The great thing about street food is that it is pretty much context independent. Because street food can be made anywhere, it seems at home everywhere. And so you can dial back heavily on the decor – everything, from walls to chairs and tables, just need to exist. That’s the vibe of the old pasar – I don’t make it a lovely place with a lovely view, because a view is not what you’re here for.
And because of this, efforts to zhuzh up street food, to make it presentable in a fine restaurant with banquettes and spotlights, can be hilarious. I’ve seen the wonders that sous vide can do to chicken rice (not very wondrous), and tasted the magic that carrageenan does to chili crab sauce (not all that magical). In both cases, the restaurant they built to house the tools had a lot more interest than the ‘refined’ food.
But Pasarbella’s Suntec branch doesn’t need to worry about that, because they’ve gone the other way, pulling street food ‘back into the hood’. They’ve ‘built’ a ‘space’, basically, by slathering it in no-statement graffiti. It’s hideous. I’ve read that it’s ‘inspired’ by the Lower East Side, and am only surprised the Lower East Side hasn’t sued for reputational damage. But maybe in focusing me entirely on the food it fulfils its function.
This, Pasarbella’s second incarnation, is to the first as a hawker centre is to the wet market, and in terms of variety the scattering of shops is all over the place in a good way – there’s everything from Vietnamese through Middle Eastern to good old roast and sandwiches. So here are some tasting notes. And incidentally, why do Vietnamese joints in Singapore like reduplication in their names? That doesn’t even happen a lot in actual Vietnamese…
Most of the joints here, and the ideas underlying them, have been tested elsewhere in Singapore before arriving – and some in impressive places even, such as with Porsena. Kyle Henderson (of Lolla) is at the helm here, and when you order the pastrami sandwich a broad slab of the crusted brisket is taken out and sliced before your eyes. The corn chowder I get with it is creamy and smooth, with plenty of corn and floury potatoes.
Then the sandwich. The resulting roll looks small, but is like a well-packed suitcase, dill pickle nestling in with tangy cabbage. As for the meat, the outer crust is spot on, a choir of piquant notes – peppercorn, coriander, mustard and allspice among others – and the smoke ring is also there and beautiful, a layer of warm flavour that must lead into delicious meat.
Except what lies within is far from spot on – the fat is simply inedible. Squelching petulantly, it jams between the teeth and stretches like rubber. I estimate a quarter of every slice ended up on the wrapping paper. There must be some issue at the boiling or cutting stage – more’s the pity when the rest is so nicely done.
Opposite Porsena is Mad Dogs Bar and Grill, also very meat heavy; what drew me to them was the casual mention of chorizo on the menu. I have very fond memories of weekends spent at Borough Market, just off London Bridge, gobbling down Brindisa’s freshly grilled chorizo sandwiches – partnered with slippery roasted peppers, the sausages practically spray paprika and meat juice at you. I’d take something like that any day.
Once again, I am forced to say it was not quite up to the mark. Some things are good – the gravy is strong and strongly peppery, but not ponderous. The roast chicken is reasonably moist even in the breast, and the skin is properly crisped and charred in the right places. But the chorizo is the colour of a brick and cuts like one too, and there are no juices, just a salty punch in the mouth. I suspect they are grilling the dried, hard variety of chorizo, which imparts lovely flavour to stews but is far too intense and concentrated to be eaten straight. Creamed spinach, though, is pulled off without error, greens snuggling with a light but lingering sauce.
Ironically, the place whose food I can’t find fault with is also the one that didn’t get the memo about having to look cool. In a place with plenty of blonde wood counters and wrought iron windowframes, Pita and Olives with its flashing LED signs looks like someone who’s gone into a gentleman’s club wearing shorts. But then if a gentleman’s club lets someone in with shorts, he must be doing something right; so it is with their shawarma.
They don’t display their turning meats like a lot of places, but they are very generous with the good stuff. A pita pocket comes with the pita stretched to its limits with turmeric-yellow chicken, fresh salad and a liberal slathering of hummus. The heat has touched the chicken unevenly – cooking all, charring some, hardening others into chewy little chips. And the hummus is properly tangy and garlicky, too.
So thus far it’s been one in three, but let’s zoom out a little. I wonder about the whole point of Pasarbella, and that’s why I was ranting at the way it looks in the opening. What exactly am I paying for? They’re not quite like, say, Food Republic, where the food is more expensive than at a hawker’s but are still generally the cheaper choice in their native habitat of the shopping malls. The prices here aren’t all that different from actual restaurants, and those places can offer a much better environment if what you’re after is a dining experience. If all you’re after is face-stuffing, well, there’s Kopitiam about 5 minutes away. It’s even air-conditioned too. There’s even a discount card.
So, to great horror, I must attribute their weird charm to the graffiti everywhere. There’s no other reason for it. And it’s working very well too, judging by the way Pasarbella is embarking on aggressive expansion (apparently a branch is opening in Malaysia). Me, I’ll give it a pass. If I want food at that price I want it better, and served to me. And if I want graffiti that’s good I’ll buy me a Banksy print.
Pasarbella Suntec City
3 Temasek Boulevard
Suntec City, #01-455
Hours: Daily, 10am – 10pm