I love heritage – look how excited I was at the Botanic Gardens World Heritage inclusion – which is why the speed and brutality with which intangible heritage fades in Singapore really frustrates me. Sure, we keep the buildings, but – look, I used to work in Tiong Bahru, so I had a glimpse, however short and on the sidelines, of the tsunami that carried off so many of the old school kopitiams in a tide of crema, steamed milk and scrambled eggs on Sunday mornings. I should be happy – grist to a reviewer’s mill, after all – but I’m not. I see the buildings with the signboards ‘maintained’ (they’re new, of course), opening into tricked-out caverns where Calvin Harris blares over bored-looking younglings with soggy enchiladas – and I want no part of it whatsoever.
But well, that’s capitalism for you – bums on seats and mouths to feed. There are some spots of light, though. Thye Moh Chan is relaunched, glossier and brighter, but still recognisably the same delightful mix of lightness and denseness in the pastries. Then there’s Sin Lee Foods, proudly ditching their bog standard cafe fare for a more overtly local style. It’s a strategic move, really. They’ve already got the location, in the deep end of an old housing estate; they’ve already got the signboard (original this time, and half a century old). So why not play to their strengths?
Well, why not indeed – if only they could play well to those strengths. The prices are intimidating, at least until we see the portion sizes on the neighbouring table; indeed the portions are so generous I wonder, for a start, if they might not do better if they had half-sized options instead. A big bowl might do well if the dish in question is aburi broccoli salad – which looks gorgeous from one table away, the broccoli shimmering and almost black, like mushrooms, flecked all about with contrasting whites and yellows.
But we didn’t get the broccoli. Instead, sweet potato fries are glopped with a thick, custardy looking salted egg yolk sauce, scattered with fried curry leaves. It’s a good idea, even if salted egg yolk sauce is becoming a bit too common everywhere now, but first contact with the food scrambles all the good impressions. The sauce tastes inexplicably underpowered – it’s got all the grainy, sandy texture, but somehow only half of the aroma. The only way to confirm the presence of curry leaves was to eat the leaves themselves – there’s none of their ebullience in the sauce. The fries, which are cut overly long and soaked, are floppy and frail. Even the portion size, sadly, works against them; we only get through half the bowl before the sauce loses its attractiveness, congealing into glum little dollops.
Another Sin Lee trademark dish, the Fried Chicken with Waffle, doesn’t impress the friend, who consistently says it’s nothing special. Well, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with nothing special. The chicken is a pretty good har jeong gai, bubbles of crisp batter jutting from its crust. The waffle is… and here’s the issue. The twist here is to take a Southern soul food classic and substitute a Singaporean soul food classic, which I get; the only problem is that the substitution doesn’t work well with its plate-mates. American fried chicken is elevated with pepper and garlic, possibly buttermilk, making it a good companion to a crackly, fluffy waffle and a warmly sweet syrup. But har jeong gai is not elevated – its savouriness is marine, deep, animalic from the prawn paste it’s marinated in. Placed with normal waffles and (perfectly adequate) slaw, it does not harmonise.
The same thing happens with the banana beignets, which sound alluring on the page but are reminiscent neither of beignets nor of banana. Adding shaved Parmesan cheese is a good move, bringing out the fragrance of the batter where it is sufficiently crispy. But where it matters, around the banana, it’s the sort of beignet that gets apprentice cooks yelled at – there’s no rise, no lightness, grudgingly crunchy amid all the grease.
As for the banana, well. The whole pleasure of goreng pisang, which is what these beignets are actually riffing off of, is to open the crisp batter envelope in whichever manner, and have the sweet, heavy odour of overripe bananas spring out eagerly at you. The West has banana bread for that exact same rush. But here the bananas are underripe, and so they instead sulk in their thick coats of batter, sour and grassy.
Look, for the record, as a whole I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Sin Lee’s cooking. Technical competence is something they do have, from the well-timed fried chicken to the lovely slaw. But having come up with a good big plan, they end up letting little details bog it down. Something similar could be said about the decor. It’s pleasantly reminiscent of a dai pai dong with its long, enclosed kitchen space visible from the dining area. But then the benches are cold concrete, the wall rough bricks – so rough my friend gets her hair caught in them when she leans back. So there’s nothing that makes me run screaming; instead it’s just a little mound of missed details and small disjunctions that grows and grows into a poor impression.
This is a pity, because I still think Sin Lee has the right idea. It’s definitely a lot more diverting and intriguing than another bloody Eggs Benedict. The punters think so too, clearly – for a joint tucked away in a corner, invisible even from the street right next to it, it certainly draws a steady crowd. Hopefully that’ll give them time to tinker with their ideas and get them to fit better, because I’d like to be back in due course. Just, uh, I’ll sit outside where my friend can lean back against cushions.
Sin Lee Foods
4 Jalan Bukit Ho Swee
Tues – Fri: 11AM – 9PM
Sat: 9.30AM – 9PM
Sun: 9.30AM – 6PM