“Singapore to me is home,” chef and restaurateur Pepe Moncayo tells us. The Barcelona-born culinarian left Spain in 2010 at the request of his mentor Santi Santamaria to open restaurant Santi inside the famous Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. At the time, he admits, he had never heard of the island nation. But it is where he met his wife, Aishah, had his children, and opened his first solo restaurant, Bam!
Readers, however, will know Moncayo’s name from Cranes, his Michelin-starred DC restaurant. Soon, it will be mentioned in the same breath with Jiwa Singapura, his ode to Singapore that opened inside Tysons Galleria on February 15.
“It’s a beautiful mall, very classy,” says Moncayo. “It’s a big opportunity for us to make a great restaurant in this area.” Indeed, it’s just as big an opportunity for NoVA to welcome a new restaurant with Moncayo’s pedigree.
Of the space, designed by DC firm //3877, Moncayo says, “You’re going to be blown away.” That’s thanks to a mirrored ceiling and pendant lighting at the entrance, opening up to 30-foot ceilings in the main dining room. A floral art installation capture eyes when diners aren’t checking out the action in the open kitchen. Even before the return of warm weather, the 3,000-square-foot patio will attract guests thanks to its ability to be fully enclosed in the cold months.
Regarding the food, Moncayo says that he doesn’t so much encapsulate the diverse cuisine of Singapore as pay homage to his favorite dishes. The menu is divided into classics from street vendors and hawker centers, as well as “Jiwa Signatures,” Moncayo’s own creations.
Satay holds a special place on his menu and in his heart. Aishah’s father is a street vendor who sells the skewers. Moncayo’s version is made with chicken and served with a side of peanut sauce. Singapore boasts a vibrant Indian community, as well as its own Peranakan cuisine, but Moncayo says that his introductory menu focuses on the Chinese and Malay traditions of Singapore.
There is, of course, his take on Singapore’s beloved chili crab, but also a version of the Indonesian coconut-milk beef curry known as rendang that features a braised shank. You can’t have a Singaporean restaurant without Hainanese chicken rice, and Moncayo uses modern methods, including sous vide, to replicate what he calls, “a masterful piece of culinary technique that is sold for $5 in Singapore.”
The regular menu will rotate every two or three months, Moncayo says. Diners can also look forward to the introduction of a tasting menu, which will allow the award-winning chef to share his own fine-dining interpretations of Singaporean fare. Just as exciting for guests who have spent time in Singapore, when lunch service begins, it will feature hawker-style tiffin boxes.
Jiwa Singapura will be a culinary homecoming for Moncayo and Aishah, who is the restaurant’s director of service. And as the region’s only Singaporean restaurant, it will attract both new fans and seasoned devotees of the cuisine.
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