Fans of Chef Bjorn Shen’s work are familiar with his mad scientist approach to food and the culinary arts. He’s always hoping and aiming to push the limits of what flavours should be, and his latest experiment sees him serving hungry diners out of his ex-office (right next to Artichoke), and transforming it into Small’s, a shoebox-sized test kitchen that feeds only four diners at a time.
His current recipes are served in an omakase-style presentation that focuses on the Neopolitan breed of pizzas. Due to its limited availability, slots for the following month are released on 24th of the previous month, at 12noon.
March 2020 prices are set at S$650++ for four diners, and do take note, regardless of whether your party consists of four people or fewer, the price will remain the same.
This test kitchen situation was built to cater to Chef Bjorn’s boundless creativity when it comes to creating in the kitchen, and it has now resulted in a micro pizza bar with strong influences from nostalgic meals he’s enjoyed in the 80s and 90s.
Prior to preparing our first dish, he handed out masks to shield our eyes from the commonly experienced tearing and sniffling that previous guests had encountered when the pizzas were baked. “It really depends on your genes; some people start tearing, others will feel it in their noses. Like how wasabi hits you. For me, I feel it in my nose”, he explained.
I was foolish to think he was joking, but further along the session, I scrambled to don one of the full-face masks as my eyes were unbearably wincing from the hot steam that escaped the oven.
How does one create a hybrid of pizza and pasta? By meddling with conformity, and creating a Pizza Aglio Olio. But what makes this pizza even more special is that it’s steamed, and a flavoursome nod to garlic bread he used to eat at Milano’s Pizza in the 90s.
It’s scattered with garlic aioli and whole chunks of caramelised garlic, to mimic the fragrance that wafts from a hot bowl of aglio olio pasta. The high-hydration dough he uses for all his pizzas here enables him to create a soft, fluffy Neopolitan-style pie that gets churned out with satisfying crunchy blisters.
The dough is aged for four days, and used thereafter for four to six days before being deemed unusable (as the dough is sensitive to the elements and this can result in a chewy dough).
This straightforward and revised sentimental favourite was warm, pillowy and aromatic. The mild chewiness of the dough juxtaposed with the welcoming mush of the garlic morsels, so much so that we had to be reminded to spare ample space for the numerous courses that awaited us.
The Ham & Melon, Have A Good Day‘s name threw us off momentarily before we were told that ‘have a good day’ is what would greet us (printed on the plate) once we’d picked up a juicy morsel of melon that’s been wrapped in a six-hour cured ham.
Chef Bjorn proudly proclaimed his love behind the irony of plating ‘fancy food on cheap plates’, and we certainly were tickled. The saltiness of the cured ham paired beautifully with the saccharine-sweet melon; there wasn’t anything I could fault it for (other than its single bite-sized portion).
These pebbles of Hot Ass may look simple, but they were mini flavour bombs! Cooked ‘hot wings-style’, it’s akin to eating your favourite marinated fried chicken minus the hassle of eating around the bones. They were the tastiest chicken popcorns I’ve had, for sure.
Once again, my only gripe would be not being able to have more of it—and that it could’ve used some extra heat, but hey, that’s a personal preference.
When Chef Bjorn decides to ball it out, he balls hard. I feel like I could totally blame him if I no longer am able to enjoy fries with pedestrian chilli sauce after I had a taste of Chip Supreme—Uni Crema, F**kin’ Can Of Caviar. Crinkle-cut fries were smeared with uni cream, an ample spoonful of uni, and about half a can of Kaluga caviar (that’s worth approximately S$180).
We didn’t want to fill up on carbs, so we created a loophole for ourselves, by munching on a fry or two, and using the remaining fries to scoop the leftover uni cream, caviar, and uni residue. And, you bet, he served it all on pink and white Minnie Mouse plates.
The first of the three pizzas was served, although not before I had trouble keeping my eyes from tearing profusely. Simply named Pizza Black, it was created to pay homage to a squid ink pizza he enjoyed in Osaka many years ago. “I loved the pizza in Osaka—it was a Squid Ink Margherita. I then asked, ‘Why is the crust so good?’. After I learnt that they make the pizzas Neopolitan-style, it changed the pizza game for me,” he elaborated.
On this pie, he laid out chilli, basil, garlic, squid ink, tomatoes, and octopus egg. Its wet and jiggly centre is to be expected, although he has had feedback from diners stating that their pizza was raw, undercooked, and ‘too soggy’. “That is just how Neopolitan pizzas are,” he justified.
He also utilised pecorino cheese in place of buffalo cheese, for some bite and sharpness, which really did make sense on the palate. I actually didn’t mind the wet middle, given that it was a flavourful pizza that oozed of natural brininess, a hint of salt, rich savouriness, and a satisfying chew.
Now, the Dirty Board aka Stuffed Crust was a concept that completely blew my mind, due to its simple, yet ingenious inception. In the Artichoke kitchen, they’d have boards they are used to chop and portion all kinds of meat, and at the end of the night, it’s hard to let all the meat juices go to waste.
That’s when the staff would sometimes grab a hunk of bread and wipe down the board to create a bread imbibed with all the delicious fat and juices. Chef Bjorn wanted to re-create this euphoric moment for diners at Small’s, so he pulled out (clean) boards and drizzled it with prawn butter, nutritional yeast, chives and a generous handful of shaved black truffle.
With the remaining pizza crust of Pizza Black, one is supposed to mop up the board completely and revel in an incredibly deep, earthy, salty, and aromatic gastronomic experience. I definitely felt like a kid, when once upon a time, I would shamelessly lick the plate before it was taken away. I must commend Chef Bjorn for allowing me to re-live a moment that’s pregnant with innocence.
It was time, yet again, for Chef Bjorn to share with us another anecdote, this time about his first job in a kitchen. Pizza Vongole was inspired by the immense amount of chopping vegetables he had to do, which ultimately led to him learning how to cook vongole (as his first dish in the kitchen). The clams on the pizza were from Lombok, which are naturally exceptionally juicy and require little to no salt.
Once again, the middle of the pizza was sloppy, but yet again, I appreciated it, as I could both slurp and chew on the sweet brininess of the clams. There were plump, which made everyone unanimously agree that this was their favourite pizza of all.
Having seen this on Instagram weeks before I was scheduled to eat at Small’s, the Pizza Banh Mi is by far the most famous creation that Small’s is known for. In true, Chef Bjorn fashion, there was inevitably a story behind this behemoth sandwich-pizza.
“I was actually inspired by Subway breakfast sandwiches, but I didn’t want to just do a regular sandwich. You know those Vietnamese places that serve banh mi, and most of the time there’s like 2/3 bread, and the filling is so little? Yeah, I wanted to create a banh mi that money cannot buy; it needed to be fully stuffed,” he eagerly explained.
And stuffed, it was! We had trouble holding it in one hand, let alone take a decent chomp into it. It comes loaded with full sprigs of cilantro, cucumbers, carrots, ham, and pork, in between the same dough used for the pizzas (that are slathered with Bread Talk mayonnaise—yes, it’s a thing).
All four of us struggled to take more than a few bites before we raised our white flags and requested for the sandwiches to be wrapped for take-away. It was nonetheless, absolutely succulent, juicy, and delightfully piquant (thanks to the cilantro). I happily enjoyed my leftover Pizza Banh Mi for breakfast the next morning, and it was magically 10 times tastier.
It was a miracle that any one of us still had stomach room for dessert, but we couldn’t turn down Neopolitan Cookie, Salt & Pepper. Essentially a doughy, fudgy cookie that’s cooked into a small ceramic dish, the chocolate chip cookie was, of course, oozing with chocolatey goodness, and a hint of smokiness.
I could detect mild notes of salt and pepper, which surprisingly worked well with the sweetness of the cookie. The real sorcery lay in the vanilla ice cream; Chef Bjorn typically uses Meiji Milk ice cream, but that day, he unfortunately only had one left, and had to resort to serving one with Meiji Milk ice cream, and another with Wall’s Vanilla ice cream.
The Wall’s Vanilla ice cream lent a richer, creamier mouthfeel to the cookie than the Meiji Milk, to which he’d already expected, and was probably I could sense the slight disappointment in his gesture when he showed us the ice cream packaging.
With our bellies exceedingly satiated—but our souls even more fulfilled—I came to truly appreciate and understand the folly that lies behind Chef Bjorn’s culinary creations. Sure, it may cost a pretty penny, but the story-telling and hearty banter that happens when you’re in his presence are unrivalled.
As we just about to leave, he bid us adieu with, “Stay Weird.” And so I will, Chef—so I will.
Expected Damage: From S$650++ for four pax
Price: $ $ $
Our Rating: 5 / 5
161 Middle Road, Singapore 188978
161 Middle Road, Singapore 188978