For the sake of readership, let me say something controversial – the hipster cafes that spring up around Singapore, like amanitas from compost, bore the bejesus out of me. They experience the same paradox of other hipster establishments, which is that they are not ‘mainstream’ only in the same, banal, safe way. It’s in the look; it’s in the drinks, and it’s also in the food, full of ‘reinventions’ that are at best little twists.
Okay then, Babette, I hear you say, I’m going to go away now because you just told me how you feel about Ninja Bowl. Oh, ye of little faith. I loved my visit to Ninja Bowl. I stayed the whole afternoon! We had to be gently chased out by the staff who were closing up and hungrily eyeing the pizza that had been ordered for them. Which in retrospect is a pretty bad sign for a cafe with food front and centre. Does the stuff not deserve the staff, or does the staff not deserve the stuff? And which is worse?
The real reason I had fun is a random encounter I had – the waitress got someone to share a table with me, who turns out to be an old LSE schoolmate I haven’t talked to in years and years. And as a meeting place Ninja Bowl isn’t bad at all, with its clean lines that become peaceful as closing time approaches.
But when there are people, the tunnel-like space with its hard, echoing walls turns into a tunnel of incessant, braying noise from the punters. Since I go to cafes expecting a little calm, I’m glad that between two big appetites we ate enough in a single visit to populate this review.
And there are some gems, above all the Gyu and Tama – braised beef cheeks (gyu), tight and packed with juices, with properly fluffy and wobbly scrambled eggs (tama). A little spoonful of the gravy, unto which the beef has given so much, rounds everything off, though I’d prefer if they didn’t soak the slices of toast with it. But as a weekend filler this is very effective.
The Tonkotsu Spirit which I order, though, is a sad return to the usual form of the hipster cafe – things slapped together without too much apparent thought. The most eye-catching part of this assembly is the plate – the rest is all pallor and half-tones, from overdone poached eggs with floury yolks to sickly avocado. Cheddar slumps over sliced toast like Gudetama. Does it fit together? In some parts, yes; the slabs of cha shu are a nice contrast to the toast, or would be if the toast was crisp instead of just tough. The flavours are unobtrusive, verging on flat. Let’s just say that the word I associate with this dish would be, like… ‘Aftermath’. You get the idea.
And then we come to the poutine, which… okay, okay. Let me just issue this as a general statement. If you can’t serve cheese curds (or at least very melty cheese) on right-out-of-fryer chips, and ladle on hot gravy (meat is optional), then do not call it a poutine. If someone gave you Mackers chilli and told you it was sambal belachan, you would be justifiably miffed. So why would you insult the Canadians like that?
If not for the presence of those luscious lumps of beef cheek and gravy, the poutine would be an outright insult as well. But more to the point, for a place that says it makes everything a la minute, the shoestrings are both underdone, hardly a tinge from the oil, and cold to the touch. This coldness affects the cheese too, which is way past its melty peak and looks just like candle wax. If this is done a la minute – and I don’t doubt them – then it must have been languishing in the window a long while indeed.
A passable slice of lemon cake with plenty of lemon scent soothes me somewhat towards the end, but I’m afraid I cannot praise Ninja Bowl too highly at all.
And that’s a shame because there are things to praise. The staff, for instance, are friendly and observant, keeping our glasses filled; that they are enthusiastic about the stuff they sell rubs off on us too, which is why we get the lemon cake and another coffee each. And as someone who doesn’t like coffee, the drink is pretty amicable, without too much of the fruit’s sharpness.
More’s the pity, then, that their work doesn’t give me much to be enthusiastic about. I suspect part of it comes down to the menu, which is actually long and full of different combinations and sorely in need of toning down. And I feel bad that I’m griping about such generous portions for quite reasonable prices (nothing’s about $20 that I recall), but quantity really doesn’t have a quality of its own in all cases.
Looking at other, more positive reviews, I realise they’ve all ordered similar things; no one’s got what I got. Assuming other bloggers are trustworthy (generally true), then it’s simply a problem of a menu with gold hidden among dross. Luckily, it’s a problem with a simple solution. But until then, I guess you at least have to know what to get here.
15 Duxton Road (map)
Mon – Fri: 9.30am – 7.30pm
Sat – Sun: 9am – 6pm