The Singapore Tourism Board brings Singaporean chef Daniel Sia together with Cafe Aurora chefs Nicco Santos and Quenee Vilar in what is inarguably the culinary collaboration of the year.
After the first of three seatings on a rainy Makati Saturday, Chef Nicco Santos is taking a few minutes off his feet after what I suspect has been a nonstop morning of prepping and tying up loose ends. The other member of this consummate duo, Chef Quenee Vilar, has barely come up for air outside their Cafe Aurora kitchen, just managing a quick hello to familiar faces before plunging back into the organized chaos.
The two chefs are playing host to Daniel Sia, executive chef of the emblematic Singaporean restaurant The Coconut Club—best known for their Michelin Bib Gourmand-awarded nasi lemak. “It’s the first time we’re collaborating with a Singaporean chef, so it feels like…” chef Nicco trails off. Does it feel like you have come full circle? I ask. “Yes, something like that,” he replies.
The story begins, truly, with chefs Nicco and Quenee’s passion for Southeast Asian flavors, as indicated by their ventures. First, with their Peranakan restaurant Hey Handsome and now at Cafe Aurora where they offer their innovative take on beloved Asian dishes.
Somewhere in between, they launched Sambar, a delivery-driven food business that offers Southeast Asian favorites and deli items such as Hainanese chicken rice and an assortment of sambal and other pungent sauces, as well as quirky takes on noodles like a spaghetti laksa lemak. But what truly developed a cult following is their nasi lemak, a homey Malaysian rice dish with dried whitebait, sambal, peanuts, cucumbers, which Sambar pairs with their well-seasoned fried chicken or beef rendang.
It is this striking parallelism that prompted Asian Culinary Exchange’s Angelo Comsti to match them with The Coconut Club for the Singapore Tourism Board’s Serve It, Singapore!—events that showcase some of the best restaurants from the city state to collaborate with Manila’s finest.
“I already heard about chefs Nicco and Quenee during my previous visits here,” admits chef Daniel, “and I was told about how our cooking styles are very similar.” Which is why for their collaboration, instead of a tasting menu, they opted for an a la carte setup which has starters, desserts, even cocktails and drinks made specially for the event. The main courses were offered as set meals of two—a nasi or laksa lemak accompanied by a refreshing side dish.
What made this collaboration truly tick is their shared respect for the best quality ingredients and their reverence for the cuisine, allowing them to elevate it without over-manipulating it. “We decided to keep things simple so that it would be a better match with chef Daniel’s food,” chef Nicco explains.
Loco over coconut
The Singaporean chef is renowned for his relentless pursuit of finding the best suited coconut milk for the different applications in his restaurant. He is known to blend different varieties until he finds the right consistency for his nasi lemak, and then switches it again for it to be better suited to their other dishes, like their popular chendol dessert.
“Coconut milk has always been the key ingredient to unlocking the flavors of our nasi lemak,” chef Daniel discloses. “Through this convergence of flavors and textures,I believe diners can literally taste the unique diversity Singaporean cuisine has to offer.”
Without a doubt, we tasted this in the shared starters of roti jala (homemade coconut crepe and Roy’s curry), laap puri (chicken, mint, Thai chili, potato, laksa leaf inside a crispy rice shell), and kue pie tee (pastry tart shells filled with green papaya, carrots, downing, shrimp, egg, and cilantro).
Everyone tried to order a different set meal so we can all share, but I found it very difficult to part with my nasi Sambar with duck leg confit, accompanied by fragrant curry leaf kecap, spring lap cheong frittata, and a coconut koshihikari rice. The prawn and green bean kerabu had the refreshing snap of an assortment of green beans and the sweat-inducing heat of sambal belacan.
Luckily, my seat mate was not as selfish as I was and offered some of her fried chicken and coconut rice from the Singaporean guest chef which used the coconut milk chef Daniel went to great lengths to source. The flavors and scents truly are singular and demonstrate why The Coconut Club is such an effective ambassador for their culture. I closed the meal with some of Sambar’s homemade langka ice cream over banana fritters called pisang goreng, because I am truly a fan of banana desserts and now, of this particular dish.
It has truly been the year of collaborations, and having gone to my fair share of them I admit there were some spectacular hits and unfortunate misses. However, this coupling between Sambar and The Coconut Club is an unmistakable hit—truly a match made in nasi lemak heaven. A seamless collaboration made possible by the fact that it was done with so much humility and respect, not only for the cuisine but for each other.
The result: a great Saturday vibe filled with good drinks, loud laughs, and perhaps the best nasi lemak I ever had. Now, how to make this a recurring thing.