It’s peak dinnertime on a weeknight in Singapore and I’m perched on a rickety plastic stool at Big D’s Grill in Holland Village.
The tables are only somewhat clean. It’s so unbearably hot and humid in the food court-style coffee shop that an almost endless trickle of sweat is rolling down my face. And the rumbling din all around only crescendos as the tank-top and shorts-wearing crowd grows and flip-flopped hawkers race from table to table, barking out greetings and taking orders.
It’s hardly the setting where you’d expect to find some of the most satisfying (and, in some instances, inventive) Western dishes currently being served in Singapore. And yet, that’s exactly what you’ll get at Big D’s, a place that serves USD $33 wagyu rib-eye steaks and USD $8.20 snapper livornese from a tiny kitchen wedged between hawker stands that sell noodle dishes and fish soups for around USD $1.
Damian D’Silva, the owner/chef of Big D’s, is something of a man on a mission — and his quest is to bring high-end fare to
a swath of people who love good food but might be intimidated
by or don’t want to be bothered with going to a fancy French or Italian
restaurant. His hole-in-the-wall stall has been part of a growing number of places in hawker centers and other outdoor foodcourts that have been gradually democratizing the eating culture in Singapore simply by selling French, German or Eurasian dishes that one would typically find at higher prices in high-end restaurants in low-key, neighborhood settings.
Big D’s in particular, has been attracting big crowds and attention on the shoulders of Damian’s dishes — the New York Times, apparently, is about to run a feature on the place. (The restaurant’s Facebook page, Fans of Big D’s Grill, sent out an email blast last week urging customers to swing by and pad up the crowds last Friday for a planned photo shoot with a Times photographer.)
Damian has actual restaurant credentials — he first earned a following at Soul Kitchen, a now-defunct restaurant that served both Western dishes such as pastas alongside the spicy dishes that he’d learned to make from his Peranakan (Straits Chinese) and Eurasian family. And his loyal fans followed when he eschewed air-conditioning and cushioned seating for the relative discomfort and tropical heat of outdoor coffeeshops. (His current location, where he set up shop in February, is the third iteration of Big D’s.)
Like Soul Kitchen, the menu at Big D’s hits a broad range of tastes — there are the USD $19 Kurobuta pork loins and USD $16.50 grass-fed Australian rib-eyes.
But there are also Peranakan standards like babi assam, a tamarind-braised pork belly
that’s cooked in an intoxicating, complex sauce featuring galangal,
palm sugar, turmeric and lemongrass, just to name a few ingredients.
Sure, the sweltering eating experience may not be for those generally accustomed to creature comforts like clean chairs, for example. And since it’s a hawker setting, if you’d like wine with your meal, you’ll have to bring it and, occasionally, glasses yourself. (Damian has some wine glasses, but not many.)
But the dishes, let me tell you, they’re worth the buckets of sweat.
On a visit to Big D’s in January, I had an anchovy pasta (USD $12.30) that I could not recommend more highly. The dish, the place’s take on spaghetti aglio olio, is made with a sauce that’s filled with chunks of salty, mashed anchovies, garlic and minced chili padi, the miniature Singaporean chilis that are fiery as their flaming-red shade. (This dish is pictured at the top of the post.)
I literally could not stop thinking about this pasta for weeks afterward — in this dish, Damian quite perfectly marries spicy, salty and savory in such a way that makes each bite an exceptional ball of flavors.
On a visit to Big D’s in May, I also had an incredibly satisfying spicy crawfish linguine …
… and my second favorite on the menu: sambal buah keluak (USD $8.90), a sweet and savory Peranakan dish featuring a ground-up Indonesian black nut and minced pork.
The dish can look rather unappetizing but the intense flavors — sweet, savory, nutty, spicy and meaty all at once — make this almost as unforgettable as the anchovy pasta.
Having enjoyed myself so intensely on trips to Big D’s, I’m almost sad to report that there is one miss among the hits on the menu: dessert.
There is just one on the menu — bonet (USD $2.75), the chocolatey Italian baked custard. I’m a big fan of eggy, creamy and rich desserts and this one was all of the above.
Unfortunately, it also tasted like perhaps it had been in the refrigerator just a few days too long.
However, with the impressive litany of dishes it offers and the fact that its kitchen literally is a box that measures not that many feet on each side, Big D’s can’t be faulted for skipping one beat, really.
After all, days, months, weeks after your meal there, trust me, it’ll be the memory of the anchovy pasta that will be lasting.
Big D’s Grill, located at Chang’s Swallow Eating House, Block 46, Holland Drive, #01-359; Telephone: 65 8120.0244.