Restaurant Review - Straits: Singapore sling
Delivering more than just star power
When we speak of Asian fusion, we're generally speaking of the Americanized, wasabi mashed potatoes and cutesy sushi roll genre of cooking that's become so ubiquitous over the last 20 years. The irony is that a lot of Asian cooking is indeed fusion, but fusion born of history and culture. Szechuan cuisine gets some of its distinctive spicing from Indian monks who traveled through the province. Likewise, Singaporean food combines flavors from China, Indonesia, Malaysia and India.
I have to admit, a true rendering of the cuisine's complexities is not what I expected to find at Straits, the Midtown restaurant owned by Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris. Celebrity ownership, a "hot" location and an absentee chef don't usually equal quality and authenticity.
Bridges originally bought the building that formerly housed Spice (a decidedly Americanized example of the Asian fusion concept) as a real estate investment. But a meal at San Francisco's Straits, owned by chef Chris Yeo, inspired him to go one step further and become a restaurateur. Bridges convinced Yeo to partner with him and open an Atlanta location. It turns out that Yeo's team – executive corporate chef Tyson Wong and Atlanta executive chef Jackie Ng – has a deft hand with flavors and textures. While not totally authentic, Straits packages its fusion thoughtfully and tastefully.
The restaurant sits perched at the corner of Juniper and Fifth streets like a glass-walled ship setting sail over Midtown. Upon entering, it's hard to believe that this space used to be one of Atlanta's most daring and modern. Its soaring ceilings and huge windows are attractive, but not particularly impressive in this era of mega-glitz.
If you haven't noticed, restaurants are now determined that we share our food with one another, the hope being that by renaming "appetizers" "small plates," we will acquiesce. I've always shared my food, and there's no way someone at my table ever would have gotten away with keeping Straits' banana-blossom salad all to himself. The crunchy and savory mixture of julienned grilled chicken, banana flowers and Asian pear is at once refreshing and earthy, the banana flower adding a nutty snap.
The simple watermelon-and-skirt-steak salad was likewise gobbled up, the burst of juicy melon a nice counterpoint to the muscular steak. The musky red spice imparted by sambal, the hot chili paste used all over Southeast Asia, works especially well in Yeo's dishes, particularly the lady finger sambal, a rich, addictive stew of crunchy local okra. Sambal udang delivers the same hearty spicing, but this time coating large, juicy prawns.
A similar sticky-hot aesthetic runs through the noodle dishes, and is especially effective in the mee goring, fat Indian-style egg noodles thick with tomato, chili, tofu, potato and prawns.
But the best dish I had at Straits was an "origami" sea bass, cooked en papillote (in paper) with ginger, shiitake mushrooms and tiny sweet peppers. The swoon-worthy flesh had a delicate, buttery texture. Yeo and Wong may not be in the kitchen, but they've obviously found a skilled chef in Jackie Ng.
The cleaner and fresher the flavor, the more this kitchen succeeds. Dishes that struggled were often richer, more homestyle variations. The classic Singapore chicken curry, potong kari ayam, lacked complexity, distinctive spicing and nuance. A special of overcooked drunken chicken livers looked as though they had been forgotten in the fryer until someone noticed the edges turning black. And desserts are a total mess – heavy, uninteresting bread pudding, and worse, a flaming mango Alaska, frozen rock-hard and covered with a syrup that tasted so overpoweringly of cheap booze it made the dish inedible. If you're still hungry after dinner, order more noodles.
The wine list is average, and the cocktails I tried were medicinal and sweet. A couple of sake choices work well as aperitifs, and the Dr. H. Thanisch riesling exhibits enough off-dry character to stand up to the spicier dishes.
Among Atlanta foodies, the adage goes that the farther out of town you venture, the more authentic the food. Straits, right in the heart of Midtown, isn't authentic Singaporean any more than our swanky high-end sushi places are authentic Japanese. But the restaurant delivers thoughtful, well-spiced, often expertly cooked homages to the tiny nation's food. That's a fusion we could use more of in Atlanta.