How did we ever use to cope before food hunting apps became a thing? I for one would never have found The Betterfield without guidance, or even suspected that Waterloo Centre would have such a shop. To get to it from Waterloo Street you pass through spare parts shops black with motor oil, heavy with the reek of rubber, and printing shops with tinted glass doors to reach the building’s flank where the bistro sits facing a wall.
It’s almost the textbook definition of an unpromising location for a bistro and cafe. And that is precisely why Betterfield excites me. So well hidden in meatspace, the seven-month-old joint has nonetheless garnered hundreds of recommendations on the app I use. The widespread use of such crowdsourced platforms, where intrepid people can delve into nooks and crannies for the rest to follow, will be – maybe already is – the key to viability in a food scene still so heavily dependent on location. And when it turns up something like the Betterfield, all the, well, better.
Much of the Betterfield that is visible suggests it is nothing more than your standard issue cafe with reasonable ambience. The dining space itself is simple and sensible, almost austere, with the hallmark of a cafe (as opposed to a restaurant) on the counter, namely self-service iced water. The menu is a sheet of paper, and I am promptly informed of the lunch offer; at time of writing, it’s any main course – including the steak – with a soup for $20. And there is where it starts diverging, with the mention of steak.
For, yes, there is a part of the menu where you can eat eggs done several ways, with more eggs on top. You can even have fish eggs, in the form of mentaiko. But Betterfield’s menu is also firmly angled at the less eggy meals of the day. Chef Shaun Gian, whose prior experience includes a stint in Boat Quay with Absinthe, has designed a menu that plays to his strengths in French cuisine (and also neighbouring Italian cuisine). The place’s online presence teems with mention of its pulled duck sandwich and the risotto. It’s all very tempting. I am nearly dissuaded – nearly – from getting the steak I was meaning to try all along.
The tomato soup that opens the show tastes like arrabbiata made into soup, in the best way. From the tangy and sweet broth, dotted with white globules and fragments of herbs, spring several flavours. There’s the grassy hint of coriander, jabs of peppery heat, the fruitiness of chillis. I’m still not sure what the white globules are – my guess is sour cream of some sort, which would moderate its more active companions. It’s a bold soup, a bit of a show of force.
So it’s a good thing that the act which follows it is the Black Angus ribeye, which comes with a well-dressed mesclun salad and a long lick of mustard. And what a hunk of meat it is. Well-timed, with the faint rosy hue of the medium I asked for (I can only apologise), it’s been properly rested before slicing, so the juices are not pooling on the plate but waiting to pool inside the mouth on chewing. Steak is actually quite predictable – if you manage to keep its juices inside, it will be tender, full of the beef’s richness and slight acidity and tautness.
The rest, then, is down to charring. The jacket of crushed peppercorns has had most of its sharpness beaten out by the searing, leaving a bassline of crunch and warmth to complement a full chord of Maillard reaction flavours. Honestly, with such a wide range, the truffle oil in the truffle mustard is pretty much drowned out. I don’t miss it, though; the mustard is there for levity, nor earthiness, and it provides.
The lack of frites with the steak is sorely felt, though, and I eventually cave and order the truffle fries. And here, too, the truffle mustard appears besides the heap of golden shoestrings – but this time round the truffle comes through, low and broad and buzzing. Grana Padano, grated generously on top of it all, hums its own robust, nutty tune.
The food, and the confidence it exudes, is squarely at the centre of the experience at the Betterfield. Not that I’m denigrating the service; the servers, a guy and a girl, are visibly eager to please, and they know what’s out of stock (mentaiko, unfortunately) without having to check. The simple decor echoes the simplicity of the operation; sitting in at the tail end of the lunch service I get to see a trolley of ingredients trundling in right through the front door. No, it’s not posh and it’s not full of expensive atmosphere. It has got that steak though. That seems to be enough for a lot of people on Burpple, and (with the fries on the side) it’s enough for me.
261 Waterloo Street, #01-23
Weekdays: 11am – 3pm, 6pm – 10pm
Saturday: 11am – 10pm
Sunday: 11am – 8pm