Humans are visual creatures, and so many shops and restaurants set themselves up around the sense of sight. Supermarkets always put flowers and fresh vegetables at their entrance, and you associate the rest of the shop with freshness. Patisseries and cafes have cabinets showcasing their cakes. Eyes this way, it says, look at the lovely things we’re selling.
Red Eye Smokehouse doesn’t seem to have gotten this particular memo, though. Looking in from the glass front, all you see is a long row of blonde wood tables, each topped with equipment – steak knives, enamel plates, two bottles of nondescript brown sauce – running parallel to the service counter. Big, square windows to let the light in. A blackboard on the wall, above wall-mounted shelves of drinks. It’s austerely good looking, fitting cleanly into the high-ceilinged former warehouse space.
But of the food, nothing. Well, nothing except for the smell. The first time I drop by I was told that they were taking an afternoon break, and so I ducked into another place to have a coffee and a snack; just an hour later, entering the well-lit and empty space, the smell is enough to rouse the appetite again. A whisper of smoke, rounded spice and meat, it begins as a whisper outside the door and starts nuzzling you once you are inside, amid the simple decor.
It is a bewitching aroma, and I don’t know why it isn’t more frequently encountered here. This is barbecue as the South knows it, and it is to our sort of barbecue as a marathon is to the 400m sprint. Low and slow, centred around the smoke to cook, colour and flavour the raw material, it transforms meat – especially the cheap, tough cuts – without brutalising it. Red Eye has gone the distance with its equipment, importing a commercial-scale smoker from the US. But once again, from the dining area there is no visible trace of the long drawn out process.
It all sounds deceptively simple and effortless, and the look of the place reinforces this. Jan Yeo, of the Riders Cafe, is one of the owners; the decor here is evocative as in the Bukit Timah brunch spot, even if it evokes something else entirely, a utilitarian look mellowed by rock and roll music. Staff don black t-shirts, smiling and brisk. Don’t pay too much attention to the menu; most of the meats on the blackboard are also on display, to one corner of the service counter. You tell the staff what you want, and how much, and then it’s cut, weighed and served to you on a tray and a sheet of takeaway-grade brown paper.
I ask the guy at the counter for recommendation, and the first thing he mentions is the pork belly. It is fascinating to see how smoking compares to other methods of cooking. Stewing softens and coaxes out the fat; roasting heaves at the skin, wrings it into bubbled crackling. But with smoke the textures remain intact and distinct. The belt of fat is soft and even, its juices pooling on the paper; skin cracks, then simply melts into a blast of smoke and richness. On the other side, smoke has gotten deeper into the muscle, turning the outermost portion into a savoury, crumbly crust.
The beef brisket here is smoked for at least ten hours, and never in large quantities – the usual procedure, I am told, is to make two slabs each day, one finishing in the smoker while the other is being devoured. I am also told that it’s not uncommon for one to be devoured before the other is done. Looking at the thick slice I’m served, I see why. It’s like an eating tour of a cow, from the meat that’s both taut and fall-apart tender to the chewy, bouncy mattress of fat and connective tissue holding it together and keeping it moist. Beyond the smoke ring where caramelised sweetness resides, the taste is, well, beefy – unaltered by too much seasoning. I’m sure some love it just as it is. Thankfully, the homemade barbecue sauces – especially the smoky chipotle with its demure, long delayed heat – add plenty of interest in small doses.
Slices of pork jowl are a special here, but they’re the only of the three meats I’m doubtful about. A first slice is a delight, the layer of fat almost crunchy; after cooling down a bit, though, the texture reverts to squelchy jelly – though the meat side retains its firm bite. And while light-handed seasoning works for something that’s half fat and on the verge of melting, like the belly, here it lets through the more brutish aspects of pork.
It feels a bit wrong to say that the coleslaw is the highlight of the meal, but it certainly is where the gap between expectation and reality is biggest. The mix of cabbage, carrots and onions soaked in mayo and dyeing it pink is overlaid with an aroma I swear is celery, even if I can’t find any celery in there. I do find some seeds, but they turn out to be mustard seeds. In any case, the high, herbal aroma and the crunch of cabbage is the perfect counterbalance to the heft and richness of the meat.
The staff form the strong third pillar of the operation, dressed in black t-shirts, quick and friendly. You can tell the training of the staff from whether they have to run to the boss at the first query, and the guy manning the counter when I was there doesn’t do that at all; he is at ease answering questions about the brisket, about why the place is closed on Monday and Tuesday (to secure the freshest meat, and because smoking takes time). He’s a pretty good beer sommelier too. The 8 Ball Stout he recommends, a Californian oatmeal stout, is heavy on the flavours of roasted malt, echoing the underlying theme of the entire meal.
But more to the point, Red Eye Smokehouse is a much needed step towards greater diversity in Singapore’s food scene, as well as an introduction to a slower, more leisurely sort of cooking, in an equally spare and relaxed environment. The lessons of smoking – of delicacy in treating meat, of patience and skill leading to great rewards – are well taught here. These guys haven’t dropped any memos – they’re bringing their own playbook.
Red Eye Smokehouse
1 Cavan Road (map)
Wed – Fri: 5pm – 10.30pm
Sat – Sun: noon – 10.30pm (possibly with a break in between)
Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays