What’s in a name? Apparently when it comes to restaurants there can often be nothing at all. Such is the case with Singapore’s Artichoke, which took its title from the owner simply opening the dictionary and placing his finger on the page. The first word he didn’t like but the second was ‘A’ for artichoke and the name stuck. In fact the whole restaurant seems haphazard but in all the best ways. And so it was that Thomas Jones wandered in off the road on a balmy Singapore Tuesday to enjoy the chaos.
While Artichoke’s moniker may be random and without thought, the same cannot be said for the food. It’s pretty damn good with nothing left to chance. While most nights the food is a la carte, on a Tuesday – the first day of their working week – it’s a set menu. Owner and chef Bjorn Shen (a Singaporean, don’t be fooled by his name) doesn’t want to have clients missing out on their first choice because of the trucks being late or a mistake in the supply chain. What you get are as many plates as you can eat, using what he has on hand. It might sound strange but there are no disappointments.
Tucked away behind an old church and an art gallery on Middle Road, Bjorn has been operating his very successful Ottoman-inspired restaurant in downtown Singapore for the past three years. When we talked about the Middle East and I asked him if visiting there was his inspiration, his reply was “No, I’ve never been.” Strange, I thought, but when probed the reasons kind of made sense. “I flatted with a Persian guy in Sydney when I was at university, and I have some Arab friends and I just sort of learned to cook through them,” he explained. “To tell you truth I don’t want to visit there in case I develop too much respect for it and its food and it affects the freedom of the cooking styles that I have.” It’s an interesting take on travel broadening the mind that I struggle with, but one I am happy to accept after tasting the food.Click to view slideshow.
Ahh, the food. Our 50 Singapore dollars got us a stack of plates that on this night was beetroot salad (with pistachios, almonds and walnuts adding crunch and loots of texture), tzatziki, anchovies, pumpkin salad, slow-cooked pork, bread and haloumi cheese (“eat that cheese quickly, it’s time sensitive,” Ronnie the restaurant manager advises), fried cauliflower with scallops and yoghurt (which funnily enough tasted of chicken), a chickpea salad and something with tabouli and pomegranate. Ten plates in all plus bread and if you finish them then they have no compunction in filling up again. It stops when you do. Ronnie’s advice? “Wear a sarong to dinner, so you can loosen it off a little at a time as you eat.”
The furniture is as eclectic as the ingredients and the name with mismatched picnic benches, bar tables and other random seating arrangements both inside and out, where awnings and decking fill the small courtyard. There’s lots of white paint and there’s some groovy art on some of the walls. As for the rest? “We didn’t have a painting budget so I just said we would paint it black and write with chalk on the walls,” chuckles Bjorn. “And that’s exactly where you will fine the menu.”
Inside the front door is the main bar and kitchen with specialties and instructions on what’s going on the menu that day. They like to dig into everyone’s guilty pleasures, and that means junk food, so they try to give that feel but in a healthy way. “Just wait till you see our desserts,” warns Bjorn. Dessert? After gorging on bottomless plates on a Tuesday? God, what could it be? It’s date pudding. Not quite the sweet, sticky Anglo-Saxon safety net of the mid-winter variety, but one equally as heavy with smoked custard (new and interesting), nuts and caramel on a sponge base that sets in the stomach like a quick dry cement of satisfaction. “Some people say that it looks like dogfood,” says Bjorn, “but I take that as a compliment.” They also do a mean espresso!
As for the crowd, it was pretty much a full house of rowdy folk who like informality on their Tuesdays. People who like lots of food and know how to have fun. There are also lots of beers, wines and spirits on the drinks list, and all at reasonable prices, which always adds to the volume of any restaurant. “We give the total package on a Tuesday,” says Bjorn. “Ambience, staff, food quality and value for money. No one goes home hungry.”
161 Middle Road,
Tel +65 6336 6949