I love Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, I really do. Freeing a river from its canal isn’t a new idea, and it seems to be increasingly common; the River Wandle, once heavily dammed and culverted and now a walking trail through southwest London, springs to mind. But a river in a temperate area is one thing, while a tropical river is quite another. It turns out that if you would only free a river from its concrete straitjacket, guide it subtly in the background instead of imposing straight, inflexible restrictions with a concrete fist, then maybe it can better fulfil its potential of providing clean water while also teeming with life, a productive and beautiful ecosystem thriving among the reedbeds and floodplains.
Is this an allegory for something, I wonder? Give something more freedom, and it can grow and prosper naturally, becoming so much richer and more beautiful, instead of… nah, I’m sure I’m overthinking it.
In any case, the beautification of the river has also given a suitable environment for the growth of food spots on the park grounds. Well yes, the most scenic spot next to a bridge overlooking the river itself is occupied by a McDonald’s, but hey, you win some, you lose some. There’s also GRUB, standing by itself down the other side of the park, with its chunky, pleasantly floury fries. And, freshly emerged from a bit of landscaping, there’s Cornerstone, sharing its patch of greneery with two other restaurants and a spa. I’ll say this for Cornerstone – it’s lovely to look at from the outside, and lovelier still to be inside watching the neighbourhood jog (or skate, or cycle) by. I can imagine that the wooden deck would be excellent for a tipple under the stars.
The Cornerstone isn’t coy about its chefs’ resumes either; between Chef KT and Sam the patissier, they’ve ticked plenty of boxes big and small, from Hyatt and Swissotel to Le Cordon Bleu. Sure, klaxons do sound when the menu turns out to be quite long; then it turns out they’ve got Japanese specialties stuck in among the burgers and pub classics, and the klaxons get louder and louder. It all seems a bit too much, and maybe I should- ooh, it’s 2 for 1 beers, is it? You’ve got Erdinger? Well, we’ve got to have something to eat with that then, haven’t we?
Pulled pork, having spread like a smoky, smouldering wildfire from the American South – first across the pond, and now across the world – can be an absolute revelation if it’s done properly. In Cambridge there was this pub which opened its beer garden once every month for a big roast pig party, diners jamming into every available crevice of the garden to stuff themselves, the staff slapping on juicy portions carved from an entire pig that may have been in the barrel grill for half a day. If you were lucky, you got crackling; if you were really lucky, you also got a pile of strands from the shoulder, the golden-bronze juices gleaming on and pooling around it.
That’s what pulled pork is – meat that’s had the toughness melted out of it, but still keeping all its suppleness and bite. It’s meat that offers the best of both worlds, not to mention the wonders of smokiness. And pulled pork that’s done well doesn’t need decoration or dressing – maybe another pile of coleslaw to serve as counterpoint, but that’s it.
The Cornerstone doesn’t go down that path; the pulled pork in the heart of the sandwich isn’t just dressed, there’s several fashion consultants, makeup artists and a whole crew working the lighting. And yet first impressions are still unpleasant. The bread is brioche, oozing butter like a sponge; there’s what tastes like tartar sauce slathered on both the inner sides; the pork itself has been thoroughly tossed in barbecue sauce, that nightmare of unnecessary sweetness, before being splatted on in an imitation of a patty. Salad leaves and a tomato slice add nothing to the texture.
And the pork itself? From a distance, it looks almost like tuna flakes or mashed sardines, an impression that’s sadly confirmed – it’s soggy, the texture held up by being saturated with sauce so that, after a sweet and tangy slap to the tongue, what remains is actually rather dry and bland. The only thing worse than having pulled pork’s natural wondrousness covered by barbecue sauce, it turns out, is having pulled pork without natural wondrousness – which is then slathered with barbecue sauce.
It’s not all bad – the brioche itself is richly fragrant, so the patissier is doing her job, and chips (store bought, if the standardisation is any indication) are adequately fried. The service is very good, albeit in an almost empty restaurant; cups are refilled and plates moved with crisp efficiency, and the Indian server is all smiles and appropriate distance, quick to spot things without needing to hover. And then there’s the scenery, swathes of green meadows sloping leisurely into the river, trees shimmering in the evening sun. But isn’t that precisely the pity? This place is already so lovely, and it could be so much better. I suspect it’s not just the pulled pork sandwich, but the whole concept behind the menu, which is the issue; they promise such a vast array of dishes I don’t think a single chef of any calibre could’ve pulled it off. Well, no one’s requiring you to cover all the bases. I’d much rather a place that knows what it can do, and if that list doesn’t include pulled pork, then fine by me.
Then again, I could entertain the notion, that I’m the one who’s missed the whole point – that this place is really a boozer, that instead of focusing on the mouthfeel of the pulled pork I should just slouch, enjoy the aircon, relax. Eh, you know what, let’s go with that. I’d gladly come here to knock back Erdingers and Tigers until I see twice as many trees going out as I did coming in. I’ll just make sure to get dinner elsewhere first.
The Cornerstone Cafe
Bishan Park 2
1380 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1
Closed On Monday (Except PH)
Tuesday to Thur: 12:00 – 22:30
Friday : 12:00 – 22:45
Saturday: 10:00 – 22:45
Sunday: 10:00 – 22:30