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The Tastes of Singapore at Bonaventure

January 29, 1987|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

Foodwise, Los Angeles has a little of everything, doesn't it? The answer is yes for those who do their own cooking. The variety of ingredients available here makes it possible to delve into some far-flung cuisines. But restaurantwise, there are glaring gaps. Oddly enough, we have missed out on Singaporean food, much to our loss.

This small island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula is a paradise of Asian cookery. Its offerings include a wide assortment of Chinese cuisines--Teochew, Hokkien and others; noodles, curries and so forth from different parts of Malaysia; Indian food representing north and south; dishes from various islands of Indonesia; and that unique mingling of Chinese and Malay cooking styles known as peranakan or Straits Chinese cookery. Much of this is available in a widespread network of food stalls at prices that are outrageously modest compared to food costs here.

Why have these intriguing tastes escaped us? Perhaps because Singaporeans are so intensely addicted to their food, they hate to leave their country. On top of that, the population is very small. Thus, there is no flood of Singaporean immigrants to open restaurants overseas.

So it was an event of unusual interest when a small fast food shop named Singapore Satay opened in the Bonaventure hotel last August. The menu is scant. The prices are rather high. And the satay is the best of the few dishes. But at least, it is a start. And it has won the acceptance of our few native Singaporeans, judging by the plans of the Club Singapura to hold a Chinese New Year celebration there next month.

Eddie Lim, who runs Singapore Satay, also maintains a business in Singapore supplying satay to hotels and restaurants. There, the marinated meats are grilled over charcoal. Here, Lim must resort to a gas-fired grill. But the sweetness in the marinade still cooks down to appetizing, caramelized brown bits on the surface of the meat. And the accompaniments are the same as in Singapore--peanut sauce, cucumber, onion and either steamed rice or chunks of a compressed rice cake that is called ketupat. The peanut sauce is sweet and crunchy and available for takeout, if you want to make satay at home.

In my opinion, the beef and chicken satay are the most successful. These can be ordered separately or on a combination plate, three sticks of each, for $4.25. Lamb satay is also available. And there is shrimp satay , which sounded interesting but in quality was no match for its high price ($4.95 for five shrimp).

Lim is adjusting the menu slowly. He has dropped mutton soup, which is one of the great soups of Southeast Asia but was not well received here. And he has added beef rendang, a spicy dish of beef cooked with coconut milk that is popular in Singapore and surrounding countries. Some cooks make a dry rendang, but Singapore Satay's is juicy and tastes strongly of lemon grass.

The rendang is accompanied by steamed rice, a few strands of sweet-sour pickled cucumber and curry gravy to sprinkle over the rice. I thought the portion of meat could have been larger for the price--$3.95--especially since one of the few chunks consisted largely of fat. But perhaps Lim will adjust these matters, too.

The one curry on the menu is an Indian/Malay-style chicken curry. Other dishes are soto , which is a chicken soup that includes bean sprouts, rice noodles and curry spices, and gado gado , a salad of steamed cabbage, bean sprouts, potatoes and hard-cooked egg that is eaten with peanut sauce.

A new addition is a curry platter that includes the chicken curry, beef or chicken satay , rendang , rice and pickled cucumber for $5.50. And there are two drinks worth noting-- kopi susu , which is sweetened, milky ice coffee, and chin chow , a darkly colored beverage based on Chinese grass jelly and flavored with banana.

Singapore Satay, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Level 4 (Green Tower), 404 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, (213) 624-5111. Open Monday through Thursday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. No credit cards.

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