‘Egg and Spam; egg, bacon and Spam; Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam…’
— Monty Python, ‘Spam’
I am not the sort who likes my restaurants or cafes saccharine or whimsical. By that simple standard, I should be allergic to Lola’s Cafe and the style which runs through the operation. The first culprit is the website. It’s conversational in the matey way; it’s eager to be friends and hang out with me. And their slogan, leaving aside the fact that they have one, is ‘Love is at the Heart of what we Serve’. I mean, seriously.
And yet… but let’s backtrack a bit. I first came into contact with Lola’s Cafe in the same way many did – via their honey and paprika wings. A friend requested – it was verging on a demand, really – their presence at her house party, and so I followed another friend to Simon Road and waited outside in the slanting, golden daylight. It was just one thing on a long dinner list, and unwisely we decided to buy it first; between one thing and the other it took us some two hours to get round to eating them.
And they were good. Two hours sweating in a paper box had dampened them, but the taste was undiminished, a caress of fruity spice atop its light sweetness. The batter had taken a soaking but was still enjoyable, retaining its bite instead of falling apart. We took out the lot in minutes.
So clearly I would have to go, even if it meant braving the crowds. For from its perch just off Upper Serangoon Road Lola’s Cafe has built a formidable following; I arrive 15 minutes before opening, on a haze-shrouded morning, and there are already no seats in the queue. Another time I go at what I think will be the afternoon lull and end up having to share a table. But at least I get in, to find out that the quirkiness is also there in the decor. Picture frames (sans pictures) form a long, river-like arrangement on one wall of the narrow space. I am informed by a piece of repurposed pop art that beauty is in the eye of the beerholder. Long tables repurposing the sinuous legs of Singer sewing tables, though, are a lovely touch.
Freshly served, the components in the wings remain distinct, each alluring in its own way. The morsels of meat are lightly but thoroughly seasoned (garlic is my best guess), coming off the bone easily; its bronzed, light batter is crackly and bubbly. But it’s the honey and paprika that is the defining partnership here, their aromas mixing and wafting off the hot wings – the former mellow, floral, but insistent, the latter lending a tinge of teasing smokiness, bringing out the wings’ taste without clashing.
Understandably pleased with the effect of blending sweetness and paprika, they feature it again in the croissant. The paprika is paired this time with some of the most skilfully made scrambled eggs I’ve had in Singapore – half chunky, half runny, dairy notes emphasising the perkiness of the red dust. Croissant, its paper outer skin patterned like tree rings, is stretchy and so richly buttery it takes me a while to realise there’s cheese in its embrace. The candied bacon is pleasant, as you would expect caramelisation and cured meat to be, but its texture leaves something to be desired, more squidge and string than snap.
The same applies to the candied bacon in the Full Monty breakfast, but fortunately skill is evident in the other elements – pork sausage is snappy, the thick slice of yolk-yellow brioche both buttery and nicely crisped. The same brioche is used in the Eggs Atlantic (sadly not pictured), where it turns out to be an excellent sponge for both the runny yolk and Hollandaise sauce heavily adorned with yet more paprika. Generous slices of smoked salmon pair up nicely with the sauce, too, an extra edge to the Hollandaise’s tanginess.
As with so many other places, though, the clunker is in the desserts. The chocolate Nutella tart looks tantalising, and does get certain things right; Nutella is luxuriously unctuous, if the chocolate sauce that covers it is a little too flatly sweet, reminiscent of Hershey’s. But it’s the crust, nominally made from Oreo crumbs (and probably crackers), that lets the side down. Little grains of salt in it are a welcome contrast to the shouty sweetness, but it has become sodden and gooey, with an unpleasantly floury taste.
Still, this exception aside, I do have a broader picture now of Lola’s Cafe and its appeal. That some dishes – such as the Full Monty and the croissant – feel and taste like rearrangements of each other is not a problem with the cafe, but rather with the whole concept of brunch itself. As a cultural product of cost-conscious delis and greasy spoons in the West, brunch as imported into Singapore is inherently self-limiting in its ingredients and methods, without much room for innovation.
It is a good thing that they’ve decided to play it straight at Lola’s; they do have truffle oil in the kitchen (for their fries), for instance, so their restraint in not using it on their brunch is admirable. Instead they rely on good old competent execution of simple formulas, keeping the twists small. For the wings it turns out a rousing success, but even in general it turns out pretty well.
What does stand out to me, though, is the service, probably the result of good training. The staff are prompt and knowledgeable, generally unflapped by the endless crowds that pop up before their doors; but they are also friendly. One of them even remembers me from a previous visit. With that, and with the constant buzz of conversations and the occasional birthday song, the idea that Lola’s Cafe is a friendly place seems a little less like marketing and a little more sincere.
Certainly a lot of people think it is sincere – enough to fuel what seems to be an expansion into the neighbouring unit, which is currently under refurbishment. As long as you know what to get, this is definitely a cafe worth dropping by. And as for that slogan, I don’t know. I prefer something more concrete than ‘love’ in my meals. Maybe paprika? Paprika is at the heart of what they serve at Lola’s Cafe. Good on them.
5 Simon Road
Tues – Thurs, Sun: 10am – 11.30 pm
Fri – Sat: 10am – midnight