Over Chinese New Year something a little weird came over me. It’s almost as if I’ve temporarily become sick of the whole new-chasing thing and am reverting to the pre-food-writing me. For the pre-food-writing me is a lazy beast, and a lazy beast is a predictable one. I like eating, but I don’t like taking risks. So I had one go-to place for curry fish head, one for steak, and so on.
But even then, Al-Azhar Eating Restaurant (is there any other kind of restaurant?) was never my go to for anything in particular. Rather, it was my friend going through a bad patch that led us here, based on nothing more than vague nostalgia for the time when the world was young, the MRT had like three lines, and we were still wearing khaki shorts at 16 due to ridiculous elite school historical reasons. Perhaps more relevantly, it was closing on 9pm on a Friday and the city centre was a writhing mass of hungry, sozzle-seeking humanity. So we scarpered into the wilds of Bukit Timah.
Cheong Chin Nam Road has always been a restaurant stretch, and as far as I remember Al-Azhar has been a part of it. Occupying two shops, the restaurant puts a roof over the space between them and packs that with tables too, and even then it is rammed when we arrive with a constant inflow of others.
Now that the hoardings from the Downtown Line have come down, it’s back to being unmissable from the road, shining forth with the force of, well, a hundred fluorescent bulbs. The bulbs have never gone dark, since the place is never closed. The menus are glossy and well-thumbed, the place bustling and yet clean. Diverse is a kind way to describe their range; it’s a ramble all around Asia, with plenty of western dishes thrown in too. I would call it a drunken ramble, except the place is halal.
The pratas are passable, the dough presenting its range of textures adequately – papery and crisp where they touch the pan, then a little stretchy (or eggy, depending) inside; the filling in the onion prata is just lightly sweated, their aroma teased out without too much smokiness. Fish curry comes with plenty of flaked fish on a firm foundation of tamarind, and with plenty of smooth chili heat as well.
The satay here, on the other hand, is much better than passable. Apparently Al-Azhar serves something called ‘superpowered’ satays; I don’t get to find out what they are, sadly, because they’re all sold out. Must be quite a superpower then. The normal, unpowered satays are on the small side, but are tasty morsels. Mutton satay is tender and the seasoning has balanced out its usual flavour, so even the friend (who is hesitant about gamey meats) eats them. The peanut sauce is barely thick enough to cling, but there’s something to be said about eating it with the spoon directly out of the bowl. That may be barbarous, but the sauce is worth it.
Lurching once again towards India, the hariyali chicken arrives looking almost like roasted green peppers – lush green with splotches of char. Some of it has probably been left out too long and has gone tough, though the better pieces are really quite good – well seasoned, still tasting of the cilantro-tinged yoghurt they’ve been bathed in. The dip is also minty but a bit too green.
Before long it’s clear to me why Al-Azhar is not my go-to place for anything. All the food is okay, but none of it stands out – and it’s a fiercely competitive market for the sort of food they’re dishing out. And the service is hilariously inept at times, of the ‘don’t worry I’ll remember everything in my head’ school. The waiter, looking a ilttle tired, nods along as we rattle off what we want; then four pratas in two orders come in four separate plates with four separate dishes of curry. And the same fish curry too! We had wanted mutton and chicken to try, but nope.
And yet, when we finish slurping and scraping at our Milo Dinosaurs, it’s 11pm and the place is still a roaring hive of activity, with a queue at the till. For a long, relaxed dinner, we pay three Red Yusofs and even get change. If I had come here alone on a food hunt I would be dissing this place. But with friends atmosphere becomes a thing, and the atmosphere at Al-Azhar is great for kicking back. This place is a ramshackle, fully-lit, all-weather all-terrain place to be convivial (and also for some food). And that’s really all it needs to be.
Al-Azhar Eating Restaurant
11 Cheong Chin Nam Road (map)