When it comes to cafes, the front of house is always a bit of a problem. With a restaurant I know where I stand – at the entrance skimming the menu, until someone notices me and leads me to a table, or no one notices me and I find another, hopefully more responsive restaurant. But with a cafe, with ‘casualness’, comes uncertainty. Should I… just sit? Do I head straight for the counter? Am I being too posh for waiting and expecting service? Or is this a table I shouldn’t have taken?
There’s no perfect answer to this, but Free the Robot has come up with the most elegant solution I’ve seen so far in Singapore, in the form of Baileys. Baileys sits at the table right next to the entrance, head poking out a little square window, and suddenly there is no more ambiguity. Of course you’re supposed to pet him and scratch him between his perky ears, and call him a good boy as his tail wags, and continue until one of the staff greets you. If Baileys isn’t currently the Executive Vice President of Customer Relations, he bloody well should be.
Situated at the margins of the pool of old shophouses that forms the heart of Telok Ayer, Free the Robot is a daytime offshoot of Bitters and Love, which in turn is in its second incarnation here (it was at North Canal Road until earlier this year). I can’t say I knew the first incarnation, but the decor of this joint is very pleasing; they have a good sense of how to keep the location’s link with its own vintage, from the small, white-black floor tiles to the frosted glass partition and the wood-heavy furnishings. Even the hipster-mandatory mural is a simple sketch of the robot landing in Telok Ayer. It’s a cafe with a strong sense of place, and as I find out at various points in the meal, a strong sense of how to do things properly too.
Fiona – who it turns out runs marketing for the whole operation – recommended the meatball linguine, and what comes in seems a little on the pale side to me, buried under a pile of finely julienned cucumbers. But a little digging shows that all is done properly – linguine is al dente, evenly coated with a thin mushroom sauce which has plenty of the aroma and intimacy of cream without feeling massive. That there isn’t a huge pool of sauce soaking and softening the noodles is also correct.
But it’s the chicken meatballs that really seal the deal; plump and lightly browned, they are astoundingly packed with a meaty broth sweetened by carrots. Did they simmer it in a stock beforehand? Did they do some xiaolongbao-style voodoo to it? No and no, Fiona explains, it’s just seared and finished in the oven, in the usual way. The magic turns out, as it almost always does, to be hard work – they make the meatballs themselves, they never freeze them, and they’ve been tinkering with the meat-fat ratio for two whole months before coming up with something that holds this much juice. Anyone can say this sort of thing, but in Free the Robot’s case I have no trouble believing it.
Before having the linguine, though, I get the sous vide egg with truffle oil and jámon, with a baton of bread (again made in-house). It is a thoughtful cross between eggs and soldiers and our own breakfast toast – the bread disintegrates in a puff of airy crumbs on biting, and soaks up plenty of the oozy yolk. Truffle comes in the correct dosage – just a reminder of loam and wood that waits its turn behind the egg, and is kept from taking up all the bandwidth. But above all, there’s the beautiful, moist, squelchy jámon – its fat tasting of almonds and peanuts and a refined saltiness.
Even the coffee is something pleasing, speaking as someone who knows jack about coffee. They were out of cold brew, which Fiona explains normally takes them 14 hours to make and about 4 hours to sell. So instead I got the signature brew, a simple doodle on its thick, russet foam. And a cunning coffee it is. On drinking it is a politely acidic and even-handed coffee that’s melded fully with the milk. But at a distance, and in the wake of each sip, is a whiff of coconut oil, as tropical and smooth as a baritone singing in Bali.
The only dish that has a clear lagging component – and just one, really – is the cauliflower gratin, which comes in an old school metal plate. Truffle is here too, but even softer, just a whisper in the creamy filling and on the cheesy crust. More discernible is the cauliflower, which has been roasted to just the right side of crunch, without going into sogginess. Kale, however – which as a leaf doesn’t take heat quite as well as the burly white floret – has tipped over; the stalks are unpleasantly papery and tough. This is easily fixable, of course – one way would be to use the kale somewhere else, since it doesn’t seem to add much to the ensemble either.
But the slip only endears Free the Robot more to me, because it shows they are working at it. Trial without error is pointless, after all. What’s more you can tell what they’re after, whether it’s in the food or from eavesdropping on other conversations; down the table from me a small birthday gathering is plied with umeshu, which again turns out to be made inhouse – you can see the big glass jar with the yellowish, rotund plums piled inside.
It’s not just about doing things yourself; that’s admirable, but increasingly common in Singapore. It’s also about knowing restraint and being clever about the Singaporean twists. There’s that coconut oil coffee, for instance. And where a less mindful place might just slop chilli crab sauce onto linguine, Free the Robot’s chicken balls, in their evenness and succulence and the bits of vegetables within, is a more sophisticated nod to our own hawker cuisine with fine-grained meatballs. And then, of course, there’s Baileys. Here’s hoping Free the Robot will keep up their opening groove; they’ll go far, I suspect, if they do. Now to come here past sunset…
Free the Robot
118 Telok Ayer Street (map)
Tues – Sat, 8.30am – 4.30pm
Closed on Sunday and Monday