Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Review: Where to Eat in Singapore (2007)

I've been asked this question a lot recently. Summer's here and this means a lot of people that I went to college with are in town, either visiting or moving here to work and live (strangely, a huge number are doing just that). I've put together a user-friendly guide of where indeed, I've been eating and what I recommend you try while in Singapore.

I wanted to put together a list that was sensitive of certain factors. For example, while I think that there are some great (and some rather obscure) local haunts, I have to say that perhaps not all expats are here, nor have the time, to hang out in coffeeshops. (That being said, I do think taking them to Straits Kitchen or The Line at one of the Orchard Road hotels is also quite a cop-out)

Also, I'm really proud of the food and hospitality explosion that has taken place in Singapore over the last three years and I think we really need to showcase that more, as well as the change in the environment and ambience that goes along with these places.

Secondly, different strokes for different folks right. While most people I know don't want to spend a whole lot on a meal, they all have different agendas. I think some places are good for a girls lunch but not neccesarily a date or a corporate meal. Also, people have a different idea of what they are looking for. For example, I've often wondered, do the Australians actually like going to PS Cafe, because (and this is even though I'm a huge fan of Aamir) there are much better cafes and cafe food in Australia itself ...or do they go there to see other Australians?

And you know, if you're a big white guy, no self-respecting local girl can be seen with you in BRIX (basement of Grand Hyatt, if you didn't actually know where, you have your priorities straight) but if you're here for the "Asian Experience" then you know you should go, because while the goods are odd, the odds are good, if you know what I mean...

So. This is my absolutely biased view of the places in Singapore you should eat at. I've put them into the categories that I usually think of them in. In no particular order of preference and with a definite preference for places that are nearer to my circle of conciousness in this little red dot of an island.

Category 1: So Good it's not fusion.

1. Buko Nero, 126 Tanjong Pagar Road
Tel: 6324 6225

This place tops the list because it's so very hard to get into, you know you're getting some local love. Run by Oscar and Tracy Pasinato, this hole-in-the-wall eatery serves small portions of beautifully cooked Italian fare with a slight Asian twist and for a very moderate price. The flavours are always well-brought and consistent and a meal there is always a calming, satisfying experience. If you've actually made the effort to get their very few reservations, you better bring someone special. Across the road from Buko Nero is Oso, 27 Tanjong Pagar Road, Tel: 6327 8378, the rich pricey and pure-bred Italian cousin, where the food is also excellent, much heavier and where you'd go for a corporate lunch or a schmancy, slightly stiff date.

2. The New Majestic Hotel, 31 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6511 4718

Chef Yong serves up some interesting Cantonese fare in this restaurant sited in the oh-so-hip boutique hotel run by local hotelier Loh Lik Peng. Having come from a proud tradition of traditional cooking, Chef Yong mixes it up here with Roast Lamb and Local Carrot Cake (savory turnip cake), as well as Foie Gras with Roast Duck skin, wasabi prawn and watermelon. I find the place inventive and a great place to nudge my sweet-and-sour-soup-loving American friends toward a bit more of an adventure. If you are all over Asia already though, then you might not want to eat this kind of food in Singapore and in Asia.

3. Sage, 11 Unity Street, #02-12 Robertson Walk
Tel: 6333 8726

I especially like that this restaurant is run by a very young couple, Kimberly and Jusman. The cooking is excellent, the service polite and discreet. The food is absolutely tasty, deftly executed and well-presented. Unlike some of the other places listed below, this place is sort of quintessentially like a first date. Not casual but not stuffy and just all round solid. It's not out there in left field, you-hate-me-or-you-love-me territory but it is creative. Not that extravagant but not cheap.

Just on that subject, if you are looking for perhaps the best authentic sort of Chinese food in town, I'd entirely suggest Dim Sum (especially on Sundays) or dinner at Crystal Jade Golden Palace in Paragon, 290 Orchard Road, Tel: 6734 6866. To spoil your tastebuds with the best, Peach Garden at 273 Thomson Road, #01-06 Novena Garden or Imperial Treasure, Great World City, #02-06 1 Kim Seng Promenade. They are all great and I don't think they are substantially different in price. Obviously, if you could go for Shanghainese Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) or great Thai food at Ying Thai at Purvis Street but hey, you're in Asia, why don't you just go to Shanghai or Bangkok?

Category 2: I just love Japanese food

Wacha, Ann Siang Road #01-01
(Closed, now replaced by Goto)

Tel: 6438 1553

Aiyah, I so love Chubby Hubby's site, I can't help but put this here. No, kidding. There were so many toss-ups for Japanese places - Singaporeans are Jap food connoiseurs! I've tried to keep it to those that I feel represent something new about the Singaporean dining scene and won't burn an obscene hole in your pocket. If you're looking for pure Otoro though, that's also a debate but I'd suggest Akane at The Japanese Association Singapore Club, 120 Adam Road, or Tetsuya at Crown Prince Hotel.

Wacha is located in an adorable little tea and porcelain crockery shop and is a clean lacquered space within a mini courtyard and salon. I love that it feels like dining in someone's house and that their dinner sets are about $35.
I also think you will get a great sense of one of Singapore's older streets, I mean, poetry has been written to this street! It's now been rejuvenated with rows of hip fashion boutiques like Asylum, Fred Perry, Wild Child and Front Row, as well as specialty pastry shops and design houses, all cleverly incorporated within the lovingly restored, tile-d and louvred facades of Peranakan shophouses.

Further down the street, you'll find some good drinking and eating holes, like Les Bouchons, 7 Ann Siang Rd, Tel : 6423-0737, the home of the $28 steak, salad and endless fries, as well as a whole street of upscale but slightly similar eateries that make up Club Street.

2. Yoshida, 10 Devonshire Road
Tel: 6735 5014

The sashimi is very good, they have great seasonal specials and the chefs here are a ball of laughs. Check out Mr Yoshida himself, clicking around in his high clogs (or very cool white Pumas) and the other chefs as they careen around the small sushi counter. Away from the cuteness of Wacha, this is my favourite Jap place in Singapore.

The ambience at night is especially special, it's dark, the light glows off the brick wall and the stacks of pale green and dark red Japanese plates, the stereo plays some sexy 1930's lesbian poster girl Chinese music, the fresh sushi and cold sake keeps flowing and the counter is wafting smells of hot tea and garlic fried rice. Meanwhile Devonshire Road hums around you, the water laps in the koi pond outside and late at night, the chefs are getting happy (they'll serve food pretty much till everyone leaves so if you're looking for a lonely late dinner, this is it).

Definitely prepare for sticker shock. Help by not ordering the chef's sashimi but single pieces of sashimi/sushi. Try the garlic fried rice. Go for the set meals. You could bring a corporate or conceivably the family...but this really is (at night) an in-the-mood-for-love kind of place.

3. Hachi,
218 Orchard Road, #03-03 Orchard Emerald
(now at 6 Mohammed Sultan Road, #01-01
Tel: 6734 9622

I hear the packs of bloggers screaming now but come on guys, we've written about this place so much, people Do know of it already. At the risk of giving away just too many secrets, this place really is awesome. No menu, no choice, just eat Chef Watanabe's home-cooked goodness. Everytime I go, it amazes me that this place just flies so under the radar but it is a hole-in-the-wall and a little less than expensive, so hey, I hope it stays that way for as long as possible. The sashimi, the beef. So good it probably has opium in it. That's the highest praise for good it must be drugged. Go with whoever deserves to know.

4. Miharu Soba, Gallery Hotel, 1 Nanson Road
Tel: 68498686

I wasn't sure whether I should just label this as a snack, but it is a meal in itself. At the base of Gallery Hotel, Miharu makes the saltiest, yummiest, corn and seaweed-flavoured ramen in town. The menu is simple and uncomplicated and it serves only the specialty, the Sapporo Nishiyama noodles, which are air-flown in from Japan. Go after a night out at the clubs. Go whenever you get a craving. Just go. Bring a good friend.

And...for a really interesting night, skip the after parties and go upstairs to Bar 84, a hideout so well-hidden that very few Singaporeans know of its existance (ok and the expensive drinks help to keep the crowds away).

Even finding it requires a little magic. There are two circular towers at the Gallery Hotel, one houses the hip-hop club Coco Latte. But what is the other? Ah... go to the second floor, walk toward the art gallery and then exit on a little door on your left and be transported into a Lost in Translation land. This luxurious bar looks like the one at the Tokyo Hyatt and is complete with waitresses that don't speak much English. The proprietor Haki-san is a Ginza professional magician and will keep you entertained at the gorgeous curved wooden bar. It makes for a surreal night and maybe with the help of their extensive single-malt whiskey collection, you too will be stumbling out with their Japanese businessmen patrons.

Category 3: Our National Heritage

1. Boon Tong Kee Chicken Rice at Balestier Road

I'd suggest Tian Tian stall at Maxwell Market for the more adventurous but it's hot, sweaty and a bit complex to find. I'm also partial to the quaintness of Balestier, which is one of the oldest residential areas in Singapore. I love the mix of random lighting shops, shophouses, clan associations and old public housing and Hainanese Chicken Rice is after all, our national dish. As a plus, you can also get on the highway afterward and go to the Night Safari after dinner, that makes for a super touristy but nicely local night! You could bring a date if she's open-minded that way but it's better to bring a visitor.

2. Rumah Makan Minang, 18 Kandahar Street
Tel: 629 44805

All the cika-s in Kampung Glam, represent! I love Kampung Glam. It's a world of its own and one that most visitors unfortunately, don't get out to at night. But oh you should...this place has awesome Nasi Padang, which is a rice dish, sometimes lemak (with coconut) and accompaniments, fried eggs, yummy fried chicken, hot sambal chilli, cucumber, beef rendang, crispy little anchovy fish and usually served on a banana leaf plate. They also have the most cheerful service and a great street side location right off the curb on Kandahar Street, in the huge shadow of the golden Sultan mosque.

There are plenty of other Nasi Padang places to eat (like Sabar Menanti, also on Kandahar) and when you're done, head to the fantastic Samar Cafe, 60 Kandahar Street, Tel: 63980530 for some Arabic almond or milk based ice drinks and shisha by the mosiac pavement. This place has Nepalese waiters in black cloaks, an upper floor tented room for live music, dancing and ladies night, a portrait of slain Hamas leader on the wall and a Free Palestine poster on the menu. Don't judge and Americans, don't flaunt your passports. Bring your friends and your cronies.

3. Tiong Bahru FC

I love the Tiong Bahru area, it's old, it's quaint and I have all these great memories of cages of singing birds in the morning and outdoor spiral staircases creeping around the old flats. Sadly, a lot of these sights are not there anymore but the wet market has remained. Back in the day, this was a mistress area so the prices are still (this boggles my mind) at a premium to the other swankier wet markets in town.

I like to walk my visitors through the wet market the first day they arrive, just so they get that dead chicken squirminess out of their system. The market has a good history, its actually the re-built site and after years at the make-shift market, they are now occupying a three storey building, with multistory roof parking. The food center is on the second floor where it is mildly cooler- you need to try the 'jui kueh' or 'water cake', a glutinous tapioca pudding with salted vinegared vegetables, the roast pork specialist and the black carrot (turnip) cake, washed down with some black local coffee or a jug of sugarcane. Go for breakfast, before it gets hot.

4. Swee Kee Fishhead Bee Hoon, 96 Amoy Street

Comfort food at its best. The fishead bee hoon here is milky, hot and yummy. The old aunties who run this place are truly horrendous, they'll scold you and you'll hope they don't spit in your food. Then again, they don't need your business. On good days, the crowd spills over into tables on the sidewalk and the walls are lined with photos of 1980s celebrities in flannel shirts (you remember those days, yes you do) and pictures of old Singapore and old Chinatown. An absolute institution but a casual lunch, yeah?

Are there more local places that you could go to... Absolutely. There are too many to count and the best way to explore or find them is really to make some local friends. I've left out some things that are blatently, flagrantly touristy, like Indian curry along Racecourse Road and black pepper crab at No Signboard seafood in Geylang. I've also left out some national treasures like prata (thin Indian flour pancakes) at Jalan Kayu/Mandai or bak kut teh (a soupy, peppery pork stew) at Whampoa. It's not that they aren't good, quite the opposite. But I suppose, with the exception of prata, if you ask me whether I go often...the real answer is No.

Category 4: Young and Hip in the Suburb

This is sort of a special category that I created really to celebrate the fact that there have been all these new food and hospitality entreprenuers, setting up particularly in some of the more residential areas in Singapore. The ones profiled here are obviously the places that are nicer to go out too but I think all of these places are really raising the level of food conciousness and access in Singapore.

Also, I think extra props should be given to the fact that most of the places are run by young people and I have to say, just from my own experience, that they tend to find a better reaction in those who are young.

1. PS Cafe/Oosh 28B Harding Road
Tel: 9070 8782

The Dempsey cluster definitely has to be the hot spot of the year. This is an area slightly off the residential district of Holland/lower Orchard Road and you should enter via Minden Road/Dempsey Road. The area has always been an artist commune of sorts (albeit a rather high end one) and now several restaurants have set up shop to capitalise on the expat-heavy crowd carking for green environments and organic food. Sad but nice, nonetheless.

PS Cafe is good for brunch, good for desserts (after dinner) and the place looks jungly and green by day, romantic and glassed colonial by night. The fare is typical Australian bistro food and the best desserts are definitely the flourless orange cake and the piping hot mango banana crumble with vanilla ice cream. It's noisy, it's fun, it's beautiful. The service is erratic. But the place is different enough that it was one of the 60 places to see and be seen in Asia AND yes, I'm here often. You could hang out with pretty much anyone here as long as they speak up.

Alterantively, there are other drinking holes in the area. Go to Hacienda, a tented lawn of a bar or Oosh, the posh big sister of the cheap and cheerful PS Cafe (think fountains, landcapes, palms, Maseratis).

2. Minjiang at Rochester Park, 5 Rochester Park
Tel: 6774 0122

After checking out this area, you can say that you've seen the government's biotech brainchild and that you've seen a fairly residential area in Singapore. This cluster of restaurants off Buona Vista is a great way to have dinner in an aged Colonial bungalow setting. Better at the end of the year because its cool out but a different experience nonetheless. The restaurants here, Graze, Da Paolo, Rochester Park achieve a fairly good diversification but while they are all classy, none of them are cheap and I've found the service a tad lacking. If you go to Minjiang, try the roast goose, for which they brought in an authentic wood-fired over from Beijing. Don't sit on the second floor, I've been told it's stuffy.

3. Mimolette, 55 Fairways Drive
Tel: 6467 7748

I kind of love the setting of this place, in many ways its near to my heart. This creative entreprenuer set up in a little nook off the Eng Neo exit toward the Pan Island Expressway (PIE), behind the green fairways driving range and the saddle club. Be prepared to park your car amidst the horses or stables and to eat in a slightly Balthazar-like converted bistro shed. The scenary is tropical and the french toast is Really good. This is really a breakfast/brunch, weekend place, with the morning food like eggs benedict being a lot better than the evening dinner fare. The place hasn't officially opened.

4. Wild Rocket at Hangout Hotel, 10a Upper Wilkie Road
Tel : 63399448

When he quit law, I don't think Willin Low had any idea that he was starting a revolution. A I-don't-care-that-I'm-in-WHERE revolution. Visitors seem fairly familiar with this place, especially the kind that stay at the boutique backpackers hotel in the same building. But locals have no idea where this place is. A pity, because this is one of the most unique areas for a restaurant. Set on a hill, beside the Istana (garden residence of the President), in a old Jewish enclave, within a new Indian slum, newly gentrified into modern apartments, residential shophouses and great art galleries (explore around after lunch!), this place is quite an experience.

The restaurant is small but seating is not that limited. The specialties are the half-fusion pastas, the Wild Rocket burger (yum) and the food is light but tasty. Next door to the restaurant, they've started a bar/lounge called Wild Oats which serves drinks and tasty finger food at night. Both places are pure sunshine, moonshine and taste like the spirit of doing something different.

Category 5: A Good Snack

It's been said that Singaporeans live to eat and that we plan our day from one meal to another. Just in case you're between meals.

1. Chin Mee Chin, 204 East Coast Road

Singapore is so small, you wouldn't think we have sides but we do. I grew up on the West coast, therefore I am extremely biased in that most of the places I love are similarly, in the West. Its only in the later years, after returning to Singapore, that I grudgingly admit I miss out by not spending more time in the East. Haha, that said, I'm an absolute menace when driving in the East, I have no idea where I'm going. And you know, like, all the good schools are in the West so seriously, our property prices will always be higher.

Sorry. I digress. There is lots of wonderful food in the East, there is especially a lot of good Peranakan food given the Peranakan/Eurasian enclave that still exists along the East Coast/Katong area. There is however, only one place that I go to fairly regularly, one place that I make the drive from West to East, early in the morning, just to eat breakfast at and that place is Chin Mee Chin.

Stepping into this charming hole-in-the-wall confectionary is like stepping back in time. The 65-year-old fixture boasts none of the comfortable trappings but will charm you with its aroma of fresh baked pastries and brewing coffee set against mosaic floor tiles, old-world fixtures (yeah, you know I'm talking about those old ink paintings of 8 horses and Tiger beer poster with voluptous women) and the whirring of ceiling dans. Their sugee cake is to die for and the home-made kaya is good.

2. Island Creamery 10 Jalan Serene, #01-05 Serene Centre
Tel: 6468 8859

How long has it been since you've actually gone out for ice cream? This place has made its name off all the local flavours, teh tarik (sweet thick local tea), Horlicks (a malt drink for kids), pulut hitam (black glutinous rice in coconut) and even the Tiger (beer) sorbet. The place is cute and innocent, adorned with walls of photos of secondary school children and happy families. Opens later on weekends.

3. Soyabean curd at Rochor Road, 2 Short Street

This probably represents all the rest of the local food and snacks that I didn't write about. Truth be told, this is my current favourite because its the most healthy of the bunch. The dessert can be served hot or cold and this place is the best for a syrupy, smooth bowl of soyabean curd.

You're also sitting in the middle of a family fued. Apparently there were three brothers, one runs the stall in Geyland and the other runs the "Original Rochor Road Beancurd" stall on 4 Short Street. When the local paper ran this story, Singaporeans had a field day deciding which brother served the best product (yes, we're a food-obsessed, very bored nation that way) and I'm not sure if the debate runs till today but this is a great late-night snack. To my surprise, it is actually possible to have a conversation on their sidewalk seats and they chase you away at about 1am in the morning.

So that's it folks! Don't call me, just read this entry and sort yourselves out. I think I should ask all the other food bloggers to join me in this Singapore-focused post and list their favourite eats this summer. Happy Eating!

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