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Cultural confusion leads Nomads down the wrong path
70 Telok Ayer Street, #01-01
Tel: 6977 7057
Open for dinner only
Mon to Sat: 6pm to 11pm
LET me tell you a story: a rich tale of faraway lands and ancient civilisations; where silk and spice were the currencies of the day, and romantic images of exotic princesses, colourful bazaars and camels basking in the sunset come to mind. Now, I don't have all the details because I've never been there, right, but my buddy was in Kazakhstan for a couple of weeks - he really likes the food and he has a friend there. Singaporeans don't know that much about the Silk Road and Central Asia anyway, so why not we spin our own tale based on what we kind of know, and what we don't we can make up for with a local twist and call it Central Asian fusion?
And that is our theory of how the Nomads came to be - the latest restaurant in town that seems to be spawned by a vague idea about Central Asian cuisine, padded with local input and packaged in a manner that we aren't familiar with and can't criticise them for.
We don't know what to make of a restaurant where we are told that the food is inspired by Central Asia and the Silk Road in the same breath that says what we're eating is not authentic. This is how the scene plays out: you sit at a counter in a smallish speakeasy setup hidden inside a bar with a tropical vibe as interpreted by one who has never been to a beach. It looks happy and breezy, but in a manufactured way.
You're served by three young chefs who take turns explaining the menu to you in the manner of students doing a show-and-tell. They are well-schooled but unlikely to have been brought up anyway near the Caspian Sea they keep telling us about. But they did not devise the menu. The chef who did, is not there.
There is a slightly uncomfortable moment when we're served a complimentary melon-soda mocktail and invited to toast with the three young chefs and a young manager-of-sorts. It's a friendly, warm ritual that is supposed to be Central Asian in origin and we appreciate the gesture even if it seems awkward and loses its charm when it is repeated with each new diner that comes along.
Notice that we keep repeating Central Asian and Silk Road cuisine because, really, we don't know what we're eating. We've picked a tasting menu in advance because that's what they told us to do at the time of booking. So you get your pick of a shorter S$98 menu or the full S$148 which we opt for.
The first wave of small bites are delivered at lightning speed, with barely enough time to learn about how each dish is an interpretation of a Russian, Kazakhstan or Turkish (we think) speciality made with a fine dining touch and local sensibility, before the next one arrives.
To their credit, they are pretty easy eating, and showcase a level of thought and ingenuity. Some of them are clear winners, even if the only thing we remember is something about the Caspian Sea, sturgeon and a kind of briyani.
After a powdery filo pastry tart filled with a horseradish cream and pickled herring, there's an interesting baby cornet of lamb tartare with a light coating of coffee sugar so you get a sugary crunch alongside mild fresh meat. A kueh pie tee-ish tart smeared with a little bit of kaya and a minced raw shrimp is a little too precious for us. And while the Hunter-Gatherer combo of seaweed butter and beef fat mixed with butter and spices stuffed into a marrow bone is contrived, it's really good slathered on a too-dense fermented loaf.
Take away the lame narrative and you have dishes that can stand on their own in a normal restaurant context. Crunchy baby carrots stick out of coffee soil and koji-marinated scallops have a gentle mellowness against sweet charred corn and a crunchy lentil cracker.
How fermented sake lees got into the Silk Road we don't know. But if ancient traders travelled around with a tupperware of 'Salat' then they and their camels should take a bow for giving us this lovely combination of charred broccolini, nashi pear, pomegranates and candied walnuts in a garlicky dressing.
Less impressive are strips of squid in a Szechuan-like sauce and Hungarian sturgeon in a soy butter emulsion that has the mild fattiness of yellowtail without the usual freshness.
There's Beshbarmak or 'five fingers' which has a cube of long-cooked wagyu cheek that has also spent quite a few hours in the fridge, a slight drawback to an otherwise comforting dish of braised meat in a bak kut teh broth.
Things go way overboard when it comes to the final rice dish or Plov - a culture clash of Japanese beef rice, risotto and bryiani with creamy rice fighting with fatty wagyu, pickled carrots, tea-braised quail eggs and brandied raisins.
Apart from a beautiful chess set from Kazakhstan, and some bric-a-brac glowing in a coloured light bath in a little room just before the restroom (and the young manager who is Kazakhstan but much too reticent to really engage you about his culture) there's little to convince you of the Nomads' exotic inkling. Sometimes, the best way to impress is with what you know, rather than an image you're trying to inject. Maybe when it gets its message right, the Nomads will find a place it can call home.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.