So recently the issue of Singapore’s hawker culture, and its continued survival, has been peeking out again. There isn’t the space here to talk about the flurry of proposals and suggestions for this, and I guess I ought to be glad that we are interested in at least one part of our cultural patrimony.
I don’t know what the best solution to this problem is myself, but perhaps it might involve what some places are doing now – namely, the upmarketing (upmarketising?) of hawker dishes. It has a certain logic – change the setting, include an ingredient list and a name that can pass for witty, and it turns out people will pay prices for something they’d scream about otherwise. People such as me, for instance, forking over nearly two Red Yusofs for the honour of eating something resembling bak chor mee at :pluck. And I was prepared to consider it worth the price too. I was.
To be fair to Pluck, $13 for lunch at Club Street is not a bad deal at all, and you do get a certain amount of ambience for that price. It’s a rather restrained space inside without many tables, but the long bar that runs along its length is spacious; at night it would probably be a good place to drink and make friends. White tile walls, black wood tables – Pluck is good looking in a clean shaven sort of way.
And the lunch menu is too – six options, a few possible add-ons. The other options being the usual suspects – a burger, a full breakfast, a mac and cheese option if you do not intend to do any work in the office that afternoon – I found myself left with the hawker-esque option.
Actually, come think of it, I’m no longer so sure that bak chor mee was really the model for the Locally Made Pte. Ltd.. Rather it’s a bit of a mish-mash. The noodles are slick with a black sauce, which also was the braising liquid for slices of shiitake mushroom. Those bits are recognisably ours. But the rounded slices of pork belly are clearly inspired by Japanese chashu. And as for grilled baby corn, I haven’t a clue.
It turns out the most mysterious guest is also the best by far. The corn is supple, each cob charred on one side, a peppery smokiness shading into delicate crunch and the corn’s own mild juices. Pork is suffused with white pepper and not much else, and really tastes more like it was cooked with dry heat rather than braised – the meat is firm, a little dry, and the fat has already slipped away. But the thin slices make it delicate rather than too heavy.
But these are the successes. The shiitake are definitely braised, but the braising liquid is badly unbalanced; if any spices or savoury elements were added, they too have slipped away, muscled out by a caramelly, dark soy sweetness that is far too much of a good thing. Slow cooked egg, meanwhile, is just there – and anyway, it soaks into the noodles on puncture, and then it’s not even there anymore.
The worst offense, though, is the cooking of the mee. I truly realise I was in trouble when the noodles lift on the chopsticks in a big clump, and in some parts the noodles are actually still stuck and knotted together. The taste is plodding, trudging and other similar words. It feels like they are embracing in horror at the prospect of being eaten; well, the feeling is mutual. And they’re stingy with the lubricant too – it’s just whatever syrupy sauce came with the mushrooms, and the egg. Not enough.
Of course, this is just one dish, and as I’ve noted, it is an outlier in a menu of generally Western techniques and ingredients. But surely that just raises the question of why it is there at all. It feels a little tokenistic, just a move to include something Singaporean – or, uh, at least Asian – as an option. But the result, for all its varied and snazzy techniques (I see a sous vide tub on the kitchen, oh joy), feels like it was made by someone who’s never looked at an uncle making bak chor mee – really looked, and noticed the swishing, the temperature control to maintain the noodles’ texture, the complex proportion of sauces at the bottom of each bowl. This is a sketch of the Asian dry noodle with expensive pencils and paper, and it bears about as much resemblance to the real thing.
90 Club Street (map)
Tel: 6225 8286
Mon – Thurs: 11am – midnight, lunch noon – 2.30pm
Friday: 11am – 1am, lunch noon – 2.30pm
Sat: 5pm – 1am