes yuzu for the expected lemon, along with cucumber, baby radish, micro coriander and edible flowers. I break my “no carbohydrates” rule for the pan-roasted Boston lobster risotto with asparagus cooked in vegetable stock and white wine. Then I abandon my diet altogether for Singapore’s finest chocolate fondant, which really does flow like lava.
In 1996, the Singapore-born Tang was a stock trader whose restaurant investment nearly nose-dived on day one when the chef failed to show up. With those early days of her impromptu career makeover long behind her, Tang can still be found helming the kitchen. From there, a raised wood-block dining table extends out, enticing with its aromas. The cellars hold more than 1,000 bottles (or 250 labels), mostly bordeaux, burgundy and côtes du rhône. I have heard Tang call the entire series of Comte de Vogue burgundy one of her “most prized possessions”, along with a Château Margaux and a Château Haut Brion. She rotates the three white and three red house wines often, based on grape, not country.
I recently joined a group of Singaporean friends to share the summer seafood broil (first picture), a gourmand’s cornucopia of freshly caught crab, prawns and clams cooked in their own juices with corn and potatoes. As we nibbled on a starter of Japanese clams in white wine, I noticed a significant difference between our chef and her more famous cohorts: Tang was far too busy actually cooking to pay any attention to this curious journalist’s enquiries and her local following’s fawning compliments.