In Singapore, “mall food” does not translate to a trip to Sbarro for a slice. Barcelona-bred chef Pepe Moncayo quickly learned this when he moved to the Asian city-state in 2010. He was there to open Santi for his mentor, famed chef Santi Santamaria, inside the Marina Bay Sands.
The “mega complex” of a luxury hangout, as Moncayo describes it, is one of Singapore’s most famous destinations. “That was a shock,” recalls Moncayo. “Coming from Spain, you would never open a three-Michelin-star-to-be restaurant in a mall!” Now, the chef counts many Michelin-starred favorites in Singapore that are in malls. (Moncayo currently has a star for Cranes in DC.)
Even if you’re in the country to dine in hawker stalls, as I was in 2018, you must visit Marina Bay. I did. And when I moved to Northern Virginia, luxe Tysons Galleria reminded me of the behemoth in its own comparatively modest way. The one thing it was missing to complete the picture was a fine-dining destination.
That restaurant is Jiwa Singapura. It opened in February, with high ceilings, a patio dominated by a statue of a Merlion (Singapore’s official mascot), and an open kitchen all serving to conjure that other, sleeker brand of mall dining that’s common in Asia, but not yet in the U.S.
The cuisine, not surprisingly, won’t be confused with Galleria neighbors Yard House and P.F. Chang’s. Moncayo describes the tasting menu: “It’s an interpretation of the local pantry, inspired by the flavors of Singapore.” That means that dishes change daily, according to what ingredients top-tier Northern Virginia suppliers send his way. Think Shenandoah lamb, Maryland crab, and of-the-moment produce, such as ramps and chicken of the woods mushrooms. This one aspect is very unlike Singapore, he emphasizes, where there is no seasonality in the food.
The eight-course tasting menu that launched in May is now available for both lunch and dinner. If you’re looking to spend around $100 for two rather than per person, order from the à la carte menu.
The large bill of fare is full of hits that lean toward Malaysia and China, just two of Singaporean fare’s many international influences. I would be thrilled to see more Indian and Arab dishes like the ones that helped define the country for me, one curry and murtabak at a time. But this limitation does little to hinder a diner’s enjoyment. The Singaporean community has been supportive, says Moncayo, including one frequent guest, the country’s ambassador.
The menu is an amalgam of exceptionally prepared classics, modern versions of favorites, and Singapore-inspired originals. The last of these includes the breakout hit, the “carrot” cake. The quotation marks refer to the fact that there is no carrot in the dish — rather, cubes of tangy daikon are piled atop griddled rice cakes. They’re bathed in darkly sweet soy glaze but sacrifice none of the dish’s dueling varieties of crispness.
Few tables forgo the chicken satay, which makes perfect sense. Yes, you can get a version of the dish at practically any Thai takeout joint, but this is not just the fine-dining version — it’s an interpretation with history. Presented on a miniature grill, three skewers of peerlessly tender chicken thighs are prepared using the same recipe with which Moncayo’s father-in-law has long plied his trade as a street vendor. One taste of the shrimp-inflected peanut dipping sauce reveals why his wife’s father was able to make a living from skewers.
Another street food dish that benefits from Moncayo’s touch is char kway teow. It’s no secret that wide, flat rice noodles can be a challenge for chefs; when was the last time you had an al dente order of drunken noodles? But at Jiwa Singapura, the strands have a compelling bite that’s even more of a pleasure when mixed with squid, shrimp, and sweet Chinese sausage in a dark, oily sauce.
Hainanese chicken rice is one of Singapore’s most revered specialties, and Moncayo admits that at first, guests were nonplussed by his sous vide version. Now, with the temperature of his immersion circulator elevated 5 degrees, the chicken is no longer pink but is so yielding that my dining companion positively compared her first bite of the poultry to sushi. Paired with rice that’s cooked with aromatic chicken stock, the plate gets its color from microgreens, cucumbers, and intense blobs of chile sauce.
It could be said that Jiwa Singapura is really an ode to rice. Depending on what’s on the tasting menu, Moncayo may serve as many as five or six different versions at a time. The lush coconut rice is the centerpiece of the nasi lemak, Moncayo’s dressed up version of Malaysia’s national dish. Often served with fried fish, the Jiwa difference is seasonal seafood — in my case, meaty monkfish — shipped from Maine.
Simple jasmine rice is served with the best (and, at $59, most expensive) large plate. The wagyu beef rendang features a collagenous hunk of cheek that melts in its rich coconut-based sauce that blooms with ginger and chiles.
After the multisensory, Henry VIII–style gluttony of the rendang, it’s only natural to spring for dessert. If you have room, try the milo chocolate sundae, possibly the fanciest treat ever made using Nestle’s chocolate malt powder. More likely, you will prefer to travel light on your last leg of exploring Singaporean cuisine. To that end, get the apam balik, a thick but airy pancake spread with caramelized peanuts and served with kaya, an irresistible coconut-egg jam, for dipping.
With Jiwa Singapura (which means Singaporean Soul), Moncayo proves that NoVA is not only ready for a refined dining experience but can get it at the mall. We live in the suburbs, one of the ultimate bastions of mall culture, after all. And with one new restaurant, we are a step closer to Singaporean sophistication.
See This: Glass orchids in shades of purple hang above the dining room. Get a seat facing the open kitchen to watch a skillful team at the top of its game.
Eat This: “Carrot” cake, wagyu beef rendang, apam balik with kaya
Small Plates: $4–$25
Large Plates: $16–$59
Tasting Menu: $98
Open daily for lunch and dinner.
1702U Galleria at Tysons, 2001 International Dr., McLean, jiwasingapura.com
Feature image by Shannon Ayres