For Nouri’s Ivan Brehm, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is five.
Five years, to be specific, for the chef-owner to refine his crossroads cooking philosophy at the Amoy Street restaurant, which reopened last month after a renovation. If the old Nouri was a brainy food studies professor, the new version is culinary monk spouting Jedi Master one-liners: What you nourish, nourishes you. Food does not exist in isolation. Cleanse your hands before eating, you must, over our replica Song Dynasty vase.
Brehm’s concept wants to show how food travelled through different cultures to arrive at what we recognise as sushi and dumplings today. His dishes are provoking, yet still strangely familiar. Is it palak paneer, or is it shanklish, a Levantine cheese Brehm makes with yoghurt and wraps in a Georgian nut and herb paste? Is it vadai and laksa, or a Brazilian bean fritter with a turmeric coconut curry called Acarajé & Vatapá? “It’s a matter of translation,” Brehm said. “As long as we can find a level of connection, people will understand where our food comes from.”
Brehm does a tremendous amount of research to arrive at his thesis, which he documents on Appetite‘s website. “If we don’t do it, people will think we’re making it up,” he said. But Nouri’s dishes are remarkably restrained. Narezushi, or “Singapore’s national dish,” Brehm quipped, draws from Japan, China, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia. In the wrong hands, it might dissolve into a featureless mess, but Brehm’s layers of spongy idli rice cake, pungent prahok fish paste, pickled sardine, and ginger flower is harmoniously distinct.
Some dishes are as playful as they are profound. Barbarian’s Head tells the origin story of dumplings through chicken skin-filled Turkish manti dumplings in a spicy beef broth. It is joined by a wagyu ‘nduja roll spiked with Szechuan peppercorns, and the combination of dumplings, meat, and mala recalls the pleasure of hotpot, especially when paired with a clean rice lager from Japanese brewer Swan Lake. Boeuf à la Presse, which Brehm called a “Big Mac,” gives in to our innate desire for succulent meat with an A5 Yamaguchi wagyu ribeye on a sauce as red as blood. Well charred and utterly juicy, its umami is amplified by an earthy Terada Honke genshu sake.
Chocolate Fish Ball is a dessert of chocolate sorbet that ripples with brine and spice from candied ikan bilis and chilli, and a rice paper-wrapped green chilli marshmallow acts as a floral palate cleanser. It is meant to make you think about Aztecan spicy chocolate drinks and Southeast Asian savoury sweetmeats, but Brehm hopes it is just the start. “If we can have an intelligent conversation about food, then we can have an intelligent conversation about other things,” he said.