‘Complexe, mais pas compliqué’ was his motto…
— Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958), speaking of Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)
One of my dearest friends – half-Swiss, half-British, all brilliance – once told me a story from her days in a law firm in Paris, when a one of her colleagues, a callow fellow, ordered hot chocolate to finish a meal he was having with a partner and several senior lawyers. The waitress – she reports that she was ravishing, which only makes the following worse – returned with the chocolate and served it to him while announcing it to the whole restaurant: ‘and here’s the hot chocolate for the little boy!’
The lesson, if there is one, is presumably that one messes with French postprandial etiquette at their own peril. This probably holds true even if hot chocolate is a key attraction, as it has been for a long time in Angelina, but thankfully the staff in the Singaporean outpost have not brought this particular attitude from the Métropole. Given Singapore’s penchant for the wholesale importation of famous food brands from overseas, it was perhaps inevitable that this particular denizen of the rue de Rivoli would eventually pop up on our isle. I mean, what’s next? Brunch from New York City? Oh wait…
That said, I would be hard-pressed to find a better setting for a salon like the Angelina than the recently redeveloped Capitol buildings. The neoclassical arcades and Art Deco façade of the theatre are as in tune with a place of Angelina’s heritage as any place in Singapore can be. Established by a prominent Austro-Hungarian confectioner in Paris in 1903, the original is a vast, glittering cavern of glamour, its interior designed by Niermans, the architect who also co-designed the Moulin Rouge and many landmarks of the French Riviera.
It’s a feel they’ve done their level best to replicate in the long, narrow two-storey space – the same liberal use of marble for the tabletops and counters, the same chairs of dark wood and leather, wall panels painted in the vaguely oriental style that underpinned Impressionist art and music. It’s a token of the Belle Epoque where Marcel Proust dipped madeleines in tea, remade for our pleasure.
And what a pleasure. The French ruled West Africa for almost a century, and one of their legacies is a cocoa industry that still dominates the world trade today. The hot chocolate ‘l’Africain’, Angelina’s trademark, is an unstinting celebration of this abundance of beans. Served in a pot with some Chantilly on the side to mix, the chocolate pools in the cup, more slurry than liquid, gleaming and velvety. It looks like it’s way too much, and that’s the whole point. This, it proclaims, is what prosperity and empire is like. We only dilute the chocolate enough to let it flow. If you want to cut it further, c’est bien; if not, tant mieux!
As with the seeing, so it is with the drinking. Made with beans sourced from three countries – Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Ghana – the slurry is an astounding cascade of flavour, sugar and milk serving as a base for the intense burst of cocoa. The aromas linger long after the chocolate has gone down, dark, heady and yet well-rounded, not a kick but a sensual hug. It’s more Ondine or Clair de Lune in its intensity than, say, Wagner, which is as you’d expect.
Alongside a drink like this, the main course turns out to be surprisingly light and understated. Chicken roulade arrives with a retinue of ingredients, attractively plated. Carrots and endives accommodate their orange-infused braising liquid in different ways, the citrus adding a bright hue to former’s sweetness and easing the latter’s sharpness. A duvet of greyish-purple under the roulade turns out to be yam mash, given punch by the trails of balsamic reduction. Chicken itself, a leg rolled in on itself and roasted, is cleanly and lightly seasoned; the main note is of the roast itself with a little salt, of juiciness without greasiness. It’s a typical French dish, an ensemble of individually simple elements, each standing out in its way. And it helps cleanse the palate for the chocolate, which says a lot about the chocolate.
The size of the roulade leaves ample room for desserts, which is just as well. Angelina’s other signature is a sort of inversion of the Mont Blanc, a bulbous dome instead of the evocative peak. And what the chestnut puree contains within the dome is a delight – more light, frothy Chantilly, and then a crumbly meringue that looks like powdered snow and tastes a lot better. The only slip is with the puree itself, which for some reason feels a little clumpy and sweaty, though that does not affect the woody, hearty scent of the chestnuts.
Angelina’s charm as a cafe stretches beyond the food, though. The smaller space is a limitation, with tables put close together, and it probably gets a little noisy in there at the height of a meal service. The outside tables are a lot more conducive for crowd-watching and languidity. Service is polite and calm, all vested suits and smiles; the food can take a little while to come. But then you spend the time anyway to savour your drinks and talk to your friends, so to me that’s all good. The general atmosphere is calm, even amid the conviviality, an effect perhaps of the more traditional decor.
Therefore Angelina is not quite a place to go if you’re in a rush. But even this miniaturised reflection can explain why people like Proust and Coco Chanel, with their epoch-making ideas, were frequent guests of the Parisian original. So if you have a spare afternoon, perhaps while it’s drizzling outside, to pour tea, shoot the breeze and gaze out at the jeux d’eau in the Capitol courtyard, Angelina is worth your while.
15 Stamford Road
Capitol Galleria, #01-82
Mon – Fri, 11am – 10pm
Sat – Sun, 10am – 10pm