In concrete jungles, as in the real thing, height and mass do not correlate with interest or diversity. Against the blankly glass-faced monoliths of the business district, the meadow of old shophouses round Duxton are a treasure; even before I get to Kite I’m caught by the series of Chinese inscriptions above the entrances of the shophouses beside it. It turns out they are quotes from Wang Yucheng, a Song Dynasty writer, and Wang Xizhi, the great Jin Dynasty calligrapher.
Now, in a city with a dense transport web and good internet, I think location has become a little less important for restaurants (viz. Betterfield). But Kite has definitely won the lottery with its spot, and to its credit it has done well with its prize, treading the well-worn path of current restaurant design – concrete bar counter, mostly unadorned white walls, keeping some of the Peranakan tiles on the floor. By leaning into the minimalism they manage not to look too pretentious. This turns out not to be the philosophy with the food, though; it feels as if they’ve kept the place austere so you have your eyes all on the food. Well, it works beautifully, as does the food itself.
The menu is short and based around small plates, each its little ensemble; at lunch you can have three plates in any combination for $25, or four for $30. This also comes with a coffee or tea – in my case, a mint tea that tastes more of the darker, grassier stalks than the leaves.
And then the complimentary bread comes in and I know I will be well taken care of. Homemade dark rye bread is the colour of loam, the crumb firm but not dense, hues of caramel and pepper and mint flitting in the background. A smooth, strong hit of umami from the accompanying seaweed butter teases those flavours into emerging. I would probably put that butter with its swirling sesame scent on everything if I had a jar of it.
While Kite does not have the space to grow its own vegetables on site, it sources vegetables from local organic farms wherever possible, as I found out with the dish of ‘dirty vegetables’. It’s not a new trick – vegetables with a slick of brown butter and a chocolate-coffee soil – but it was surprising to see heirloom carrots in the mix, hailing from farms up round Yio Chu Kang. These tiny, slender roots, from a time before carrots were bred specifically for girth and orangeness, have a slight, persistent sweetness to match the vigorous taste of the asparagus. The crumbly soil bears just a little acidity to support the central characters.
And so the scene is set for the meatier but subtle things to come. Seabass is one of my favourite fishes, and the Pulau Ubin seabass (sourced, I guess, from the kelongs round there) has also been given the brown butter treatment after a spell in the sous vide. Many places also feel obliged to give seabass flesh a bit of char or crisping, but Kite eschews that – it is just the texture of the seabass, tender and moist, and the scent of brackish water and mud peeking through the salty butter. Instead the texture comes from the accompaniments, a shower of bright sunflower sprouts and a sunflower seed praline, and lotus roots whose starch has been turned into a vibrant crunch.
The 42 degree salmon is, as far as I’ve seen, the Instagram star at Kite, and for good reason. Instead of a fillet, the chunk has real thickness, which gives a range of textures from smoothly flaking to a supple, moist core. This time it’s the fish with the texture, surrounded all about with flavours – katsuoboshi and furikake on top and a tangy, clean-tasting wakame salad with little cubes of apple that taste almost sozzled with cider.
A similar promise of fruit, orange in this case, drove me to get the sugee cake dessert, but it falls a little short compared to the others. It’s not to do with the oranges, is for sure – charred clementines, blood orange jelly and a melting mandarin gel each bring a different aspect of citrus, which also melds nicely with the duvet of yoghurt beneath. But even with a sprinkling of dill, they prove inadequate to balance the sheer sweetness and richness of the sugee cake. Perhaps a little adjustment in proportions is what’s needed. And for all my griping, I clean the plate anyway.
There is a lot to love about Kite, and not just in what emerges from the kitchen. Real thought has been put into the dishes and what each ingredient can bring – with a little work, as with the wakame or the lotus root chips, or just as they are like the sunflower sprouts.
But the kitchen is just part of it. The front of house here is on another level from the norm in Singapore. Promptness with service is perhaps to be expected, in a small space, but everyone is deeply knowledgeable not just of the stuff that’s in the menu but also of the concepts and history behind each dish. There is no uncomfortable pause or ‘I’ll go check with the chef’ when I ask about this and that on the menu, and every dish comes with a little introduction, to the point where I wonder if they’re on to me. But then they do the same with the table behind me, so they’re probably just awesome.
And with that they also get to flaunt the little insistences, the principles that underly the restaurant – organic food, heirloom varieties which, unlike a lot of veg here, actually taste of something. And round the back of the restaurant I even see planter boxes of curry leaves, basil and sunflower sprouts. And there’s also enough local sourcing to make the chest swell with nationalistic pride. There’s a dish called Uncle William’s quail, for instance, named after the proprietor of a quail farm in Singapore. Many of us get the eggs, but Kite gets the bird.
I’m already planning to come back another day, when I probably will also get the bird. Perhaps this time I’ll try the dinner service; in the evenings, I have been told, Kite morphs into something a little more sultry, with an alluring cocktail list that they also plan to introduce to the lunch service at some point. But even in its girl next door guise – the high-ceiling space filled with noontime sunlight but cool and airy, the instrumental of Stairway to Heaven wafting in the air – Kite has a knack for making people comfortable, and isn’t that a precious gift for a restaurant to have.
53 Craig Road (map)
Tues – Fri: Noon – 2.30pm, 6pm – midnight
Sat – Sun: 6pm – midnight
Closed on Mondays