Kin review at Straits Clan: Chef Damian D'Silva's heritage cuisine is here to preserve tradition and time-honoured recipes
Tradition that feeds the soul
"You know me right. I don't eat, I'm terrible." confessed chef Damian D'Silva, after I asked if he had eaten his lunch, given that we were faced with a smorsgasbord of small plates at his new restaurant Kin at Straits Clan. It's true — this was the second time chef Damian had refuted a same response back when he cooked up one of the best seafood pastas I had ever eaten in my life (yes including noods from Italy) at his home last year.
Something about that response struck a soft spot in me. It reminded me of my dad who lamented a lack of an appetite whenever he cooked up a feast for us. It was always a bittersweet feeling that he couldn't enjoy what he served up as we tucked in greedily. That was similarly the case for chef Damian, who has been an unofficial father figure in the culinary scene — expounding what heritage cuisine looks like in a multiracial city like Singapore while representing his diverse lineage in a journey from Soul Kitchen to Immigrants to Folkore, and now Kin. A taste of home, regardless of race or religion.
But despite him refusing to pick up a pair of chopsticks to dine with us, the man is beaming. Not that he wasn't before, but the pride and joy of Kin was evident in his stance, his greyish eyes, and his smile — yes he smiles. Having departed Folklore to manage Kin in hand with The Lo and Behold Group, most diehard fans must be wondering how the two will differ from one another. "Folkore was about me. And this restaurant is still going to be about me. You won't see a change if you know me and the food that I cook," stated chef Damian. "I wanted a place where I could preserve the heritage — to appeal to the young ones and the old. Because when I die, who will know about these foods and dishes?" His role here, apart from flexing a wide range of dishes from his childhood memories and personal creations, is also being a mentor training the chefs that are in his kitchen.
There's a plethora of foods that await a meal here at Kin. Chef Damian attributes it with a gesture to his head: "It's all up here. There's so many things that I want to cook." A win for us, because if there's anything we love about communal dining, it's variety. Expect seafood to be part of the line-up here — sandcrabs, steamed prawns, and chef's favourite — a whole fish, that leads him to identity that he's more Chinese than everything. There will be Peranakan, Eurasian, as well as Chinese and Malay and Indian-Sri Lankan influences like how his grandfather used to rep. String hoppers with curry will definitely be something we're coming back for.
The preview menu that we tasted is and probably will be the tip of the iceberg — which was still plenty to go around. A refreshing salad opened the meal — and it wasn't like anything we've tried from chef Damian. The keredok was simple, fragrant with peanut dressing, and played its part in teasing what was to come. On the smaller plates — starters if you will — were chi pow kai (a paper wrapped chicken), pork satay, ngor hiang, and a herbacous salad of Asian pennywort, mint, four-angled bean, tomatoes tossed in a lime-shallot oil dressing. In between bites of the meat-filled skewers, we learnt a little bit more about its dip: "It has pineapple, we don't put any sugar and it also has tamarind in it, explained chef Damian. Which explains why the satay sauce didn't emanate a familiar sweetness that we are typically conditioned to accept, but rather folded with a fragrant advantage from the pineapple — enhancing the marinate of the pork. The salad is also a modern interpretation of championing local herbs, which he also added that Asian pennywort had the ability to cleanse our blood. It's also a treat to chomp on. There was also something different about the chi pow kai. There was no oyster sauce, and it was all about the chicken. Doing it like his grandfather (who he endearingly calls Pop), the chicken is wrapped tightly in the shape of a money bag, and then put to the fryer. It's hard to tell, because the result is a moist, juicy chi pow kai that retained all the flavours within. Rub on his homemade garlic chili relish, and you would find it hard to have this dim sum at any other place.
Half an hour in, and chef Damian had already spilled his favourite market haunts like Tekka Market and Geylang Serai (where he gets his herbs). It's also easy to gather that the man has great connections with small-batch producers, who he has been a loyal customer for over 50 years. Like his tau cheo uncle who makes the soya sauce himself, and doesn't sell it commercially. "I pray everyday that he doesn't die, or else I wouldn't know where to get my tau cheo." There's a glimmer in his eyes as he makes an easy transition to the Fishmonger's Haul, one of the highlights here at Kin. Referencing the poignant scene from Tampopo, chef Damian gives a short lesson on how to actually eat a fish. "When the fish comes, don't even touch it. Take the sauce and bathe the fish in it. After you bathe the fish, scoop up the sauce and try it. Close your eyes and embrace the flavour." I'll like to call this 'Damian's fish haiku'.
Abiding by the tall order, the pomfret we savoured was fresh, silky and seeping with what the menu calls, 'Chef Damian's touch with chili'. Portion a huge chunk of it over a spoonful of jasmine white rice and you'll see what chef means by an outstanding soya sauce. There's also a whole lot of heat next to this. The sambal sampler is a myriad of chili dips that allow more spices (or tears) to come through. There was the sambal hijau, belado, belachan, and even a seasonal pickle that's not for the faint-hearted. His idea of a green chili is stuffed with green papaya strips and dried shrimp — it's sharp, it's sour, and it's something that you can't calmly hold a conversation while chewing.
Another sharing standouts included a piquant rendition of babi masak assam, braised pork belly and ribs simmered with preserved bean paste and Chinese mustard. For more heat, call for the ayam lemak chili padi. Think huge portions of kampong chicken submerged in a rich coconut sand ginger gravy. Chef's version of gulai (an Indonesian curry) had beef cheeks that were also tender to the point of breaking apart with a spoon, immersed in a rendang-like gravy and spiked with just the right punch of Indian spices. Just like how I remembered, his dishes are hearty and labour-inducing. It's a selfless act of passing down what he ate and received as a kid — to share mouthfuls of love in his establishments.
For a sweet cool-down from the spices, the kueh ko sui and kueh bengkah we adored so much from Folklore still remains here. He also added in defeat, "I can't make them any better." An earnest confession that most chefs might not be so candid to divulge, but with chef Damian, it's a comforting intent that he seeks the best and is still in search of a better palm sugar. Despite my humble opinion that a plate of ko sui is probably as good as its gets when it's made by the legend himself.
Kin will officially open on 4 November. Reservations can be made here from 14 October onwards.