Restaurant Review: Jiwa Singapura
The chef behind D.C.'s Michelin-starred Cranes brings a taste of Southeast Asia to Tysons.
I’m ready to tackle the chili crab, Singapore’s national dish. Our server has just presented me with an elegant wooden box branded with the restaurant’s logo. It looks like it might hold fine cigars but in fact contains black nitrile gloves and—to fashion a bib—a large black napkin and a chain with clips on either end.
Dressed for battle with a cocktail fork and a crab cracker on standby, I tear into the piping hot cluster of snow crab legs bathed in a zesty, ruddy sauce. It’s a messy affair (I have to put grabbing my wine or water glass on hold) but the sweet, spicy, succulent reward makes it all worthwhile. The dish comes with three fluffy mantou (milk buns) to sop up the tangy sauce—a heady mélange of house-made ketchup, macadamia nut-chili paste, lemongrass, galangal and slurried eggs.
The setting for this crab-shack-meets-fine-dining experience? Jiwa Singapura, the latest concept from Barcelona native Pepe Moncayo, whose acclaimed D.C. Spanish kaiseki, Cranes, earned a Michelin star in 2021.
Jiwa opened in February, although Moncayo’s love affair with Singaporean food dates back to 2010, when his Spanish mentor, chef Santi Santamaria, sent him to the island nation to oversee a new restaurant. That’s where Moncayo met his wife, Aishah (her father was a street vendor making chicken satay), started a family, and finally struck out on his own with a restaurant called BAM! in 2013. At Jiwa, Aishah is director of service.
Singaporean cuisine is a melting pot of culinary traditions, incorporating elements of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Thai cookery, along with a few Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial influences. “I fell in love with Singapore. It’s an amazing country that’s open 24/7, with people eating in the streets,” Moncayo says. “Food and cooking are the Singaporean national sport.”
When the couple first came to the DMV in 2018, they stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons and imagined the area as a great place to one day open a restaurant. Jiwa Singapura, whose name means “Singapore soul,” occupies a third-story perch inside Tysons Galleria, melding the chef’s fine-dining bona fides with dishes reminiscent of the street foods sold by hawkers in Singapore’s open-air food markets.
The décor, designed by D.C.-based //3877 Design, reflects that dichotomy. A brightly lit open kitchen and large glass windows (through which the CMX CinéBistro movie theater’s neon signs are visible) contribute to the street market vibe, while the dining room’s curvy banquettes and art installation of glass flowers speak to a certain level of sophistication. The 10,000-square-foot space is vast, with seating for 170 indoors (including a 10-seat bar) and 80 outside on a second-story terrace.
Start a meal with a tropical quaff—the Chili Padi Margarita (chili-infused tequila, passionfruit, lemongrass) or the Palawan Beach Holiday (spiced rum, Campari, cardamom, coconut palm sugar, pineapple)—and the buttery roti prata (flatbread) with curry dipping sauce.
Don’t skip the “carrot” cake. It’s not a dessert, but rather a savory griddled patty of shredded daikon radish (known in Singapore as white carrot) with a dark soy glaze.
Another small plate well worth a taste is the fish otah, a square of dorado and bluefish mousse topped with sliced mackerel and grilled inside a banana leaf. Once unwrapped, the ensemble is crowned with a mound of fried baby anchovies and a sprinkling of burnt lime leaf powder. The beautiful presentation makes a great first impression that the dish’s flavors and textures confirm. The lightness of the mousse, laced with lemongrass and ginger, complements the crunch of the anchovies.
The steamed Manila clams in chili-curry broth are also delectable, but a dubious value at $23 for 10 clams, which amounts to about 2 tablespoons of meat.
Noodle options include a version of laksa (shrimp, fish cakes and noodles in coconut-chili broth), but I’m partial to the hokkien mee, which tosses egg and rice noodles with wok-fried squid, pork and shrimp. “Wok hei,” the smokiness that erupts when food hits a sizzling wok, adds depth to this dish, while its emulsion of pork and shrimp stock imparts richness.
Of the mains, the chili crab is a stunner in both taste and presentation, even if it is challenging to eat. Another simple yet elegant “large plate” is Moncayo’s version of Hainanese chicken. The chef debones and brines Amish poultry with ginger, garlic and pandan leaves (a shrub with hints of vanilla and coconut), then cooks the pieces sous-vide to achieve a velvety texture and subtle flavor. The tender slices are topped with soy-sesame gravy and served with red chili paste, scallions, pickled cucumbers and ginger-garlic rice.
The beef rendang centers on a large, braised beef shank, including the luscious marrowbone, bathed in a golden yellow coconut curry with galangal, tamarind and coriander. It’s a homey dish with a not-so-homey price ($56) but the portion is plenty for two.
Pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner’s cunning desserts highlight Asian ingredients such as ube, cassava, coconut and pandan. Cendol, a martini glass filled with red-bean ice cream, crushed coconut ice, bright green pandan noodles and gooey palm-sugar syrup, is a refreshing summer meal coda.
Milo, a chocolate malt powder, is the star of a sundae packed with chocolate-malt ice cream, chocolate-malt cake, shortbread and meringue, the lot dressed with chocolate sauce.
The Kopi Kat cocktail (dark chocolate-infused vodka, espresso and salted cream caramel foam) makes for a delightful dessert in liquid form.
As this issue went to press, Moncayo was preparing to introduce a multicourse tasting menu complete with amuse-bouche, several savory courses, a palate cleanser, dessert and mignardises (bite-size sweets) for $98, plus an optional $48 beverage pairing.
The tasting menu reinforces Jiwa Singapura’s ambition to be a highbrow, get-dressed-up, Michelin-star-chef kind of place, while simultaneously being a noisy, brash, casual, bring-the-kids joint inside a mall. The jury is still out on whether this is a great idea or an identity crisis. In a town where folks tend to pigeonhole people and restaurants, it helps to know that going in.
What To Drink
The well-curated wine list features 63 bottles ($45 to $310) from Western and Central Europe, the Middle East, Caucasia and Japan, including sparkling, rosé, white, orange and red wine options, as well as sake. Sixteen wine selections are available by the glass ($16 to $24).
On the beer front, a Jiwa draft pilsner ($11), courtesy of a partnership with Caboose Brewing Co., is made from sundry rices.
Signature cocktails ($16 to $19) include the Peach Garden (rye, peach, orange blossom, absinthe) and the purple-hued Singapore Girl (cucumber-infused gin, ginger, lemon and ube foam).
2001 International Drive
(Tysons Galleria), McLean
Lunch: Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday: 5 to 9:30 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday: 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Plenty of free parking in the mall’s garages and lots
Small plates: $12 to $25; Large plates: $15 to $56; Desserts: $7 to $16