‘Tis not height alone,
But the presence of deities,
That makes mountains great…
— Liu Yuxi 刘禹锡 (772 – 842)
Like any big city with a community of food-lovers, Singapore has a natural hierarchy of locations for opening restaurants or cafes. And as with any hierarchy, it tends to be the top levels that churn the fastest and are most sensitive to small changes, the zeitgeist haunting one street today, then moving on to possess another. Move away from that, though, into the ‘heartlands’, and it’s like moving into a jungle – a vast, undifferentiated swathe of uncool.
But is it a good or bad thing for a cafe to go forth into the wilderness? The difficulties seem apparent, but I’m optimistic about the potential, the advantages. You could be free of the need to jump headfirst into the maelstrom of keeping up with the Joneses, of looking for charcoal to put in your waffles or sea salt to put in your caramel (to put in your ice cream, to put on said waffles). Free of the heavy burden of coming up with sixteen takes on eggs to satisfy beautiful, brusque and bored brunchers every weekend. Free to do what you do – dismantle coffee and play with the parts, perhaps, or make a banana loaf that will launch a thousand ships.
If this vision is a little specific, it’s because Percolate is already fulfilling it from its perch, deep in residential Bedok.
The cafe’s only just expanded, taking over a neighbouring unit, but it’s packed even on weekday afternoons; I can only imagine how rammed it must have been before. The decor is simple wooden chic – alternating shades of panels along the walls and counter, wooden bench tops and tables looking cosy under the bright, warm lighting. They’ve got service down pat as well – welcoming and attentive without being disruptive, prompt to distribute menus and knowledgeable about what’s on them. They’ve even got this strange thing on their faces that you rarely see in the local service industry – I think it’s called, like, a smile or something.
It’s enough to lull a non-caffeine person into ordering a macchiato…
… and what a macchiato. Percolate takes care to mention the sources for its coffee (Papa Palheta, Nylon Coffee Roasters) and tea (A.muse Projects), but unfortunately the intricacies of blending and roasting are lost on me. Not the final product, though – its crema a brooding russet hue, a splotch of milk foam just to take the edge off. The first sip felt like a right hook to the jaw, followed by acid and bitter chocolate notes and the ability to eavesdrop on conversations two tables away. It could just be me, though. More to my taste is the iced chocolate, which arrives looking like a two-tone Pollock, the chocolate syrup swirling with creamy, full-tasting milk, its sweetness more a mild caress than a weight on the tongue.
The smoked salmon, wasabi cream cheese croissant comes liberally filled, and also with rocket – an old frenemy of a vegetable, so often misused in London to turn lettuce salads into an authentic cud-chewing experience. Here, though, its petulant bitterness gives a nice edge to a sandwich that would be all roundness and richness otherwise – salmon, cream cheese and the butter-packed croissant, flaky outside, soft and stretchy within. The wasabi does its thing too, rushing up the nostrils to clear the way for the flavours that come after, though by the last mouthful it gets a little too much.
This is billed as a banana and date loaf on the menu, but I have to admit I don’t taste much of the date; it’s yielded to the banana, but contributes its aroma and grainy, filling texture to the bread. (Cake? I’d say it’s more cake, personally). What with honey, berries, mascarpone and almond butter (Hunters’ Kitchenette) all present, it seems to run the risk of becoming one big vague thing, but each addition has something the others don’t – nuttiness and a mealy mouthfeel, dairy notes, that distinct, floral honey aftertaste.
The coffee caviar shooters, a house special, are a great example of simple, Instagrammable food – the sort of thing people can gush about three minutes after it’s served (and probably one minute after it’s finished). Aesthetics aside, it’s an intriguing dessert – it feels as if the flavours in an espresso have been taken apart and placed in three different textures. Tangy, acidic notes go into the cream; the caviar (more jelly, actually) holds the lighter fragrance; and the body itself is contained in the sweet, slightly viscous coffee custard, which also has hints of soy. Each component is interesting enough in and of itself, and I end up finishing them separately. It’s probably not how it’s meant to be eaten, but hey…
Percolate’s on to something here, definitely. Simplicity and creativity runs through the whole operation, the first to make an easy, cosy environment on the outside while the second shines through in the effort they’ve put into their dishes – thinking them up, putting them together. It takes a lot of work to make something seem relaxed and effortless, but that’s what I think they’ve pulled off here – and all this for the sort of prices that allows everyone in for a spot of lounging, maybe an Earl Grey Bundt cake or an almond croissant that looks almost snowed under with almond flakes. I probably won’t subject myself to another macchiato right hook here (or anywhere else) in the near future. But if the future of cafes out in the heartlands looks anything like Percolate, then ‘tis a future devoutly to be wished.
136 Bedok North Ave 3