Egg tarts does not a cuisine, make. So as a food writer, it is with equal parts shame and equal parts excitement that I step into BOCA, a three-storey shophouse in Bukit Pasoh serving authentic Portuguese cuisine – a relatively unexplored genre in Singapore. Even if you, like me, have nary a clue of what Portuguese cooking entails besides liquid libations of port, madeira, and maybe vinho verde, BOCA can be a palatable introduction. Catch it while it’s still tottering with a certain raw energy and earnest modesty.
Head chefs Luca Bordino and Franciso Vaz – both natives of Portugal – wax rhapsodic about their dishes as they coyly make their front-of-house rounds. Through their wide-eyed wonder, the flavourful cooking BOCA exhibits and a capacious interior of seaside blues dotted with symbolic swallows, you gain a peek into what the Southwest Iberia has to offer.
Seafood is the order of the day, and cod reigns supreme. Its comes shredded and tossed with julienned potatoes, eggs, onions and olives, quite a texturally intriguing cross between rosti and beehoon (Becalhau a Braz, $28). It also comes mixed with potatoes in light fritters as a starter in Pastéis de Bacalhau ($15) that’s more dusted than breaded before being fried, turning into small quenelles of delight over housemade tartare sauce. The soft insides cascade into your mouth, simultaneously switching on the synapses that conjure both the imagery of Portugal coast and the finger movements that reach for another fritter.
The marriage of potatoes and cod, in what Chef Luca explains is a symbol of the Portuguese’s adaptability in the country’s troubled times of yore, comes to the fore again in Bacalhau à Lagareiro, a simple, pan-roasted whole cod loin dressed with spinach, tomato confit, and olives ($42). In general, BOCA tones down the sodium level of imported salt cod to accommodate local palates, which is a fair move.
Other seafood highlights include a layered salad of octopus ($24), which achieves amazing tenderness from mere blanching and is accompanied by a bright peppers-and-sprouts salsa. The shrimp porridge ($28), a dense, rich stew with large cubes of prawn alternating with broth-soaked bread is clearly going to emerge as another signature. It’s boiled down such that the crusty goodness and seafood flavours are extremely concentrated – we predict orders are going to go through the roof on a rainy day.
While BOCA’s coffee steak ($48) is commendable for its espresso-laced cognac sauce, complemented well with the nuttiness of almond-strewn cilantro rice, the ribeye itself is a tad under-seasoned. A flamed chorizo starter ($25) is quite measly and bog-standard, save for the theatrics of sausage on fire.
Your evening must end with no other dessert than BOCA’s egg tarts. After a comb of different flours and multiple experiments, BOCA finally found the right combination of ingredients that stood well against the humidity of Singapore’s weather. Despite being a hefty $4.50, it is an ambrosial parcel of custard whipped to heights of fluffiness, encased in a brittle, flaky pastry. You will do well to reserve one at the point of booking your table – we hear only twenty are made daily.
If we have to nitpick, we’re not sure if BOCA has jumped two steps ahead in putting Portuguese cuisine under a fine-dining guise in Singapore. The conviviality of the cuisine is palpable – from BOCA’s vivacious folk music to the unabashed flavours of its food – but Nike swooshes of garnishes, moderated portions and inventive touches seem to put one more on guard than at ease. But somewhere in there, we’re pretty sure there’s lots of love and passion to capture the hearts of today’s fickle but discerning diner. Their egg tarts are magnificent, but there’s a world behind it – and that’s BOCA through and through.