Review: Alter Ego, Esplanade

Alter Ego the Spread.jpg

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 Grilled Cheese 2.jpg

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.

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‘Song Joong-ki’: Seorae, Dhoby Ghaut

This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.

Oh look, it’s the Special Forces boys!

Well, I didn’t think it was that easy to get your attention, ladies. Seorae, on the other hand, knows exactly how this works. A TV screen outside replays the scene of South Korea’s impossibly beautiful soldiers pigging out in one of their restaurants; there’s a life-size poster of that iconic shoe-wearing (shoe-removing?) pose at the entrance.

Yes, they are featured in Descendants of the Sun; I just thought you’d like to know. But what I really took away from watching the scene is the possible reason why I don’t enjoy Korean BBQ that much – it’s because in Singapore we often miss out half the fun. A session at the galbi joint isn’t only about food – it’s about the conversation, and sufficient amounts of alcohol to knock out a commando in the morning. 

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‘Oddly Perturbed’: Five Nines, Keong Saik Road

Five Nines Keong Saik Signboard

Writing Dear Babette means I’m somewhat obliged to chase new stuff – to dig around for what’s opening, what’s cool and what’s incoming. I’ll be honest here, though – Five Nines was not my first choice for a night out with good friends at Keong Saik. The place I wanted to go to (I won’t name it, that’d be churlish) wasn’t open on the only day we could meet. 

So, fine, new place it is. And certainly it’s a confident place, this. Five Nines is a metallurgy term, used to signify that a precious metal is 99.999% pure. Which is why I’m sorry to say that, from my visit, it feels more like a mining operation in a place with both gold and pyrite in the ground. 

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Review: Mamuśka, London SE1

placki ziemnaczane potato pancakes

Even in Singapore, there isn’t really a restaurant about which I have feelings like I do for Mamuśka. In my memory, it has always been a lovely rose growing out of a dungheap – the original location was tucked away in Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, which is basically a  set of a post-apocalyptic film that somehow got populated with shops.

And yet I went to that damned shopping centre, once or twice every week, just for this Polish place where the furniture was all mismatched, the decor centred around a TV that played exclusively Polish programmes, and the food was the embodiment of cheap and cheerful – and good. In its first year or so nothing cost more than a fiver; you could get a whole meal for ten pounds, dessert and all. 

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‘Almost Benthic’: Rice and Fries, Kembangan

Restaurant and Bar in Kembangan, Singapore

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.

Rice and Fries Kembangan Somersby

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. 

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‘Andante’: Verre, Rodyk Street

Pic 7

It is an easy trap, in my opinion, to anticipate something too much and be set up for disappointment. The first I knew of Verre was blatantly one such trap. It was a beautiful looking seafood papillote, parchment unfurled like rose petals, prawns and scallops and juices inside making a whole range of autumnal hues.

And because it looked so very lovely in the photo, I decided not to have it when I finally dropped by Verre with a friend. My expectations were high enough as is. And I was, to be honest, bracing myself already even before the pal arrived. While the restaurant occupies an absolutely lovely niche facing the quiet upper reaches of the former Singapore River, the atmosphere inside somehow felt… odd. Something was off – something felt off. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. 

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Review: Salt Quay and Canada Water Cafe, London SE16

Salt Quay Canada Water Exterior.jpg

In the two years since I’ve left, Canada Water has really blossomed – new-builds are complete, and shops and amenities are moving in to turn the place into a proper neighbourhood. What I really appreciate, though, is that it has been a measured transition so far. Maybe it’s simply because there was nothing much to gentrify before, unlike in many parts of Shoreditch, say, where the ‘vintage’ has muscled out the actual vintage.

Still, the Rotherhithe Peninsula does have some of its own heritage and places. While Canada Water Cafe is completely new to me, the Salt Quay – formerly the Old Salt Quay – is one of the most evident reminders of what Rotherhithe used to be, namely part of the Docklands – a huge network of canals, pools and warehouses that supplied London with the world. 

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Review: BoCHINche, Martin Road

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This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts, restaurant and fellow tasters.


Vuelvo al Sur,

como se vuelve siempre al amor…

I am returning to the South,

Like how love always returns…

— ‘Vuelvo al Sur’, Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992)


Argentina has always been seen as a land of riches. The first Europeans to arrive at the vast estuary of the Rio de la Plata dreamed of mountains of silver; the name ‘Argentina’ derives from the Latin for silver, argentum. And while the silver turned out to be elsewhere (Bolivia, mostly), the vast country has riches all of its own, many of them edible.

And Bochinche isn’t shy about its intention, which is to bring these pleasures to Singapore. The presence of this piece of the south in Singapore is the result, apparently, of a chance encounter in London involving Diego Jacquet, the chef who helms Zoilo there. Besides his attitude to sourcing the raw materials, he has also sent a longtime colleague, Fabrice Mergalet, to oversee the Singaporean operation. This Fabrice does in a manner that’s calm, almost languid, but still precise and prompt; voices are low, movements are measured, yet the dishes come out as and when they should.

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Review: A Traipse round Pasarbella, Suntec City


Dear heavens, why? (Source)

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. 

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Review: My Little Tapas Bar, Club Street

My Little Tapas Bar Club Street Interior.jpg

‘The music is a bit infantile, plain, spirited… there is less musical science, less of the great idea, but more colour, sunlight, flavour of olives.’
— Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909)

There is a sketch from the Mitchell and Webb Look where two of the ‘greatest actors of their generation’ (Alec and Michael) co-star in a Sherlock Holmes production, and a way had to be – and was – found to accommodate two massive egos both wanting to be Holmes. And the tapas sitting before me, in My Little Tapas Bar, brings that sketch to mind.

For just about everything in the pan is equal to the task of being the centre of a dish. In a pale, creamy sauce are three plump scallops, each one kept separate by a sliver of jamon, a leaf of basil on top just for the colour. It’s not a new combination by any chance, but it too accommodates everything that’s in it. Somehow everyone gets to be Holmes here. 

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