SINGAPORE — In reviewing Nusantara, I can’t help but ponder over the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It severely stifles our collective creativity in the F&B space with opportunistic business owners who much rather prefer to hitch a ride on an existing bandwagon instead of taking to the drawing board of innovation, creation, and invention and making something new we can proudly call a product of Singapore. I reckon it’s our aversion to failure, having been brought up in an education system that, until recently, overly celebrated success and conveniently sweeping any whiffs of losses under the proverbial rug of ‘experience’.
There are, of course, some borrowed ideas that are better than others. Poke bowls, for example, are a luxe Hawaiian take on the humble cai fan or Nasi Padang stall, offering consumers healthier and exotic, albeit more expensive, options for a carb-protein-vegetable medley. What’s there not to love? There’s raw salmon or tuna, a choice of rice, and a selection of superfoods like cranberries, avocado, and almonds to choose from. It’s safe to say that the poke bowl movement has taken a life of its own and is in danger of predictability with every new entrant offering but a slight variation on the usual.
Until Nusantara, that is, the latest casual dining kiosk to set up shop at Fraser’s Tower, joining the ranks of neighbours, Preludio, Relish Roketto Izakaya, and Arcade Fish Soup. The kitchen is led by Singaporean chef Firdauz Nasir, serving up healthy Nusantara cuisine cooked with no MSG, preservatives, less oil, and less sugar.
For those not in the know, Nusantara refers to the outer islands of the Indonesian archipelago. And while this cuisine has deep roots outside of Singapore, Chef Firdauz has revived time-tested recipes from the prodigal matriarchs in his family—his grandmother and mother—to create signature classics that resonate strongly with the type of food I grew up eating. Everything is made by hand, and it shows.
The concept is straightforward and designed to be non-intimidating to customers whose basic starter kit for cuisine such as this is Beef Rendang. There’s much more to Malay food than the ubiquitous beef cooked slowly in spices till tender and flavourful, and at Nusantara, it is a toss-up between an excellent education in such gastronomical leanings and eating food that is familiar to the palate.
An approachable and affordable introduction would be the Ayam Masak Merah Bowl (S$7.90). (I say affordable because the effort that goes into making the dishes in this bowl is definitely worth more than the price you’re paying—you’re not just tossing chicken in soya sauce and oyster sauce, you know.) Unlike the Ayam Merah my mum makes, here, Chef Fir has decided to cut the chicken up into smaller, bite-sized pieces so that lunch is better spent on eating and not on peeling meat away from the bone. It’s just that much easier to eat.
Pair this with the indulgently flavourful and seasoned Buah Keluak fried rice, which reminds me a lot of the plate I had at Michelin star Peranakan institution, Candlenut, but at a quarter of the price.
Elsewhere, there’s a Belimbing Lamb Bowl (S$15.90) that’s expectedly tender and works in a pinch with the default bright lemak belimbing. I had mine with the crunchy and plainly seasoned wing bean salad, a deliberate choice seeing as to how rare it is to find this produce in a Nusantara-leaning restaurant. If you’re going to get this bowl, I strongly suggest swapping out plain, bland white rice with the blue pea iteration that has been cooked with onion kerisik and fresh lemongrass for a flavour bomb to last you through to dinner.
Vegetarians and vegans will have no trouble sitting alongside meat-loving colleagues with Nusantara’s range of dishes catered for this specific diet. There’s a vegan Lontong Bowl (S$7.90) and Vegan Rice Bowls (S$7.90& S$9.90) that has all the great taste of Indonesia without nary a shred of meat in sight.
Chef Firdauz told me that the Gado-Gado (S$7.80) is not the type we’re more used to having here in Singapore, where the peanut sauce is smooth, almost to the point of being a paste. Here, it’s a Palembang recipe with chunks of peanuts in a deep shade of rust, lending textural variance to the entire presentation. It’s good for sharing, like the quartet of Rempah Fried Chicken (S$12) that has been dry brined with traditional Malay spices so that it’s incredibly juicy and flavourful inside and heroically seasoned on the outside.
To go with your rice bowls, choose from six variations of sambal, all priced at S$2 and all made by hand. There are the usual sambal belachan and sambal tumis, of course, but there’s also sambal tempoyak made with fermented durians, sambal hijau made with green chillies, sambal kicap manis made with sweet soy sauce, and sambal bajak made with a medley of chillies.
Nusantara is a praiseworthy addition to the list of lunch options for the folks working around this part of town. While not quite as simple as a typical Nasi Padang outfit, what Nusantara offers, is perhaps more in line with our grab and go lifestyle. Modelling itself as a healthier, more flavourful version of a typical poke rice bowl could be exactly what it needs to upend and change that market for the better.
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Mon to Fri: 7.30am – 7pm
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