Walking down Singapore's Keong Saik Road on a Friday night towards the end of July, people flow in and out of the restaurants to either side in a steady stream. The sweet smells of local eateries drift on the humid air, and the din of a hundred conversations creates a constant murmur. Millennial whoops tumble down from Potato Head, a multi-story dining-come-bar establishment on the corner of Tek Lim Road, punctuated by the occasional brazen jolt from the horn of an impatient taxi driver. None of which would be at all unusual in the lead up to the weekend in one of Asia's great cosmopolitan centres, but this is 2020.
It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the hospitality scene around the globe. Rolling lockdowns and an understandable caution by authorities in allowing people to gather in groups have seen restaurateurs shutter their doors until times improve. While the pandemic is far from over, in Singapore at least life seems have returned to a modicum of normality. And with the easing of COVID related restrictions comes the return of some of our favourite restaurants.
Opening the door to Burnt Ends, Australian Chef David Pynt's elevated ode to the Aussie barbeque, it's still somewhat disconcerting to have staff greet you in masks (matte black to match their attire), but the atmosphere is no less warm. Indeed, the venue hardly seems to have skipped a beat. The smell of Western Australian Jarrah burning in the two massive woodfired ovens behind the kitchen counter feels like coming home.
Entree is the venue's signature Beef Marmalade on house-made sourdough with dill pickles. It's sweet and smoky and just enough before it gets too rich. Still, if we could buy it by the jar and eat it with a spoon we would. We share a bottle of the Commune of Buttons Gloria Saigne 2018, an organic unfiltered Pinot Noir from South Australian siblings Sophie and Jasper Button, an ideal accompaniment to the marmalade. The Grissini and Taramasalata is a fresh counterpoint while we're waiting for the other dishes to arrive.
As a frantic round of ordering eases off and the diners settle in, Pynt wanders over to say hello to the table. How's business? It's going to be one of their biggest weeks of the year so far. Lockdown was tough but they saw it through, doing everything from farmer's style grocery boxes to a woodfired pizza menu. Even with socially distant seating in place, customers have been quick to fill the gap left over from lockdown. What's next - who knows? Looking around and nodding we all share variations on the same sentiment; touch wood.
Singapore has implemented a short-term limit on the service or consumption of alcohol after 10:30pm after a few wild types decided to piss it up during lockdown. As curfew nears, we finish off the Pinot and order coffee to go with the house-made Berry Tart, delightfully sweet and fresh and it bookends the meal nicely.
We step back out onto the footpath. The restaurants are quieter and the music’s down to a low hum. There are more taxis as people head home, masks dutifully on. It's an early night compared to those in the 'old world' - the long, long ago nights from January and February - but it's a quality one. It tastes a little of hope and a little of smoke and, touch wood, it means we're going to be ok.