I love it when the table turns. Recently, legendary siren of Thai street food, Nym Korokat Punlopruska guided me through the streets of Bangkok for great food. If you know much about Bangkok street food, or have watched Andrew Zimmern eat his way through it, you’ve seen Nym. She was in Singapore this week, so now it was my turn. And I knew a place that is so new it couldn’t possibly be in her excellent food guide, but so exceptional that it needs to be.
Walking into Arcot Nawab Restaurant, Nym immediately sensed something different from the sea of other Indian restaurants. The place is small, bright and airy, with ocher walls and a pitcher of Jeera (cumin-seed) water on every table. Owner Ravi Jayakaran greeted us at the door and at once immersed us in a world of remarkable royal Indian cuisine unavailable elsewhere in Singapore.
Upon the first sip of Vasantha Neer, a pale, fresh-scraped coconut water infused with lemon, honey and mint on the rocks, Nym got her note pad ready.
Nawabi & Nizam cuisines from the Hyderabad region of Southern India are the specialty at Arcot Nawab, which opened less than a year ago. It is cuisine once granted only to India’s finest chefs, esteemed in the art of delicate Indian cuisine, to prepare for Mogul Empire royalty. But this day, despite arriving unannounced and pulling everything straight off the menu, we would be fed like royalty, too.
It started with Vallara Keerai, a seemingly simple soup made of pennywort leaf reduced with pepper, garlic and onion to a smooth creamy texture. This “brain food” delivered a deep earthy flavor, exotic in the first instance, then quickly softening into a rich, herbaceous simplicity that luxuriated on our tongues.
The Karuvepillai Prawn Varuval was firm and masala-tinged on the edges with soft, sweet meat that frolicked with flavors of fried curry leaves and delicate sesame oil. Don’t think “fried prawns” with this dish, as the marriage of flavors and texture transforms this into something unique and wondrous; the best of natural spices with the finest fare from the sea. It’s a must try.
But the star of Arcot Nawab’s show was its namesake biryani. The similarity between other biryanis in Singapore and this one – like a White Zinfindel in the shadow of Châtau Haut-Brion – ends abruptly at the name. Arcot Biryani is a distinct rice-based dish; lighter and more refined than more common biryani but packing a full-on spice punch that puts all others to shame.
Cooked with mutton and Jeera Samba rice – a pleasing departure from the usual basmati nuttiness – it came with a Brinjal curry and a red onion raita that delivered an ultra-fresh yogurty sparkle. The biryani was robust, each kernel standing independent and oil-free, encapsulating a well-integrated flavor and careful balance of spice. But perhaps most compelling was its lightness of being. Unlike the clumpy, heavyweight biryanis stomping and pummeling their way around Little India, this was like a trim, featherweight fighter – each bite a quick, crisp jab of intense flavor, leaving no oily residue on the palate. Neat and clean.
The meal continued, Ravi steering us through a maze of royal classics. Like raw bittergourd diced with tomato and onion and brightened by a spritz of fresh lemon from a vegan selection. The bitter green bite of the crunchy veg was tempered by the lemony tinge and tomato sweetness to render a refreshing, uncommon salad.
We had Rasam, so deep and complex, with the chef’s hand light on the tamarind, ginger, lime and asafoetida, in order to avoid bitterness against the pepper, curry leaves, soft onion and pineapple within. Its seductive aroma and taste necessitated my drinking it all directly from the silver cup in which it came.
A mélange of brunoised masala potato with mustard seed, curry leaves and herbs added a deep, cumin/turmeric/cinnamon component to the food piling up before us, each dish complimenting the others and adding something to prepare us for the next item; something Ravi would suddenly think necessary to round out the feast.
The Meen Kothu Idiyappa, was a blend of spicy cooked fish, minced and scrambled with crumbled idiyappam noodles, gentle spices and crisp-fried mint leaves. Its soft and pleasing texture and delicate if-not-curious combination somehow works together, intermingling seamlessly into a comfort food that’s light as a feather and instantly soothing to eat.
A tiny silver pot of dried lentils roasted with garlic, dry chilies and sesame seeds, all ground into a talcum-fine orange powder was set before us. A matching tin of Indian sesame oil – a complete departure from the ubiquitous Chinese version found here – and a plate of white basmati rice came beside it. Nym dusted the rice with the powder, I followed with a drizzle of sesame oil and mixed. The yellowish blend delivered a clean, ancient flavor, blossoming like a lotus flower in the morning sun. Each component whispered its presence in the rice, but then transformed into something more delicious than merely the sum of its parts and harkened back to a centuries-old flavor profile.
Closing the feast was Payasam, a cooling milk pudding with sage and vermicelli, along with a warm chai infused with sarsaparilla root, and ending with a barely-sweet vanilla bean ice cream sprinkled with hand-candied ginger bits to relax our digestive systems.
For each dish Ravi had a passionate explanation of its history and what makes it special enough to serve here. His philosophy is not just to serve outstanding food – which he does better than perhaps any other Indian restaurant in the neighborhood – but also healthy dishes with no MSG, no additives and balanced for control of such ailments as Diabetes. The result: light, delicate textures with intense, infused flavors that don’t leave you feeling heavy and tired afterward. It was truly a feast at this restaurant of royal food from the Kingdom of the Moguls.
Arcot Nawab Restaurant
49 Chander Road