Hidden from the main street of Middle Road is Artichoke, proudly the least authentic Middle Eastern restaurant in town. It’s absolutely eccentric — from the huge Step Brothers movie poster on one corner to the mishmash of stickers and artwork adorning the walls, it makes you feel like you’re in your cool friend’s room, the cool friend being Chef Bjorn Chen.
Chef Bjorn is probably the coolest chef you’ll ever meet — his honest, zany out-there personality rubs on you. After a while you’ll be sharing laughs while enjoying the awesome music direct from Chef Bjorn’s playlist.
The food here takes Middle Eastern cuisine as the starting point, then is modified/adjusted/manhandled by Chef Bjorn and his team to create a unique take combining the best of Middle Eastern fare with creative flavours.
Artichoke isn’t afraid to mix it up either. Expect additions (and subtractions) to menu, with some dishes getting a makeover. However, there are some #OGArtichoke dishes that have been around since it opened 9 years ago. In a competitive Singapore restaurant scene, it’s incredible how Artichoke is #stillnotdead till today.
We kicked things off with a few starters to whet the appetite.
The Hummus & Iraqi Spiced Mushrooms ($14, bottom right) is a menu mainstay that’s slowly evolved through the years. The mushrooms are locally sourced form Kin Yan Agrotech, seasoned in something called a baharat (thyme spice mixed from 7 spices). The hummus itself is truly addictive and I recommend ordering some Turkish Bread ($4.50) to dip. The bread comes piping hot and fair warning, you might order more.
I’m not fond of eggplants because of its mushy texture, but The Turkish Eggplant ($12, top right) is different. From your first bite, you can taste the different textures of the eggplant, onions and tomatoes, the latter two stuff inside the eggplant, all deep-fried. This dish is actually a variant of an iconic Turkish eggplant dish called the “Imam Bayildi”, aka “The holy man fainted”, named so for an imam who fainted when he couldn’t cook this dish he ate daily because he ran out of oil.
For the non adventurous, we’re told The Sea Asparagus ($12, top left) is a Singapore-palate-friendly starter. The sea asparagus is usually used as garnish in Singapore, but in Artichoke and the Middle East, it’s the star of its own dish. The sea asparagus is sprinkled black pepper, diced shallots, pickled garlic and housemate pickling liquid for added flavour, then topped with crispy fried buckwheat and labneh (cheese made from salted strained yoghurt).
One of my favourite dishes here is the Crab Toast ($16), sort of like a Japan meets Middle East concoction, it’s a house baked brioche topped with crab meat, Greek yoghurt, mayonnaise, chives and cucumber, along with chicken skin deep fried and plentiful of ikura. Challenge yourself to take it all in one bite to savour all the medley of flavours, or take it slow with two bites. Be careful as it can get messy, but once you taste it you’ll know how good this is.
Along with the above three dishes, the Housemade Hashbrown ($14) is also a new addition to Artichoke’s menu. The restaurant’s take on a classic open face sour cream potato, this version is a square cut Russet potato covered in sour cream and fresh za’atar, a wild thyme from the Middle East. Each bite is so good, it’s better to divide into halves with another so you won’t be stuffed.
The Falafel Salad ($20) was inspired by a mushroom falafel Chef Bjorn ate in Hong Kong, especially with how other vegetables go so well with a falafel. The falafel in the Artichoke edition is made from soaked overnight dried chickpeas, later blended with green chilli, garlic, parslet, coriander and onions. To get a fluffy consistency, its blended further with cooked and chopped vegetables before its moulded then deep fried. Crunchy pieces that really go well with the accompanying butter lettuce, tomatoes, onion, pomegranate and mint mix.
The Israeli inspired Cuttlefish Shawarma ($25) is the first real seafood main of the night, featuring sashimi grade skewered cuttlefish marinated in a shawarma blend invented by Artichoke before its set on a mangal grill. This is a special grill that suspends the skewer so it doesn’t rest on any bars. Tender, not chewy and the perfect dish for a larger party to share between (unless you want one all for yourself).
Next is another Artichoke favourite, the Green Harissa Prawns. The inspiration comes from your typical rendang – the prawns are grilled until its caramelised to release a “prawny” flavour from the shells, sort of like how in rendang, the sauce is cooked until the “oil splits out”. The Arabic fried onions that garnish this dish aren’t like the fried onions we have here, as the ones cooked in Arabic countries is made from large onions (not shallots) and fried until it’s almost black. The combination of tender, juicy prawns in the amazing green Harissa sauce together with crispy Arabic fried onions is so good. I also dipped the leftover Turkish bread I had into the sauce just to savour the taste on my tongue.
The first meat main is the Lamb Ali Nazik ($34), a traditional south Turkey kebab. It’s actually not as spicy as you think - Turkey isn’t actually known for its spicy dishes. The grilled lamb sits atop barbecued eggplant mash, along with some yoghurt and chilli infused butter. The combination of meat, butter, cheese and veg is pretty filling.
Then comes the Steak of The Day ($TBA). These juicy, tender pieces of Australian black Angus Rump cap are grilled over woodfire until its perfectly medius rare. There’s two dipping choices to pick – a Middle Eastern pesto called Zhug (from Yemen) or the Torum, a garlic meringue with whipped egg white, oil and salt. You can’t go wrong with either, personally.
Artichoke offers a few exclusive weekend brunch dishes too. The Cauliflower Kushari ($24) a salad-ish bowl of fried cauliflower, basmati rice, smoked egg and plenty of puffed corn. The latter tastes like Twisties and gives the bowl a hearty crunch, but I am told the corn snack in this bowl is sourced from the Philippines.
The Chicken Urfa Kebab ($28) is an crowd favourite from the brunch menu. Before the chicken thigh is skewered, its minced then mixed with onion, garlic, dried spices, ice cubes and kosher salt. It’s also mangal grilled over coal like the Cuttlefish Shawarma. Served on the side is an orange salad that’s the perfect fit to the yummy chicken.
A new entry to the brunch menu is the Crispy Lamb Floss ($28), inspired by the Philippines’ adobo flakes. The lamb shoulder is braised, then shredded and cooked until its crispy. I recommend you scoop each bite with the hummus, egg and Turkish bread toast all at once.
It was here that we adjourned to grab a sneak peek at Chef Bjorn’s new side project — Smalls. Reminiscent of a small ramen stall in Tokyo or a tucked in the corner Omakase bar, Smalls is a 4-seater private bar where Chef Bjorn will cook whatever he feels like for you. Currently its Neapolitan pizza Omakase inspired by his culinary journey, equipped with an expensive imported oven as hot as a wood fire oven. Check it out at @smalls_sg on Instagram.
Our tummies rested, we proceeded to sample the dessert menu. My favourite of the bunch is the Malabi ($16). Traditionally, it’s served with thickened milk, corn starch and rose water, but Artichoke’s version is filled with ice passionfruit granita, a thick slab of avocado pudding and covered in meringue pieces. This is version 3 of the dish, version 2 using vanilla pudding and mango ice, and the original made with strawberry ice and pudding with freeze-dried fruit. If I could have one wish fulfilled here (besides having unlimited hummus with bread), it would be to taste the previous versions.
Next was the Baklava Cheesecake ($22), a tribute to the original baklava with all its original elements in cheesecake form. It’s filled to the brim with cream cheese — you’ll definitely want more than a few bites if you call yourself a cheesecake fan. You can also taste pistachio, specifically toasted chopped pistachios topped on the Baklava Cheesecake.
Another OG Artichoke dish, we were warned that the Date Pudding ($16) is not a sticky date pudding, but rather a pudding made with dates. This was absolutely heavenly. Key to its taste is the smoked milk, made from 6-hour boiled condensed milk that’s later cooled before it’s poured into another pot. It will caramelise until a black char is formed, which gives its smoky taste. There’s also sea salt and loads of espresso jelly, inspired by Chef Bjorn’s misadventures with chendol. Surprised by the addition of cincau in his chendol, he decided to add something similar to his desserts, hence the espresso jelly.
Artichoke is located near Bencoolen station, but it’s quite hidden away. Take exit A, and walk around the NAFA building until you reach Middle Road. Once you see the yellow building, Artichoke is right behind it. Alternatively, it’s a quick walk from Bugis+. Let the loud music guide your way.