Even though you’re wearing them citified high heels,
I can tell from your giant step you been walking through cotton fields…
— Rolling Stones, ‘Down Home Girl’
This is a dilemma. See, I’m not a particularly social person. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like busy restaurants. And after my first visit to Birdie Num Num, after chatting with the chef and his mother and girlfriend who together make up the core of the operation, my ideal is I will tell no one about this place at all. Yes, this is it! My personal hidey-hole out in Kembangan, mine and mine alone, where I can spend the afternoon lull hours chatting away over a good beer and pub grub of real quality.
But of course I can’t do that. Firstly, if no one knew about these guys, they’d be out of business soon, which would be unfortunate. And secondly, dear readers, you really should know about this place for your own good. It’s one thing to have a meal that makes you go ‘mm, quite, yes’. It’s quite another to step out of a joint with a pint sloshing around in the brainpan and a stupidly happy grin on your face. For me Birdie Num Num is firmly in the second category. It’s not just a matter of getting the food right, though.
But more on that in a bit. Kembangan is a bit of an odd neighbourhood where food is concerned. What with the MRT station, it should be the focal point of the local food scene, but instead it is a sort of in-betweeny place, with Joo Chiat to one side, Siglap and Bedok on the other. To me it feels like a gamble to set up a gastropub here, even if it is within 2 minutes of the station, down among a row of houses and facing a football field.
Chef Kit grasps the risks too, and his answer to it appears to be simple – effort, and more effort. His culinary resume is long and varied, from hotels through French restaurants to another gastropub before setting up here, and the first things his mother Rose (the front of house) tells me about him are that he’s picky, and he’s very serious. Well, I like my cooks picky and serious. As a first positive sign, at Birdie Num Num they are serious about the selection of beers, casting a wide net over Europe.
Not that I read the drinks list for very long, because they’ve got Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgoblin and I cannot be reasonably expected to pass that up. An old favourite from Blighty, it is a robust, yeast-dominated drink, with an almost soy-like hue. The bitterness that follows those dark first notes is more a pinch than the slap that many British ales have. To find it in a bar here is a pleasure, as ever it is.
The starter is simple enough – three scallops, each on a dollop of pear puree, their sweet-tart flavour underlined by balsamic reduction. Unlike a certain other restaurant I’ve been, there is no mention of what sort of mighty grilling machine lurks in the kitchen charring everything. But the scallops are no worse for a grill without a brand, and have been done with skill; a whole range of textures lies within each one – the surface crusty and scented with rosemary, then a crunchy inside, and finally moist chewiness at the core. On top of each pale nugget nestle a few black spheres of caviar, each bearing a concentrated burst of the sea.
Miso cod is another lovely thing – two slabs of the white flaky stuff, well brownedecline on a duvet of risotto with the proper fermented tang and pinch of aged cheese. It seems the chef has been taking care to keep as much of the cod’s flavour as possible. The miso here is not a particularly strong presence, counterbalanced by more of the reduction; it is here more for its lighter, nutty and beany notes, which have melded into the cod’s rendered fat. It could have done with more umami in the cod itself, personally, even if the richness of the risotto and cod offsets that quite a bit.
Perhaps because I order seafood for both the courses, it turns out to be the pudding that has the strongest punch. Soufflés and lava cakes are generally variations in consistency rather than flavour, and by this measure Birdie Num Num’s Valrhona chocolate soufflé is well-tended – once again, from the unctuous inner goo to the pockmarked top and the crusty bits that cling to the ramekin and then to the teeth, the variety of textures is there. To keep the chocolate from overwhelming, it’s been cut with hazelnut. The other star is the ice cream – rough hewn pieces speckled with vanilla grains, a testament to the flavouring power of those tiny seeds. It comes out a little icy at first, but quickly resolves into its proper smoothness.
So the food is pleasant, definitely. But as my restaurant writing idol wrote recently (honestly, I thought of calling this blog Dear Marina, but the appeal might have been parochial in Singapore), the food is really only a part of what makes people want to come back. Are there places which serve food that’s better than Birdie Num Num? Course there are. But at the price I paid for it, with change on a Blue Yusof for everything above? Now we are talking.
Better still, the price is not low from cutting corners. Rose proudly mentions how just about everything is made in-house by his obstinately picky son, from the hand-cut chips – fried in duck fat, because why wouldn’t you – to the vanilla ice cream. Sourcing is also done with great care; the chef has stopped serving oysters because the supplier has not been to his expectations. He’s still looking. And these attitudes towards the operation, to me, are just as important as the results themselves. In a food scene where the filter-dimmed tide of Instagrammable food has been loosed, Birdie Num Num feels like a safe harbour, where elbow grease is seen as the key. Add that to the conviviality, the sense of honest joy that someone is eating their food and enjoying it, the eagerness to provide for customers with EPL and rugby games on the telly – and that’s where the stupidly happy grin starts to show.
It may be because I was the only person in there at 4 in the afternoon that I was talked to for so long and with such friendliness. Then again, I have been in some nearly empty cafes at that time, without anyone giving me the time of day. So, besides all the other reasons to come, they’ve also proven something I knew all along – alcohol is better for society than caffeine. Hurrah for empirical evidence; I’ll be off to gather some more soon.
Birdie Num Num Gastrobar
54 Jalan Kembangan
Hours: Daily, 3pm – midnight (Food service ends 10pm)