By Daven Wu
Oct 29, 2020
THE RUNNING JOKE AMONG SINGAPOREANS is that in the middle of lunch, they’ll be discussing what, or where, to have dinner. For the most part, though, the process is binary: we like it and we don’t like it. There’s very little intellectualization about why or how the laksa at, say, 328 Katong Laksa in the island’s East Coast is superior to Wei Yi’s in the west other than that it’s a real schelp to get from one to the other.
All of which explains the curiosity and buzz surrounding Ivan Brehm’s latest gastronomic venture, Appetite (www.appetitesg.com), which quietly opened this past August in the midst of Singapore’s still restrictive post-Covid-19 lockdown.
Located in a two-story space formerly occupied by a shipping law firm above Nouri–Brehm’s Michelin-starred fine diner on the ground floor of a fin de siècle shophouse in the middle of Singapore’s Chinatown—the 185-square-meter Appetite is a head-scratching hybrid.
In fact, a meta-hybrid, of both intents and inspirations. “No culture or system exists in isolation,” Brehm says, explaining that part of Appetite’s mission is to build a pan-national cultural community that includes public talks, masterclasses and networking sessions on everything from food and technology to art, business and spirituality.
Overlooking Amoy Street through tall shuttered timber windows, the open-galley kitchen slash dining room is swathed in creamy white Cosentino stone. It seats just eight for dinner four nights a week, which explains Appetite’s sky-high BRQ (boasting rights quotient, natch) – though expect an even more frenzied jockeying for a reservation when it unveils its R&D dinners (date still to be announced) which will be staged just once a week.
On the other end of the floor, cut through by an internal air-well, is a bijou, warmly lit salon lined with comfy sofas. Up a narrow flight of steps to the mezzanine level is another mood-lit, but more spacious lounge that’s framed by Stanton turntables, expensive sounding woofers, and some 3,000 LPs of world music–apparently, the largest collection in Singapore.
For all intents and purposes, Akira Kita–the Japanese-Colombian architect who was also responsible for Nouri’s soothingly austere dining room–has created the louche pad of some well-heeled scion with good taste. But it’s also the staging ground for what Brehm hopes will be provocative and intense discussions about food, and the cultural diaspora that nurtures and consumes it.
In Appetite, Brehm has finally found a home in which to fully express his restless curiosity. Here, he and his team will eventually stage his new once-a-week R&D new menus on guinea pigs anxious to fork out S$350 for dinner. And, as with Nouri and Appetite’s current offerings, these menus will parse even more experimental global flavors and ingredients of the world, as well as Brehm’s peripatetic life into a seasonally changing roster of small but dazzlingly inventive plates.
For a hint of what’s to come with the R&D dinners, at a recent dinner featuring the regular à la carte menu, burrata hit with Szechuan heat and kimchi lounged on dinky slabs of toasted sourdough; and the overexposed Eton Mess was made over with revelatory results with pillowy homemade skyr, an Icelandic fresh sour milk cheese, and pale crescents of Japanese strawberries.
On one level, the food is, quite simply, delicious. But on a deeper level, every dish is the result of an exploration of material complexity, problem solving for questions about ecological reform, historical confluences, and socio-economic biases from a global perspective. It is the humanities flipside to molecular gastronomy, which explores the foundations of food through science and engineering.
Here, he hopes to spark conversations about food in the context of humanity and culture. And he wants his guests to take part in that conversation at dinner, or over post-prandial cocktails while listening to an album from his personal collection of Brazilian LPs.
Which is why art also looms large at Appetite, the walls featuring quarterly exhibitions by established and emerging artists. The current show, “She/Her,” explores representations of the female form and includes pieces by Thai conceptual artist, Pinaree Santpitak, and the photographer, SH Lim.
The million-dollar question, of course, is just how much of this unabashedly elevated and very difficult conversation will percolate down to the average diner? Because all that philosophical flavoring is quite a lot to lay on a plate of Buñuelo de Viento, a Mexican sweet fritter that Brehm paired at our dinner with bonito–which, by the way, was wildly more-ish.
Is anyone really thinking about 19th-century East Indies trade routes, for instance, when they bite down into the bhelpuri, a classic Indian savory snack, here reconstructed with king crab; or connecting the dots between European imperialism and cultural expropriation when sweeping up a crisply fried arancini infused with the salty tang of uni?
Brehm–an earnestly brainy chef who distilled his Italian, German, Russian, Spanish, Lebanese, Syrian and Brazilian heritage alongside stints at New York’s Per Se and Bray’s The Fat Duck, to open Nouri in 2017–seems to think so. And he’s assembled a blue-chip advisory board (among them Polly Russell, a British Library curator, Eve Felder, managing director of the Culinary Institute of America’s international campus in Singapore, and Krishnendu Ray, the chair at NYU’s Department of Food Studies) to help challenge him and his team in the kitchen.
“I was very scared about opening this,” Brehm admits, “but we’ve had a lot of success. Good things happen when people come together to share what they love.”
Photos courtesy of Appetite / KHOOGJ