Abacuses line the small foyer at Singapura, giving you something to fiddle with while you wait for your table. You can count the minutes, count the people in line behind you, count the taxis going down Lexington Avenue. And you probably will wait, as this skinny strip of a restaurant in Murray Hill specializing in Singaporean food has many fans. By 6:45 on a recent Friday, the waitstaff was turning people away.
Some call what comes out of the kitchen at Singapura "Asian fusion." While the dishes do draw on ingredients and preparations from a wide swatch of the continent, including India, Thailand, Malaysia, and the provinces of China home to the Hakka people, they represent, according to the menu, what's made by housewives and hawkers in Singapore. Singapura offers an excellent introduction into this multifaceted cooking culture.
Of all the food we ordered, the chili paneer ($7) most embodied the mingling of flavors mentioned on the menu: the rectangles of moist cheese were Indian, the basil Thai, the sticky, starchy sauce felt Chinese. Lots and lots of crushed red pepper and sliced chilies numbed the mouth, while the dairy soothed it.
The only disappointment that arises from eating the Malay fried chicken ($7) is remembering that not every fried chicken in the world is Malay fried chicken. These drumsticks, served with sides of Sriracha and garlic sauce, were small but meaty, crispy but juicy. Singapura doesn't have a bar (though it serves cocktails, beer, and wine), but these would make great bar snacks.
The sizzling lamb ($15) acted like a diva. As it arrived, it sang a bubbling aria, with plumes of smoke following as an echo. Heads turned, eyes widened, jaws dropped. On the plate, though, the lamb (sliced thin and sautéed through), onions, bell peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns in a soy-vinegar sauce were subtle rather than dramatic, a harmonious choir rather than a show-stealing soloist. Still worthy of a spot on the stage, but nowhere near as fiery as the presentation would imply.
We also tried the hakka noodles with shrimp ($13). Unfortunately, the pizzazz of the appetizers and showmanship of the lamb disappeared here. While the noodles had fine, nongreasy chew, they utterly lacked flavor. Not even crunchy-tender slivers of cabbage, onions, scallions, and carrots, or the shrimp finely cooked into corkscrews could save this plate.
Two-tops line one side of the restaurant, and booths set for four but narrow enough for two line the other side. Out of the speakers comes a medley of pop, heavy on the Bruno Mars, like what you might hear before the evening showing of the new Bradley Cooper movie. Edison lights and chandeliers shaped like flower petals cast everything in a reddish-golden glow, and mirrors give Singapura a sense of space. Like New York, Singapore is a heterogeneous place, where disparate peoples buffet, borrow, and blend. Singapura is best for: a date with diversity.