How often have you visited the area around Arab Street in Singapore (otherwise known as the Arab Quarter)? And how often have you really enjoyed the food there? I’m not talking about local food. The Murtabak at Al Tasneem is one of my 10 Best Hawker Foods in Singapore after all. And when it comes to coffee the Arab Street area has several great places to grab a cup of Joe, Working Title and Maison Ikkoku to name a couple. But I’ve often been disappointed in the restaurants in this part of town. It seems like the Middle Eastern inspired restaurants are all pretty average, or even below average which is always a disappointment. The bars and nightlife spots are all pretty good but when it comes to the food, time and again, I’m left feeling duped, or even worse, ripped off and duped.
So when I read about a new Italian place up in Kandahar St, a couple of streets away from Arab Street in Singapore, somewhere aiming to bring affordable Italian food to this part of the world, my interest was definitely sparked. I booked a table for last Saturday night and didn’t think too much more about it. Through the week a friend was telling me about a friend of hers who had opened a new Italian restaurant in Kandahar St, oooooh, interesting I thought. What’s the name of the restaurant I asked? Cicheti she said. What a coincidence, I’m booked in for Saturday night. And so she told me the story of how Cicheti came to be (Cicheti by the way is pronounced “Chi-Keh-Tee”, an Italian “Ci” is always a “Ch” sound).
It turns out that the owners wanted to create a restaurant for everyone, serving good Italian food that is reasonably priced. And it so happens that the parents of one of the co-owners own the gorgeous shophouse that the restaurant is housed in so it formed the perfect backdrop for a rustic and inventive Italian restaurant. Cicheti unashamedly boasts a philosophy that, “While remaining faithful to the heritage of Italian influenced foods, we’ll add our own simple interpretations: our food and drink menus will be intriguing, yet approachable.” Which is a very sensible approach in Singapore. After all, it is near impossible to duplicate an authentic Italian experience in this unseasonal climate, so it makes sense to take the structure of Italian food and tweak it to fit with our unique location.
I guess I should tell you about the food then? But first, the setting. Dominating the ground floor level is a huge Neopolitan pizza oven, imported from Italy no less. It’s heated to 500 degrees Celsius but they must have it well ventilated as the heat doesn’t seem to dominate the restaurant. It’s a great centrepiece though and watching the action around it can be quite mesmerising. The ground floor is cosy yet comfortable, the lighting is good, it could possibly be a little more subdued but for someone interested in taking photos of the food there was just enough light to get a decent photo. There were a mix of groups here on our visit, a few big groups and then groups of between two and six. The volume did escalate at times but that may just have been the crowd.
Ok, so now to the food. Oh, hang on, the service. I really should mention the service. You know how I’ve written at length about how service in Singapore sucks? Well, it doesn’t at Cicheti. Our delightful waiter, Thierry (as in Thierry Henri), a French boy (well man, but very boyish) was wonderful. He knew the menu, he advised us about wine, and he recommended how much food we should get (without going overboard). Other servers were also good, keeping iced water on the table and not being too over zealous in plate collection (I’ve noticed recently that even if there’s only two of you dining and one of you finishes a meal, the server will be over to collect your plate instantly. I find it disruptive because you’re usually mid conversation and I don’t see why they can’t wait until everyone has finished. Is this just me?).
And now to the food. With no exaggeration everything we ate at Cicheti was cooked perfectly, full of flavour and presented well. Starting with crumbed calamari ($11) that was crumbed in a delicious homemade breading, and delightfully crisp outside but tender inside, with a smooth and silky aioli on the side.
We then moved onto the meatballs, Polpette di Carne, four in a serve meant only one each which was a shame, but at $11 that’s still not too bad. The beef meatballs were exquisitely soft and juicy and they were served with a rich tomato based sauce alongside some toasted bread. With such a large pizza oven dominating the room we couldn’t resist trying a pizza as well. We shared a Margherita ($17) that had a perfectly thin and crispy crust, with just a little chewiness at the edges and topped with simple but flavourful ingredients.
Next was the pasta course. Although we were a group of four we still shared everything. The Papardelle Ragu ($23) was just divine. Possibly my favourite, although that may have been the meatballs. I love the thick noodles of Papardelle and they were a perfect match for the ragu, letting the flavour shine through and adding good texture (see picture at top). And the ragu, although rich, was not overpowering, with just the right amount of meat to savour.
Spaghetti vongole ($23) was served with a simple sauce, garlic, chilli and leek with some oil and chilli, as well as the vongole. Not too hot but just a little zing and the leeks added a nice touch. All the pasta was served al dente, an obvious but crucial thing to get right, and many times it’s not.
Finally, we were served one of the house specials, the Branzino Sotto Sale ($35), a classic Italian dish where the sea bass is encased in a thick crust of sea salt and baked in a normal oven for about half an hour, then it’s finished off with about 45 seconds in the pizza oven. It’s somewhat of a spectacle to watch this dish be made up on the counter and then placed in the searing hot oven and literally the crust started to burn after about 40 seconds. Then they take the crust away and present the fish for you to enjoy. The fish was divine. Soft and fleshy but with flavour from the herbs and salt, although it was definitely not too salty as I feared.
My only complaint was the vegetables were different from what was described on the menu, we were expecting green beans and instead received a mix of peppers and onions which were good but not what my tastebuds were ready for. We enjoyed the house red with our meal, a Montepulciano from Italy ($55). The wine was nothing special, but it was a decent house wine, although I’d probably venture to something a little further up the price list next time. Or you could even take your own, Cicheti charge $35 per bottle for corkage so it’s worth remembering if you have a special bottle.
We didn’t try dessert but instead headed to Maison Ikkoku for cocktails (see below). We paid just over $60 per head (including tax and service) for six courses between four people and one bottle of wine to share (including $35 corkage for a special bottle of bubbles my generous friends had brought along).
52 Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198901
phone +65 62925012
Cocktails and Views
The first thing to know about Maison Ikkoku is that they make great coffee. The second is they make awesome cocktails. The third is that there is the most unbelievable view of the mosque from their back terrace. All in all, a great spot to have the first (or last in our case) drink of the evening. I walked upstairs and initially thought, uh oh, hipster ville, too cool for school vibe and felt a bit uneasy. Then we were seated at a lovely table and after ordering a Manhattan I popped to the loo. On my way I discovered the shimmering back terrace with an awesome view of the Sultan Mosque (pictured above). If you like to sit outside, and especially if you like a cheeky cigarette, this view is not a bad one to stare at. Back to my waiting Manhattan and I was instantly swayed into the, ‘loving this place’ camp. First of all, they served the Manhattan with one of those giant round ice balls that I’ve seen around lately. Great for keeping the drink cooler for longer. Second of all, the Manhattan included a piece of orange peel and what was possibly a marinated prune in the bottom of the glass. I can’t be sure but the slight sweetness it brought was the perfect end to a perfect evening.
20 Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198885
phone +65 62940078
I’m now on the hunt for more good places in the area. Do you know any?
Note that the internal photo of Cicheti at the top of this post was provided by Cicheti – it’s a much better shot than my iphone photos