This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
The Portuguese Man o’ War is a remarkable beast. (Stay with me, I haven’t lost the thread, I’m going on to Montana Brew Bar.) It looks like one animal, but it’s actually a conglomeration of different animals all sharing the same ‘body’ – one to float, some to sting, others to digest.
It’s an arrangement that works well for the Man o’ War, and the recent trend for Singapore’s cafes seems to be to take the cue from these marine wonders, except that instead of stingers and floats we instead have concepts. Montana has gone down this evolutionary path too. From their original glass-fronted spot at the foot of PoMo, they’ve expanded upwards onto an airy second floor space, and have wasted no time spawning more concepts. Montana is upstairs, along with a doughnut focused space called Fabulous Dough; downstairs is South Bronx, focusing on burgers and chips.
At first glance, I’m not sure it is the best arrangement. I can imagine having a burger and a waffle in one sitting, but not if I have to shuffle up and down the stairs just to order it. Or at least this is what I thought before I saw anything of their waffles or their burgers. Now I will just like to assure my readers that it’s probably fine to choose just one.
In any case, there is little atmospheric overlap between the two places, as their names suggest. Up in Montana, the long table prepared for us is metal; there are drawings of old coffee machine patents on the walls, and as if Pumped-up Kicks isn’t hipster enough, there’s actually a hipster remix on the soundtrack. South Bronx is more my sort of place, both visually with the grafitti, and musically with a stream of ‘90s hip-hop – Kris Kross, Salt-n-Pepa, that sort of thing. But more relevantly, both sides provide plenty of variety in their offerings.
The red velvet stack at Montana is an old favourite, and dodges the common mistake of over-sugaring. But like Stendhal, the red comes with the black – in this case a Black Velvet Waffle. Instead of charcoal – a fad I’ve always found inexplicable, and am glad they’ve eschewed here – they’ve gone with black sesame instead, which also sets the base aroma for the whole dish. On this goes miso caramel, which goes light-handed on the miso, along with vanilla ice cream slowly seeping through a night-black chocolate shell. They’ve clearly thought about this; the ingredients don’t sound congruous, but they pull together as a team.
But if the sweet waffles work well enough, it is the savoury ones which really show the innovative streak here. Where many a cafe might be content to make the exact same waffle, and then throw different toppings on top hoping they will hit it off well, Montana is a much more dedicated and thorough matchmaker, where the waffle does not just lie back and think of buttermilk.
The waffle under the bulgogi beef contains a good hit of gochujang; it absorbs the beef sauces and goes a bit soggy, which would be bad but works with the rice flour it’s made of. The beef itself, though, might have done better with a bit more marination or saute, and while katsuoboshi is always nice in itself, I’m not very sure what role it plays in here.
The standout among the waffles, though, is the Assam Crab, which was born of a joke when the crew suggested that the chef should make a waffle version of his native Kedah laksa. The result is a neat deconstruction of the components in assam laksa broth, which normally fit so tightly together you can’t tell them apart individually. Chunks of crabmeat come as they are, with pineapple and crisp cucumber; the waffle, though, is springy and filled with the fragrance of galangal and lemongrass. A creamy sauce holds the tamarind that is the keystone to this assembly.
Mac and cheese is another big thing at Montana, and its presence crosses over into the burgers as well, where it arguably is more suited. While mac and cheese waffle is another ode to innovation and elbow grease – they spent months trying to get the cheese into the waffle and make it not fall apart – the simpler solution was the one I preferred, in the form of the Mac Daddy. Sometimes it’s better to quite fussing about and just slop it onto a juicy burger patty, with jalapenos in the gloop to keep it interesting and sharp. South Bronx also sells mac and cheese as breaded poppers, paired with the same mildly tangy tomato sauce that goes with the waffles and helps tease out the subtler notes of the chilli and cream.
Lest we forget that Montana also happens to be a cafe, they serve cold brew in an Erlenmeyer flask. Yes, yes, I know. But the ice sphere that comes with it is actually frozen coconut water; its effect is not actually to contribute a strong coconut flavour, but rather to moderate the acidity inherent in the cold brewing process, rounding off the edges of the coffee. It works a charm, in that I was jittery for an afternoon without remembering why.
We did have more at the tasting, most notably the burgers with slightly crumbly in-house brioche. A burger of fried Spam really goes all out, topping it with bacon and an egg, but the result is somehow to cut the chemical saltiness of the spam. I still prefer the Rump Shaker, though – a no-nonsense cheese and bacon classic with a smear of special sauce.
Coming back to the way the operation works, though, it’s still the constant tweaking and consideration that really impresses me. The people at Montana thrive on feedback and innovation; sure, that sometimes leads to things which fall short, such as the bulgogi. But that they’re coming up with imperfect things means they’re coming up with things, that they’re bothering to try. It’s the sort of attitude that’s already taken them to two storeys and hopefully will keep serving them well.
Maybe that is the real logic behind the split – to enable each side to focus on their own concepts, whether it’s burgers with three sorts of fries (straight, curly and grid-cut), or the carefully considered and well crafted waffles. If that’s why they’re doing it, I now applaud them. Unfortunately, Fabulous Dough was yet to open when we visited. I do know it sells something that looks silly to me – doughnuts with syringes for injecting or squirting syrups. But with these folks, I think I can give it a go…
Montana, South Bronx, and Fabulous Dough
1 Selegie Road
PoMo, #01-02 (South Bronx) and #02-25 (Montana, Fabulous Dough) (map)
Daily, 8am – 10pm
South Bronx and Fabulous Dough Hours:
Sun – Thurs, 11am – 10pm; Fri – Sat, 11am – midnight
Facebook (South Bronx)
Facebook (Fabulous Dough)