The way our caveman ancestors cooked their meats is still popular with our urban dwellers today, as three new grill restaurants will attest.
Cooking techniques have evolved since mankind's early days of cooking meat over an open fire, but there must be something about this particular way of grilling meats that makes it still popular today.
Newly opened Japanese restaurant Tburu has dedicated prime entrance space to a glass grill room, so diners can see chefs cooking their food, and not to mention, smell it as well. "Singaporeans like their grilled items," says owner Calvin Yeung.
Half the menu at Tburu is grilled meats, the other being sushi and sashimi.While grilling exotic chicken parts is common in other yakitori places, Tburu prides itself on more unusual offerings such as pig intestines and pig ears, which are rare in local restaurants.
Restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, who is behind the highly successful Bincho and Meat Smith, both of which have grilled meats, says: "The popularity of grills taps into an atavistic mode of eating. There's nothing quite like charred meats and vegetables and flames." As it turns out, it seems to be the cooking method du jour
Back to basics
FYR Cycene Ond Drinc
19 Boon Tat Street
Opening hours: Mon to Fri, 11am to 11pm; Sat, 9am to 11pm; Sun 9am to 4pm
Tel 6221 3703
FYR Cycene Ond Drinc may be old English "Fire Kitchen and Drink" but how do the modern English even pronounce it?
You can call it FYR or "fire" in the meantime, but the name was picked to reflect the restaurant's desire to recall the simplicity of ancient times, and its rustic decor and storied wall murals attest to that. Food wise, what can be as simple as cooking meats over fire?
But this is the 21st century and we have cutlery, unlike the cavemen of old. At FYR, instead of rubbing sticks together to create a fire for cooking meats over, the food here is cooked in a Josper Charcoal Oven.
The oven, for those who aren't in the know, is a highly rated machine which is a combination of a grill and an oven. Due to its unique closed barbecue design and different levels of grilling, it is 35 per cent faster and consumes about 40 per cent less charcoal than an open grill. It uses less flames, which prevents food from drying out or burning.
FYR's executive director Rosy Aziz says: "We love the concept of keeping things simple and real. Personally, we feel that we need to be in touch again with the basics, and when we do, we can actually find tonnes of joy in it."
She adds: "Grilling was done in olden times when people would cook all their food over a fire made with chunks of wood. So, this gave us the inspiration to come up with the name FYR (used centuries ago and is the etymology of the word "fire") and the concept of serving modern European grills. And most importantly, grilled foods are flavourful."
Only lychee wood is used for the grills. Executive chef Micail Chepi says using lychee wood gives the dishes a "wonderful smoky note that is tinged with sweetness".
Another reason for using lychee wood is that it can only be found in Asia, and "is cohesive with our concept of modern European-style cuisine with South-east Asian herbs and spices", says Chef Chepi, formerly from The Royal Mail and Prive.
For example, Thai basil, lemongrass, chilli padi, and laksa leaves are just some of the ingredients that find their way into the menu.
On the grilled front, there's the Five-spice Half Chicken, Striploin, Asian-spiced Tiger Prawn (S$55), which is good for sharing. At a tasting, the chicken was on the dry side, but the striploin and the prawn made up for it. Those who prefer something less heavy will like the Spiced Deboned Red Snapper (S$25), served with sambal belacan, which means servers won't give you funny looks for asking for chilli.
The Whole Maine Lobster (S$55) arrives at the table with its meat still succulent and sweet. It comes topped with a shallot and lemongrass bechamel sauce.
Even the drinks have not been spared the grill. Order a fruit juice, and you can expect the bartender to have grilled the fruits first before juicing, giving the drink a slightly smoky flavour.
"The act of grilling makes food look and taste fantastic. You get the flavourful exterior and the succulent, juicy centre. This is a cooking method that can bring out the original taste of the ingredients perfectly," says Chef Chepi.
"Besides, it's generally a healthier choice as compared with fried foods because there's no batter coating or dripping grease."
Casual backyard dining
31 Ah Hood Road
Home TeamNS-JOM Clubhouse, #01-07
Opening hours: Tues to Sun, 11am to 3pm, 5.30pm to 10.30pm, closed on Mon and last Tues of the month
Tel 6397 5662
FIX Grill is not one of those restaurants that try to impress you with their fancy grills, or beef that has been aged in a certain way for a certain number of days, or even the kind of charcoal it uses. Instead, chef-owner Mervyn Phan says:
"It is back to basics cooking, like going for a BBQ at East Coast Park during school days." The grill concept also fits in well with the restaurant's location - inside a clubhouse, off Balestier Road.
For now, the restaurant offers grilled items cooked over a stone grill in the kitchen. But in about a week's time, it will have an outdoor grill area as well. When ready, there will be outdoor seating, and a specially constructed grill area, where the cooking will take place. It is all very casual, much like going into someone's backyard, which is how Chef Phan intends for it to be.
He uses two types of charcoal, but admits not knowing what types they are exactly. "The aunty whom I bought the charcoal from doesn't know what to call them either," he quips. All he knows is that one type of charcoal burns fast, while the other burns more slowly. Mixing the two creates an extra smoky flavour. The charcoal shop is near his restaurant.
Chef Phan is now working on a menu, and it will have staples such as grilled chicken wings with spicy mayo sauce, and grilled tuna fillet with mango salsa and mushrooms. To jazz up the menu, there will also be seasonal items, such as grilled Madagascar prawns, or even a whole snapper.
"It all depends on what I can get fresh from the market that morning," he says. The outdoor grill will operate on Fridays and weekends, and if there is demand, Chef Phan will fire it up on other days as well.
For now, diners can get their grilled fix on the existing menu, such as the Squid with Wild Rice Salad (S$8) that has grilled squid as its main ingredient.
Then there are the skewers, where the choices range from Beef Keftedes, which are Greek-style beef meatballs topped with yogurt, Chicken Tsukune or chicken meatballs grilled yakitori-style, or the grilled house-made Prawn Cake. The assorted skewer platter is available for S$25.
Chef Phan, who also runs Grub cafe, Grub Noodle Bar, and Fix Cafe, says he's always wanted a restaurant where he can go back to "the simple stuff. Cooking with charcoal is all about that".
Opus Bar & Grill
581 Orchard Road, Lobby Level, Hilton Singapore
Opening hours: 12pm to 2.30pm, 6.30pm to 10.30pm
Tel 6730 3390
IT'S no secret that Aussies love their barbies, so with Aussie chef Nick Philip heading Opus Bar & Grill, you know the grilled meats will be of a certain standard.
In fact, Chef Philip, who joined Hilton Singapore a few months ago and had previously worked in Bali, Queensland and Sydney, says: "Being a true Australian, I certainly take grilling very seriously, and personally love the caramelised, smoky flavours achieved when cooking over charcoal."
Opus Bar & Grill, which takes over the former Checkers Brasserie space, is the first grill in Singapore to have a bespoke Himalayan salt-tiled ageing cabinet, where hand-selected prime meats are dry-aged between 14 days and 36 days on the premises for marbled, tender meats with a rich depth of flavour.
A full charcoal grill at 250 degree Celsius ensures the white-hot heat sears and creates a delicious, caramelised and smoky flavour.
Meat-wise, there's the lamb rump with pea puree; lamb cutlets with spiced hummus; spicy kurobuta pork belly, and pork back ribs with yakiniku sauce.
Of course, steaks are must-haves at a grill restaurant and the selection here includes a Rangers Valley Angus rib marble score four; Kobe wagyu rib-eye marble score six; and Grainge 150 days grain-fed Angus tenderloin and rib-eye. The steaks are served with five different sauces such as soy, ginger and sesame seed glaze or a cep and truffle cream sauce.
Even so, the steaks are good enough to eat on their own.
Opus also prides itself as being environmentally conscious, having achieved the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)'s Chain of Custody certification, which means that the seafood comes from a fishery that is well-managed and sustainable.
It is the first restaurant in Singapore to be awarded the MSC eco-label. Chef Philip's Glacier 51 toothfish fillet grilled with Szechuan pepper and charred leek is a MSC certified dish. Otherwise, king prawns would be another seafood option.
This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
Get The Business Times for more stories.