Foodie Confidential: Thrill of the grill

SINGAPORE - Sugarhall, a four-month-old, 65-seat rum bar and grill in Amoy Street, offers a menu full of tempting grilled meats and vegetables.

The kitchen is headed by chef Polo Seah.

He is named after Polo Street in his hometown of Penang. The street is well known for its restaurants and live music entertainment and was a place where his father liked to hang out with friends.

Chef Seah says he is proudest of the grilled vegetables on the menu.

"A lot of people think that vegetables are just accompaniments to the main dishes. However, I've put effort and creativity into the vegetables and I've made them into dishes that stand out," the 31-year-old says.

One example would be Sweet Onion, which is done in four different ways; caramelised, pickled, deep-fried and grilled.

He says: "The idea came up when the owners, Mr Indra Kantono and Ms Gan Guoyi, and I were in the United States.

"We went to Roberta's, a pizzeria in Brooklyn, and they sold many creative vegetable side dishes and that's where I got inspiration from.

"It's a lot of textures and flavours going on with one main ingredient."

Although he is an expert on the grill now, he was more interested in becoming a pastry chef when he was younger.

"When I was in Secondary 3, my friends and I went to a cake shop to get a birthday cake for a friend.

"I was mesmerised by the displays and wanted to learn how to make pastry."

He enrolled in the Culinary Arts Centre in Penang at age 20 and graduated with a diploma in cooking and baking 11/2 years later.

During the course, he was sent on a year-long attachment at Gurney Hotel and City Bayview Hotel, both in his hometown.

"I was interested in pastry at first, but when I got into my internship, I was assigned to the hot kitchen.

"I was a bit sad, but once I started work, I realised that it was interesting. Whenever I finish my tasks, I would go and learn from the pastry chefs," he says.

Chef Seah, who is the oldest of three children of a retired lorry driver and a part-time waitress, came to Singapore at age 21 to work.

He says: "Singapore pays better and there is better access to produce, compared to Malaysia."

His first job here was at barbecue house Seoul Garden as a food runner.

He was trained in the Ngee Ann City outlet before working at the now-defunct American restaurant Breeks at Marina Square as a commis cook.

Chef Seah, who is dating a Taiwanese air stewardess, also honed his skills and developed his palate during stints at Royal Plaza on Scotts as well as Skirt at W Singapore - Sentosa Cove.

At Royal Plaza on Scotts, he worked in the Mediterranean and banquet kitchens for 41/2 years, picking up different cooking techniques and learning how to complement ingredients.

During his two-year stint at Skirt, he picked up grilling techniques.

Why does Sugarhall specialise in grilled food?

Sugarhall was inspired by the owners' love for backyard grills and they wanted to share with their customers that same simple grilled goodness.

This resonates well with my culinary philosophy; simple yet creative presentations that allow the natural flavours of the produce to shine through.

How would you describe the dishes on the menu?

The dishes are kept very simple with no fancy garnishing or complicated presentations. It's just honest and good grilled food.

What is your best tip for grilling?

Ensure that the grill or pan is heated to at least 180 deg C so that the produce does not stick to the pan.

What is your favourite meat to grill?

I like to grill beef, especially grass-fed beef. I also love how a single piece of meat can have so many types of doneness.

What is the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?

The grass-fed beef used at Sugarhall is free from hormones and antibiotics. Grass-fed beef has a more intense beefy flavour compared to grain-fed beef. Also, it is lower in saturated fat compared to grain-fed beef.

What is your favourite cut of beef?

I like using a variety of cuts, but I especially like the hanger steak as it's a unique cut that showcases the natural flavours of grass-fed beef.

What is the best condiment to go with grilled beef?

Chimichurri. We make our own chimichurri with red peppers and chipotle paste, and herbs such as coriander, parsley and garlic, and sherry vinegar. It's a smoky and spicy sauce, and it goes really well with beef.

The menu has a baby roasted chicken that has a dark skin but which doesn't taste burnt. How do you do it?

The dark skin comes from the brown sugar in the brine. The whole chicken is brined for 24 hours and we grill it when someone orders it.

What is your favourite cuisine?

Local dishes from Malaysia and Singapore. My favourite dish is ban mian, or handmade noodles, from Geylang Lorong 32.

It sells the best ban mian there.

What is your comfort food?

It's very simple, just bread and salted butter. The bread can be any kind of bread. That will make me happy. I'm very easy to please.

WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

I would love to cook for my family a Western-style feast. Meat, fish and vegetables. Not so much of grilled fare, but home-cooked food.


This article was first published on Aug 31, 2014.
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