Behind the university I went to in London there is a park, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and at one of its corners sits Fleet River Bakery. That they serve Monmouth coffee, endearing but intense, is one thing; for me it’s the counter that stands out – a broad display, tray upon tray of quiches and cakes and salads for you to fill your plate however you want. Summer afternoons, sunlight streaming in the windows and glinting off the shepherd’s pie or the beetroots, cute servers who were often also schoolmates… it’s a good cafe, is what I’m trying to say.
So what a joy it is to have found, in Grain Traders, a shop in Singapore that is in Fleet River’s image. And a relief, too, for many of Singapore’s salad bars, who could have turned salad into lovely, pleasantly healthy meals, squander that potential in piles of dying lettuce and crabsticks. The folks behind Grain Traders, who are also behind Kilo, probably know this; they have been adamant that they are more than a salad bar. And quite right they are. Calling this place a ‘salad bar’ in the Singaporean sense is like calling Charlize Theron a ‘blonde woman’ – it’s not inaccurate, but you’re leaving out lots of important information.
And not unlike Charlize Theron, Grain Traders looks very good. Occupying a long, gallery-like space at the ground floor of CapitaGreen, they’ve made a place suited for indoor people-watching, with tables looking out on Lau Pa Sat across the junction. They also understand the crucial importance of the display; a broad concrete coutner holds tiers of trays, jars and bowls, behind which you can watch the stuff being made in the open kitchen.
Lunch service is centred around salad bowls; you can either build it yourself, choosing from proteins, sauces, greens and grains, or you can choose from a few pre-set options. After a bit of dithering I go for their Rooster’s Crow, and get a sense of how popular the place has become; I come in round the tail end of the lunch period, and they’re all running out of this and that. Well, there’s pleasure in knowing that we appreciate quinoa so much.
The resulting bowl – green tea soba standing in for its Andean housemate – looks small but is surprisingly generous. Over the slightly soft soba are a medley of cooked greens – broccoli and sugar snap peas, thoroughly flavoured but still snappy, stand out – with a note of ginger and citrus; the roast chicken is basic in seasoning, yet moist and tender.
More importantly, Grain Traders understands that the potential of salad is in variety, and they provide that in every sense. Roasted bell peppers give flashes of colour to the earthy greenness; toasted almond flakes and shredded cabbage add crunch with each bite. The savoury vegetables and soba are livened with hints of cilantro and raw spring onions. The basil vinaigrette dressing, a beautiful jade green, displays both ingredients to advantage.
I’ve seen comments that, at $16, the small bowl is a little pricey even if it is substantial. Fair enough, I guess. But consider this – swap out the chicken for something trendier like squab, scatter the elements in an ‘artful’ way on a huge plate, and you would be paying some fine dining establishment double that amount for the pleasure. Well, there’s a time and place for that, but for lunch I’d rather the bowl, thanks very much.
With the main counter devoted entirely to salads, desserts and coffee are ordered from another counter, and I wish I could say that Grain Trader’s desserts are a home run too. Once again, the looks and creativity are there – the pastries feature local ingredients like chempedak, and it all looks quite artful. Service is on point – the server, a striking redhead, is obliging and knowledgeable about the cakes.
Therefore the regret with which I say that the summer berry crumble stumbles. The sponge is pleasant enough, buttery with lip-puckering raspberries lying in ambush, but despite its butteriness it is a little dry. Crumble is not very well-timed here, the crumbs just on the right side of cooked but without much of the aroma that a properly browned crumble can have. A little more of the boldness so evident in the salad dishes would serve well here.
Then again, Grain Traders is a new place, and a wrinkle in the dessert execution is easily fixed, a small thing compared to what’s on fleek – food, coffee (Papa Palheta) and atmosphere, complete with Latin music to complement the amiable salads. It’s the sort of place where you go in for lunch and end up chilling for hours. Grain Traders’ motto, apparently, is ‘feeding people right’, and I’d say they do a pretty good job of that.
138 Market Street
Hours: Weekdays, 8am – 8pm