Who are you then?
I am part of that power which eternally wills evil, and eternally works good.
— ‘Faust’, Goethe (1749 – 1832)
The word ‘sin’ gets thrown about very easily when it comes to food. We don’t hear much talk about murderers being sinners nowadays, outside of a church. But dark chocolate, pepperoni, fried food, a good grilled cheese? All sin. No doubt this is partly because we recognise that food – even the sinful ones, the luxurious and tasty – is always a good thing. A city with many of the avaricious, wrathful or envious is a hard place to live. A city with many of the gluttonous tends to be brilliant.
Alter Ego, a new concept by the people behind A Poké Theory, plays on this theme. The promo and website play up the contrasts in its menu, but it seems a little ahead of its time here. Elsewhere it is the absurdities of the clean eating cult that increases the tension over how ‘good’ your food is; Singapore, thankfully, has yet to be drawn into the stupidities of kombucha, gotu kola, sucka, etc. So without that tension, Alter Ego is really a place where people who work on poké all the time decide to work on other things as well. That’s not as dramatic, but it sure as hell works.
Situated off the main arc of Esplanade’s outdoor restaurants, facing out over the Bay, Alter Ego snags a beautiful location and uses it to good effect. The decor is simply designed, wall paintings and concrete and clanging steel-and-wood furnishings; what saves it from looking like a Generic Trendy Singaporean Eating Place is the abundant natural lighting, allowing the atmosphere to vary with the weather. In the evening the inside lights come on, the wall painting morphs through UV light into another picture, and the place smoothly transitions into a bar vibe.
The good side are the poké bowls, which are good. But good holds little interest for me. So I start by lingering lustfully around a serving of chicken skins fried to peak krokkiness, then refined with a dusting of garlic salt and paprika. This is not glamorous food, but – the golden surface spalls and splinters readily, and it crackles loud enough to be heard across the table.
Another good starter for groups is the pizza fries, which is pretty much what it sounds like – a bed of lightly spiced, floury chips smothered with cheese and pepperoni slices with singed, crisp edges. Given that it relies on the pleasing squelch and stretchiness of mozzarella, it needs to be eaten quickly before it begins to harden, but there is plenty of contrast between the textures of the components to keep it interesting.
Loaded taters continues with the theme of piling things one atop another – half fill a bowl with tater tots, then douse ‘mercilessly’ (poor tots) with jalapeño cheese sauce, a generous sprinkle of bacon, then a good dollop of sour cream to sooth the heat. It’s a mash of bright, basic flavours which use the neutral, well-fried tater tots as a nice venue to nuzzle and snuggle with each other.
My friend gets the grilled cheese – served with classic, slightly fluorescent tomato soup – but opts to fill it with pulled beef as well as the standard Gruyere/Taleggio blend. In retrospect, I don’t know if it is a good move, even though all the components do their job well – a cloud of fermented, deep flavours rising from the generous amount of cheese, the bread saturated with butter and cheese fat and just barely holding it together. And the beef is almost Marmite-like in how savoury it is. For want of a better expression, it’s like essence of chicken, but, uh, with beef. I personally would have preferred it on the side, though, letting both cheese and meat do their separate awesome things.
On the other hand, the chilli dog is far more than the sum of its parts. The chilli con carne and cheese meld nicely, milky tang into spice, tomato sweetness into umami. A dollop of sour cream takes off any remaining spicy edge, so it’s really all gentleness and roundness, down to the pillowy bun and the trilling saltiness of sausage.
So here we have it – a litany of praiseworthy sins from the ‘dark’ side. Honestly though, why is any of this ‘evil’? Think of the effort that goes into a grilled cheese – or that pulled beef. Or the amount of calibration, the careful timing, you need to have chicken skin like clouds with crunchy linings. Mephistopheles (the devil who spoke the quote at the start) was right. Sometimes, with the ‘worst’ of intentions, you can do some really awesome things.
8 Raffles Avenue
Esplanade Mall, #01-13 (map)
Hours: Mondays to Thursdays, 11AM – 1AM
Fridays, 11AM – 2AM
Saturdays, 10AM – 2AM
Sundays, 10AM – 1AM