‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England…’
— Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915)
Importation of cuisines, done right – whole-heartedly, with a view to opening palates in new ways – is a laudable achievement; Bottura, and the fun twists in Curious Palette, come to mind. And when someone tries to do it with a cuisine as storied and as unfairly maligned as the British, I start off on their side. It’s a difficult task – difficult to distinguish Britain as it is lived and Britain as it is imagined, difficult to learn and enhance a style of cooking at once rural and imperial.
So when I hear about Hyde and Co., an ‘English tea house’ along North Bridge Road – one that’s relatively established too, by the ephemeral standards of cafes – I already like it even before I go. I like how they’ve chosen Transport (if I’m not wrong) as their typeface, a reminder of British Rail. I read the reviews that promise crumpets. Crumpets!
No time to waste, then. I walk there in the afternoon from Bugis, because to truly appreciate English afternoon tea you have to go through hell to get to it. In London that means getting tossed around by gales and rained at from every direction; in Singapore, swimming through jellied air while melting like Welsh Rarebit on the hob. Air-conditioning hits me like a sacred draft on entry, and the atmosphere is sparse but homely, dominated by white – from the paint to the baby’s breath on each table and the bone china teapots.
I should like Hyde and Co., and yet there’s a strange sense of unease I can’t place. It starts with the menu, maybe – it could be me not turning the page over, or being senile, but I don’t see crumpets. Instead there is their Instagram hit, the butterscotch and popcorn waffles, with a merciful pancake option. The tea list has the foundations, Earl Grey, English Breakfast and the like, but also a selection of infusions with increasingly lavish lists of additions, until one option, the Chocolate Meringue Magic, gets me.
The pot comes in a spreading cloud of chocolatey perfume, and the tea set is quaint and lovely; but one cup in and the unease begins to show itself again, like Heathcliff’s spectre in the fog-cloaked moors. The list of ingredients in the tea is so long and elaborate that some of them are inevitably lost. The intense, nutty aroma of milk chocolate pralines wafts from the tea, which is pleasing and calm, with an astringent aftertaste. Notes of rose flirt with the nose with each sip. But that’s about it; my olfactory bulbs strain to detect something else, to no avail. Where has the meringue gone? Why attempt to even infuse meringue, a dessert that’s half texture, half sugar, all subtlety, with chocolate, rose et al? It is a perfectly serviceable pot of tea, but for the intemperate proclamations that accompany it.
The pancakes take a long time coming, but then arrive full of promise – and the components certainly do not disappoint. The butterscotch is a focused hit of salt and caramel, affable but intense; it goes excellently with the pancakes. Fluffy and bronzed, the pancakes are rich and intriguingly reminiscent of roti prata, being subject to the same Maillard reaction that turns the buttermilk and sugars into a warm, playful fragrance.
And yet, eat any of it with the vanilla ice cream, and all the flavours fall out of view. Once again the problem is superfluity – why the vanilla ice cream? The reason vanilla ice cream is white is not because it’s neutral in flavour; it’s because vanilla has such a broad, powerful impact that a few drops will serve for a whole tub of ice cream. Eaten on its own, the ice cream is good, but nothing else in the dish stands a chance against it, and I have to move it aside so I can enjoy the pancakes properly.
Out of curiosity I ask the server about the black tea used in my infusion, and he says, apologetically, that he doesn’t know; the owner does the sourcing, and the information is not passed on. Well, I wonder why. It seems a pretty big gap in training when the staff don’t know what they’re serving the customers. I get the issue of commercial secrecy, but surely you could let on a little more than that the tea is ‘Indian’.
Also, is this all an English-styled cafe has to give where Englishness is concerned? For one I don’t recall seeing crumpets on the menu (this is for lunch, though). It’d be more accurate to say that this is a cafe with occasional nods to English traditions, like butterscotch, or afternoon tea. But frankly, given how good their butterscotch is, it seems a waste to use it on a pancake, instead of drenching it on sticky toffee pudding. As for the cream tea, I am told they use Chantilly cream instead of clotted. Would you use bee hoon instead of kuay teow to make char kuay teow? Yeah, me neither.
I think that’s where the uneasiness comes from, in the end. If I look at Hyde and Co as a normal tea house, it is definitely an exquisite specimen. But there’s a promise, an itch, that goes unscratched; on the terms of its proclaimed Englishness, I am disappointed. Is it consumer pressure, perhaps, that has leaned on them and pushed them towards homogeneity? Or is it simply a loss of interest? Whatever it is, it’s not all that English. They’d keep a stiff upper lip and continue making that awful (awesome) food of theirs.
Hyde and Co
785 North Bridge Road
Daily, 11 am – 6 pm
Closed on Tuesdays