This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts.
I’ve been hearing enough things about Kembangan to make me wonder – is it that Kembangan is actually becoming more happening, or is it just me being very late to the party? For while new joints have been popping up, Rice and Fries – which has been around here for some three years – is evidence of the latter.
And with (relative) maturity comes a certain, characteristic charm. They maintain the aesthetic of an earlier cohort of cafe, the lighting bright and welcoming and the decor slightly quirky – before concrete and sexy dim filament bulbs and Crate and Barrel became the industry standard. It so happens I like the old style a little better, if only because I can clearly see what I’m eating. But they also know how to put on a good welcome – a big glass of crushed ice, with a bottle of Somersby stuck upside down in it, is immediately enticing.
The menu, too, is a reminder of a slightly simpler time. Given the rather generic name of the place, you’d expect a large variety of options, and that’s exactly what we get; this variety in turn is half hard work, half economy of effort. I totally believe them when they tell me, for example, that the bisque – a ruddy, thick gloop of a soup, hiding plenty of savoury crab chunks – is homemade from the shells up. The character of the shells suffuses the whole thing.
Another dish of patient care is the French onion soup. Onions actually have a very high sugar content – half that of beetroots – but it takes slow sweating to tease the sugar out and make it reverberate. And that’s what happens here, though the sweetness gets a little much by the end – now I see why the French match this soup with whiffy Gruyere, to divert and contrast.
And as for the economy of effort? Well, the bisque pulls double duty, appearing among the main courses as the base of a risotto. Cooked down until it coats the rice evenly, the sauce becomes darker, more brooding, almost benthic. Rice is just on the other side of al dente, but its texture pales beside yet more of the crab. It’s repetition, sure, down to the scatter of paprika and herbs on the rim. But with a base this flavourful, I have no complaints about having it again.
A similar trick happens with crowd-pleasing salted egg yolk sauce – a lighter hue here than in many places, but just as substantial and rounded. As a starter, it is paired with ‘spambots’ – spam fries timed to perfection, the batter crisped up without drying or stiffening the stuff within. You wouldn’t think spam needs more salted stuff, but the sauce mellows it.
The repeat performance, unfortunately, is not as excellent, and now I think I see why. Salted egg yolk sauce is pretty good, but it’s a bit of an evolutionary dead-end – there hasn’t been any progress in using it ever since it became a big thing, except to try slopping it on top of something new. (This is a general problem, not solely a problem with Rice and Fries). Here the pairing isn’t bad at all, with the sauce coating linguine and fried, puffy soft-shell crab. But those things would have done well themselves, maybe with a little aglio olio. Salted egg doesn’t feel at home here.
I am just about to raise the white flag when a very chunky slab of barbecued ribs comes in, the barbecue sauce looking discouragingly watery. But this turns out to be an unexpected success; the meat actually flakes and falls off the bone with just a little coaxing, bearing out the variety of textures and sensations that make ribs interesting. And as for the barbecue sauce, it’s a lot more flavourful than its runniness suggests – sweet, yes, but sufficiently lively and tangy in the back to not seem cloying.
Finally, for dessert, the dish with the greater impression is a lemon tart, the filling slightly gooey and face-scrunching in its sharpness. It’s almost enough to get us ready for more food. I’m not sure that a blackcurrant coulis is the best thing to give for balance, though, since it packs some bite of its own.
Most restaurants are all about hard work, of course, but at Rice and Fries it’s also a lot about being at home – in the generosity of the portions, and the welcoming decor which draws an eclectic crowd. I love going to tastings, but even the two of us snapping away at our food felt like the least lively of the tables that evening. On one side there’s a couple on an outing, then on another there’s what looks like a farewell dinner for some foreign workers.
And even with enough food for four we don’t ever feel like we’re slogging through the programme. I even hear that a certain Hong Kong celeb’s favourite haunt in Singapore is actually here, a claim that sounds wholly plausible to me. Rice and Fries don’t trade in the luxury of fineness, but a celebrity would know that sometimes chowing down in a place like home is the greatest of luxuries.
Rice & Fries
484 Changi Road (map)
Mon: noon – 3pm, 5pm – 11pm
Tue: 6pm – 11pm
Wed – Fri: noon – 3pm, 5pm – 11pm
Sat – Sun: noon – 11pm