The Smallest Pizza Bar in Singapore—Small’s—Is The Creative Outlet That Bjorn Shen Needs
When working in this often capricious world of gastronomy, it helps to not take oneself too seriously. But one overtly unaffected homegrown chef is known to be unapologetic about it. From christening his style of cuisine “dudestronomy”, which he describes as “the art of elevating low-brow, comfort foods using creativity, skill and good ingredients”, to helping make Middle Eastern cuisine hip with the locals via an inspired rendition that has made his nine-year-old flagship restaurant, Artichoke, a household name, Bjorn Shen—who some may recall was also a judge for the local reality show MasterChef Singapore last year—epitomises what it means to embrace your crazy.
His latest endeavour is a four-seater, three-days-a-week chef’s counter dubbed Small’s for equally obvious reasons. Housed in a broom closet-sized room adjacent to Artichoke, this is where he road tests some of his bravest ideas, such as the current “pizza omakase” menu. “I’m happy that Artichoke is stable for now, but I am bursting with more ideas that don’t necessarily fit at the restaurant,” Shen explains, affirming how he needs a creative outlet, one that’s not tied down to a single concept or cuisine.
“I’m a chef first and a businessman second,” he confesses. “What really drives me is the creative process.” These new creations, he jests, are like snowflakes; all different and only last a short while, making way for new ones. “Over the years, I’ve learnt that people tend to appreciate things much more when they are temporary and in limited supply. Once you make them readily available in the form of a brick and mortar concept with a fixed menu, a lot of that special appeal is lost,” adds the self-confessed chicken wing fanatic.
While Shen fondly recalls a few past but now defunct creations, such as Bird Bird's chicken skin ice cream sundae and duck krapow tater tots, new ones, he remarked, come to him quite fast. This explains the long wish list he already has of innovative things he wants to cook at Small’s after he’s done with the pizza omakase idea—which is in approximately three to four months if you’re planning a visit. "I know for a fact that my life wouldn't be complete if I didn’t attempt a chicken nugget and champagne bar, or a cold noodle slurp shop," he posits.
It also means that fans of the chef’s weird and wonderful designs have a very limited time frame to experience Small's current menu. Diners will have to reserve all four seats to confirm a reservation and pay in full in advance. And if you’re thinking this should increase your chances, note that seats for the month of February sold out in under a minute. (Reservation dates for the upcoming month will be released on the 24th of every month at 12pm.)
What’s a pizza omakase, you ask? Well, it’s essentially a provocatively gourmet menu inspired by Shen’s pizza experiences of the 80’s and 90’s, which, if you can recall, often involved commercialised renditions of hot wings, meatballs and salads. Aside from the unique opportunity to dine on some truly one-of-a-kind dishes, key highlights of the changing menu here include a showcase of unusual, small-batch ingredients and processes.
“My pizza dough is a high-hydration Neapolitan-style dough that’s aged for a minimum of four days for flavour development—no one else does this in a commercial setting,” he shares, giving special mention to a fisherman friend in Lombok, Indonesia, who sends him “cool” ingredients like octopus bottarga and unique clam varieties.
In short, the 10- to 12-course menu features petit servings of inspired dishes, several innovative pizzas and a couple of desserts, served with a hearty dose of Shen’s quirky and sometimes self-deprecating humour.
“The intimacy of Small’s allows me space and time to engage in that bit of uninterrupted show-and-tell, and guide diners through the experience,” he adds.
It is quite literally a one-man-show, from the food to the entertainment, and a rare opportunity for diners to interact with the outspoken chef. It's also one of the few occasions diners will get to witness Shen dabble in more "fancy-pants" dishes, such as a "dessert" of tomatoes that have been macerated in St-Germain elderflower liqueur, topped with burrata he further ferments for added funky notes.
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Could any of these ideas lead to a new restaurant concept? “Who knows? I’m not particularly keen to open anything new right now, especially on my own,” Shen concedes. “I’m getting older and my body aches in ways they didn’t 15 years ago when I started my cooking career—but with interest from the right mix of partners, anything is possible.”
This article was originally published on Tatler Singapore.