Ah, Somerset. Who came up with this idea anyway? Let’s take a large plot of land, and make not one or two malls, but a sprawling, Siamese triplet, one jutting into another, corridors and escalators twisting every which way. There was an article somewhere recently, recounting the mournful travails of shop owners in Orchard Gateway, whose locations – all tucked away in one niche or another – simply did not draw footfall.
Well, I do sympathise. It’s not their fault in any case. What’s happened here, maybe, is architects and developers being a little too inspired by all those operant conditioning mazes, dreaming of a building of mice with disposable income scurrying down corridors towards mealtime, getting distracted and buying a sundress and a pair of shoes or something. But the aspiring mice wranglers seem to have forgotten that the mice here can choose not to go into the maze. Sod it, I tell myself. I’ll just take a right turn here and go right to Oriole Cafe + Bar.
Oriole is a fixture in this part of Orchard by now, after years of operation leading up to a full rehaul last year. I’ve read somewhere that it has, the air of a hidden gem, which seems ridiculous at first glance but is surprisingly accurate. Despite being situated right next to a much-walked footpath into 313 Somerset, its position and use of dark tones, makes it unobtrusive. The al fresco area, all dark, earthy tones, is perfectly placed for crowd watching. Inside, the autumnal theme is continued, white tiles set against bronze and wood panels.
The menu is long, but as the name suggests, the idea of the place revolves around the drinks more than the food. The posters which liven up the place are mostly for coffee, especially the house special Taisho cold-brew. But the food performs, too, given what I’ve tried and known from previous visits. Fish and chips, one of the classic ‘so basic it’s difficult’ dishes, was a delight, the fillets full and firm, batter nicely gilded and cracking easily. Fried wild rice, dotted with the twinkly sweet-savour of lap cheong, aimed to emulate the crispness of claypot-charred rice, and did a pretty good job of it.
It’s the confidence in their dishes so far that got me to order the Beef Cheek Tagliatelle, and what a lovely thing it is – mostly. Tagliatelle is evenly coated with a red wine sauce that is surprisingly robust and meaty, with the lifting fragrance of oranges and shallots trailing in its wake. Mushrooms add their own deep, subtle richness and crunch. Take any noodles and toss it in that sauce on its own, and I would eat it.
And sadly, that’s what I ended up doing, because the slices of beef cheek are inexplicably more detached from the sauce than the noodles. Shot through with ligaments, perpetually at work, beef cheeks are a formidably tough muscle; here they are thoroughly cooked but still defiantly tough, resisting tooth, fork and spoon alike, the veins of translucent collagen stretching and springing. And while the cheeks have generously given their dark beefiness to the stew, the other flavours in the stew don’t seem to have gone very far into the meat.
When I ask for ice water to start with, ignoring the extensive drinks list, I am met with a look that is politely, strictly neutral from the server. But what with Oriole being a coffee place and all, it only seems right to make a concession here with the Chocolate Coconut Affogato. And the espresso, to my untrained palate, is superb. Already chilled, it is an intensely acidic, almost spicy rush, its own fruitiness suffused with vanilla from the ice cream. Coconut pokes in at the fringes, slightly lost in the rush of so many similarly broad, complex flavours.
So, in a sense, nothing is new with the food in Oriole – which is generally a good thing. The fumble with the beef seems more a one-off, poking out unfortunately against a background of consistency and skill. Service, however, is less consistent; on this visit I could not but get the impression that I was getting in the way of a particular server knocking off, what with her reluctance to say a word (it’s not a physical issue; she talks to her colleagues just fine).
And herein lies the inherent risk of writing about a restaurant, especially one where previous visits have been problem free. A media tasting is always best-foot-forward; but what do you do if the only visit you have photographic evidence of has not gone to plan? Gentle person that I am, I’ll still give Oriole the benefit of the doubt. I wouldn’t talk to someone either if he was keeping me from leaving the office with his endless demands for cold water. Oriole remains a good place to be sipping and nibbling when you’ve had enough of wandering the endless hallways of Somerset.
Oriole Cafe + Bar
96 Somerset Road
Pan Pacific Serviced Suites Orchard, #01-01
Sun – Thurs, 10am – 11pm
Fri – Sat, 10am – midnight