For Cranes chef Pepe Moncayo, Jiwa Singapura is deeply personal. His new endeavor in Tysons Galleria is about his life, memories, and a connection to the Singapore city-state the chef called home for a decade.
Opening tonight, his hotly anticipated Singaporean restaurant is a bold, opulent, and vivid in both its decor and seafood-focused menu that showcases high-end spins on street foods (2011 International Drive, McLean, Virginia). The sprawling space, with room for 170 inside and 80 across a year-round terrace, features a dramatic landscape of deep blue and purple tones punctuated with traditional Singaporean patterns.
Moncayo, a Barcelona native, worked and opened Michelin-starred restaurants in his home country before moving to Singapore in 2010. There, he met his wife Aishah Moncayo (director of service at Jiwa Singapura), started a family, and opened his first solo restaurant, before relocating to the states in 2019 to open Penn Quarter’s Michelin-starred Spanish kaiseki spot Cranes.
His deep-rooted ties to Singapore fuel much of the menu at Jiwa. With a chicken satay, punctuated with ginger, lemongrass and turmeric, Mocayo recalls his father-in-law coming home at midnight with satay leftovers from his job at one of Singapore’s hawker markets. Chili crab brings to mind walks with his wife to the Geylang district after work, to get the spicy crustacean dish from one of their favorite restaurants.
Unlike the unusual—and as the chef notes, difficult—task of melding Spanish and Japanese tropes at Crane, Jiwa Singapura presents Moncayo with an already-developed cuisine. “The parameters are set,” he tells Eater, “and it’s for me to reinterpret them.”
That didn’t exactly make it easy to pick exactly which dishes would make the opening cut. Singaporean cuisine is incredibly diverse and varied. “Singapore is a melting pot of culinary culture like Indian, Malay, Chinese, and also European invasions that came throughout history,” notes Moncayo, “Honestly, there are so many [dishes] to do.”
But he narrowed it down to a mid-sized menu to start, split into three categories: street food, hawker classics, and Jiwa signatures (in addition to dessert). Bold, fresh, spicy, and intense flavors define the fare. There’s a street food-style carrot cake adorned with pickled daikon, tapioka, and turnips, a spicy noodle soup called Laksa (this version contains shrimp and fried tofu), and Chili crab, made with snow crab and served with a steamed bun.
Pandan makes up much of the dessert menu, present in five of the seven options. Glutinous rice balls ondeh ondeh are flavored in the traditional way with extract from the bright green tropical plant. Cendol, a layered iced dessert, features red bean ice cream, coconut ice, and pandan noodles with a gula melaka syrup and coconut cream.
Though pandan may be accessible, not all the ingredients needed for Singaporean cuisine are easy to come by in the U.S. It’s a conundrum that doesn’t deter Moncayo. He draws on advice from his mentor, Michelin-starred chef Santi Santamaria, who he says always reminded him: “Pepe, wherever you go, find the best ingredients, find those ingredients that can match the cuisine that you are doing and make it happen.”
One of those adaptations is doing a seasonally-changing menu, even though there are no distinct seasons in Singapore. “This is a Singaporean restaurant but a Singaporean restaurant that is not in Singapore,” notes Moncayo.
Brightly hued drinks like the seafoam green “If Merlins Could Talk” (rum, apple brandy, pandan, orgeat cream) and violet “The Singapore Girl” (cucumber-infused gin, ginger, lemon, ube air) join variations on classics like “Kopi Kat,” a dark chocolate-infused espresso martini and “Chili Padi Margarita” a chili-spiked, passionfruit, and lemongrass margarita. There’s also a global wine list that showcases grapes in Italy, France, Spain, New Zealand, and Lebanon, as well as sake and beer selections.
To start, Jiwa Singapura is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The team expects to eventually be open seven days a week for lunch (featuring three-compartment biffin boxes) and dinner. A tasting menu is also in the works, through which Moncayo says he’ll really let his creativity loose.