"I'm Danny Lee"
By T. Dietz
On an around the world business trip heading East from California that would cover most of western Europe and parts of Asia, we arrived one late afternoon in Singapore, 2004. Checking in tired and grumpy at the iconic colonial-style Raffles hotel established in 1887 we headed straight to our rooms. Raffles has its famous Long Bar where the Singapore Sling was invented and we’d later find time for a scotch among the peanut shell covered bar floor.
Trying to catch an hour or so of shuteye before ordering in-room dining, I laid on the room’s couch and had that out of time, over tired feeling which blocked any sort of shut eye. I reached for the clicker and turned the TV on. Without any channel surfing the tube had keyed in on an English-speaking station showing Anthony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour show. Bourdain was sitting with a couple of guys at a yellow table that were saying he’s about to taste the best prepared seafood in all of Singapore. Later I’d find out that just seconds before I tuned in that same guy would say it’s the most expensive restaurant in Singapore – missed that! I watched the short, less than 10-minute clip and was captivated by Bourdain (who I had never seen/heard before) and the incredible seafood preparations that kept arriving. Fresh steamed scallops in garlic and black bean sauce, whelks, etc. and finally the chef’s signature dish crab bee hoon. Ok, we have to go there for dinner and now is all I could think. I grabbed pen and paper and wrote down the dishes, the restaurant’s name, Sin Haut Eating House, and the Chef, Danny Lee. Time for a gastric adventure.
Turns out Anthony Bourdain wrote years later in Men’s Health that Sin Haut Eating House was one of the 13 places you had to dine before you died. The show was over a year old and I’ll never know whether it was just a rerun and serendipitous timing on the TV or it was a regular repeat on the Hotel TV. Bourdain raved about off-the-beaten track establishments and Sin Haut fit the bill perfectly. Turns out the restaurant was in the Red Light district of Geylang township. Not something we would know until after our journey had ended.
I called up to my travel partner KC’s room and said to get his mojo on. I had just heard of a place that we had to find. Standing at the Concierge’s desk I showed him my piece of paper with the name Sin Haut Eating House. He was unfamiliar but attempted looking it up. He ultimately made a phone call and took some notes. Looking at us he says “this restaurant is in a bad part of town” and we’d much more enjoy a meal either here at Raffles or nearby. We asked if he had the address, which he did, and said thanks.
Out the front door and into a taxi. After handing the address to the driver we had a bit of difficulty understanding his Singlish but ultimately understood him to say you guys realize this is in a bad part of town and did we really want to go. Yeah, we did.
We arrived at a multi cross-roads intersection and jumped out. It was busy and run down but didn’t look threatening at all. We did get a few looks but figured that was because we kept looking at the multiple street corners trying to get our bearings. Then out of the visual noise I spotted the distinct yellow tables with round seats I had seen on Bourdain’s show. Making our way across the busy intersection we entered the restaurant and asked where to sit – anywhere. Picking a weathered and stained yellow plastic table we were quickly approached and asked if we wanted a drink – two Tiger beers came promptly as did a menu not readily interpretable.
About 10 minutes later we wondered if we’d been forgotten when a man in shorts and rubber boots came over. The restaurant name was right there on the sign, but I figured I’d ask any way. “Is this where Chef Danny Lee cooks”? “I’m Danny Lee”. And so he was – rubber boots and all. Although in a stupor watching the show, the images of Chef Lee came clear now.
I blurted out that I’d seen him on Bourdain’s show and the food looked fantastic and it was just by chance I had seen it at the hotel and we had to come. He said, “old show” and walked off. If you peruse the interwebs now for Sin Haut Eating House and Danny Lee, it has a few stories of excellent food but mainly ones that speak to a rude, slow service and significantly overpriced dishes. Remember, I had missed the very beginning of the show saying this place was expensive, even in 2004. I can’t be sure but in 2004 the full weight of Bourdain’s show probably hadn’t yet reached its peak impact on Chef Lee and his restaurant. It was slow, and for a reason. Turns out Danny takes all the orders and cooks as well.
So, another beer and another 15 minutes go by and no waitress that will answer us about ordering food. And then just as we were talking about how much longer we should wait, Danny comes out with the steamed scallops – the same preparation he had done for the show. Ok, lets eat. The food started coming. Every dish that was prepared on the show including Chef Lee’s piece de resistance, crab bee hoon. It was a culinary adventure extraordinaire. A gastric phenomenon. Danny Lee was cooking the entire Bourdain show. He didn’t miss a beat. He delivered every dish himself.
Full and satiated beyond belief we hadn’t even wondered what this might cost. The waitress who had been serving us beers brought the check and we couldn’t believe the price. Less than $100 U.S. I can’t explain the inexpensive bill and believe all these years later that Danny just felt, I don’t know, generous?
We walked further into the restaurant after paying and called out to Danny. He turned briefly toward us and we started yammering how awesome the dishes were. But he already had turned back to his stove and put his hand up like a dismissal, never turning around again as we finally took our leave. Ok – but what an unbelievable meal. I’ve told this story numerous times and only recently looked up how well Chef Lee has done. Super good for him. Our experience lives on as a perfect memory of what you can get by heading of the beaten path.