‘He’s taking pictures of us,’ says one of the staff to another, when the table of chatty ladies beside me leaves and I can take the picture above of the counter and interior without having to stand up. Clearly I wouldn’t last long as a war correspondent. And he doesn’t say it in a nice way either – you’d think the picture above was an exposé of some atrocity, like gavage des canards in a public setting or something.
This would galling enough were it the only issue with the service (it wasn’t). But how did it become this way? Choupinette has been established in the area since I was a student, though students were never really part of their clientele (or were not then, who knows about our current, prosperous age), and it was here that I tried Eggs Benedict for the first time. Good eggs, too – they do it straightforwardly, the hollandaise lending buttery fragrance and tang to the yolk and salty bacon, and their baguette crisp and taut, perfect for soaking everything up.
Perhaps that’s what I should have ordered this visit. Instead, I decide to order the Tristan’s set, a French (and improved) version of the full English breakfast, sausage and eggs and ‘tomato provencale’. The staff asks me to repeat practically every detail of the order, and…
… what can I say about the food? Well, it’s okay. It’s not bad. The sausages have a nice, snappy skin, though not much texture within; the mushrooms are more fragrance than flavour, needing a liberal grinding of salt. Scrambled eggs are adequately smooth, and the bread roll is, appropriately, the standout – downy and crusty on the outside, stretchy and fragrant with wheat within. But now I know why ‘tomato provencale’ is in quotes on the menu; I expected them stuffed with breadcrumbs, a healthy hint of garlic, perhaps even with some cheese, but instead it’s half a tomato, lightly grilled, with some flakes of oregano and thyme thrown on top. More English Riviera than French.
Once again, none of it is bad, and I have no problem with this breakfast – if the Choupinette was meant to be a cheery breakfast place, une cuillère grassieux, with the prices and conviviality to match. But it’s not; the set comes up to more than $25, along with service charge, which pays for the staff taking the serviettes away mid meal, then motioning to take my apple juice when there was still a glug left in it. You know, maybe it’s me, committing some grave, unmentionable faux pas, and the ‘service’ was the socially prescribed punishment. Was it for not getting the Eggs Benedict? For using my hands to eat the bread? Maybe it was for ordering hot chocolate to go with breakfast, like a 6 year old boy? Whatever it was, I’m not inclined to come back to try and get it right.
See, that’s the thing about places like Choupinette nowadays. There was once a time when if you wanted Eggs Benedict or a good loaf of pain, there simply weren’t that many options around. But these days Singapore is knee deep in milk foam and home-churned ice cream, waffles floating along like round, floppy autumn leaves. Even the north – even Sembawang – is getting its prospective local, in the form of RoyceMary cafe.
They’ve got courage, certainly, opening in a neighbourhood as illustrious in food as it is incongruous. Just across the street are restaurants selling turtle stew, bak kut teh, and the white bee hoon that Sembawang has become associated with; across another street is a family-run joint, specialising in curry fish head and deep fried spring chicken. (Speaking of which, I ought to go back soon. But anyway.) So a place offering green tea lattes and lava cakes is going to stick out, for better or worse. They’re going for the more fairy-tale sort of look for decor, with plastic topiaries and sayings on the wall; the service is prompt and polite.
Attention is paid to balance in the food, though perhaps less to subtlety of flavour. The iced green tea hazelnut drink’s sweetness is cut with the intense, almost marine flavour of maccha, though the hazelnut is somewhat lost in the tangle. The red velvet lava cake comes with fruits, which in turn restrain the sweetless of the cake and its white chocolate filling; once you’re out of strawberries, though, the sheer milky sweetness of the goo – with only a mild cocoa flavour to complement it – gets a little overwhelming.
So between the desserts, the drinks, and the decor, with its little verses and twee greenery, the place has enough sweetness to preserve foods and endanger diabetics. But a cafe that’s finding its feet, and is quite open to suggestions as they were, is surely more encouraging than an established joint that’s gone cold. And people are responding favourably; even in the depth of the afternoon lull there are customers streaming in. So even as I’m going through a fourth glass of ice water, I can see a reason to check on them again.
607 Bukit Timah Rd
8 Jln Legundi