Singapore’s urban jungle is so dense, its buildings so high and its people packed so tightly, that sometimes you miss things just a short walk from you. For a long time I’ve been whining (inwardly) about the lack of rosti in Singapore. It’s shredded potatoes for heaven’s sake. Why do I have to go to Marche and pay enormous amounts for that?
Or at least that’s my excuse for this glaring oversight – not only did I not know about Ivan’s Carbina, mere minutes away from my place; I didn’t even know there was a coffee shop there at all. It was only when I saw a video on Facebook that I knew. Rosti was there all the time; indeed, it’s been there for years.
The first time I saw the name ‘Our Tampines Hub’, I thought it was just some possessive eastie who really likes the place. But no – turns out, in our gradual slide into Orwellian horror, it’s the actual name of the actual building complex. Repeat it enough times, I guess, and it will feel true. This is Our Tampines Hub. Our Tampines Hub. Our Tampines Hub…
Anyway, wouldn’t have known about this place, or be within 10 km of it, if not for a little errand I had to run. Also a blazingly sunny day that forced me to seek shelter anywhere. But since I was there, Commonground – well-situated right at the front of the building – seemed worth a visit.
You know, now that I think of it, there’s something the very friendly front-of-house said as I paid the bill which sounds a bit ominous. When I asked her if Let’s Meat Up was a new place, she beamed. ‘It opened one month ago. Our only outlet!’
No one says that last bit if there aren’t plans afoot to change it.
So that raises a question: seeing as Singapore’s food scene has got more chains than your average BDSM dungeon, how much should a new arrival be welcomed? On the plus side, Let’s Meat Up is aimed at a new niche for fast-ish food, namely robatayaki. That said, I have seen robatayaki restaurants, and the place looks nothing like one. The name robatayaki means ‘grilling around the stove edge’, but the standard elements – the open grill, ingredients all laid out – are missing. Which means there’s only the food to go on.
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.
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.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts.
When I was told about the invite to Ash & Elm, my first instinct – sight unseen – was, I’m afraid, not very charitable. A restaurant that doesn’t seem to have realised its name would inevitably be acronymised into a hospital department? That’s not particularly encouraging. But then I go, of course, because there’s food, and what I’m taken around to see quickly changes my mind.
Ash & Elm, which serves double duty as the Intercontinental’s guest breakfast area, is a quietly good looking place – wood and bronze tones, mostly, coupled with black. And a semi-buffet lunch helps in that respect. Because we need to face it – buffets can be unsightly, ugly affairs, what with the queues and the half-empty pots and people rummaging around for a fried prawn whose head hasn’t come off during serving.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
It tends to be a good sign when this friend of mine is intrigued, and he most certainly is when he has a bit of the pineapple pork curry at CATO. ‘I’ve never tasted a curry like this before,’ he says. ‘It tastes of salted fish.’ And so it does. More importantly, it actually enhances the ensemble.
In CATO, facing Sri Mariamman temple on the edge of Chinatown, the sense I get from this dish and several others is of ambition. They want every dish to make like that pineapple curry, make people’s eyes go wide. Inevitably, they do not completely succeed. But there is enough to make for several pleasant surprises.
The only public transport to our destination is a double-decker bus that, right after our stop, will drive straight on a ferry and head across Poole Harbour to Sandbanks. As the curving road straightens out a little, closing in on the promontory, we catch a glimpse of the sunset on our left, the golden sphere settling in over the ridges and glimmering sea. We gawp, but the driver merely tells us of greater beauties. At sunrise, he says, and if the clouds cooperate, the whole sky turns red and gold with scattered light.
I say to give a sense of how beautiful Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant’s location is. It reminds me a little of a bar on top of a certain building in Singapore whose cocktails are all based around ice water, but which still reels in the Yusofs with gleeful abandon. And the view there has nothing on this, with the sea seemingly just underfoot. My point is, with its location, Shell Bay really doesn’t need to try. And yet they do put in effort – and for the most part it turns out well.
Because I have the navigational skills of a blind squirrel, I like to arrive early at dinner appointments just so I can find the place and maybe take a look into it. And to take a look into Koh Grill and Sushi Bar is to glimpse quite the operation, even before the crowds have actually hit – big fillets of salmon lined up on the blocks, the unexpectedly small grill heaving smoke past the slabs of meat placed on it.
In other words, despite its position up at the peak of Wisma Atria, in the heart of Orchard Road, the operation is still of a piece with its location in a food court. I don’t mean this as a disparaging comment, not when food courts are where the majority of our eating still gets done. To supply this sort of demand requires machine-like work, and that’s what Koh provides – a finely tuned machine that satisfies.
There is one objection I need to register with Guzman y Gomez, and it’s to do with the way the place looks. No, not on the outside. I was on my way elsewhere in Star Vista when I came across the shop, with its rounded glass wall and the big yellow logo with two avuncular faces – I’m guessing they are señores Guzman y Gomez, though I cannot confirm this – and my curiosity is piqued. Add that to the outdoor tabletops of Mexico’s famous Talavera tiles, and I’m hooked. I go back to Star Vista, just to go in there.
See, one of the reasons I like Mexican food is how striking it looks. The native land of the avocado, chilli, chocolate and tomato (all words borrowed into English from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs) has no lack of edible colour; the best advertisement for a taqueria, if you ask me, is just to lay out all the stuff you could be rolling into a burrito. Would you like to eat crimson with jade green and carefully charred brown? Course you would.
Yet at Guzman y Gomez, an Australian import that reached us in 2013, there’s none of that. Both times I visit there is an attractive young woman at the service counter, and more attractive young men and women behind her, formed up around a long counter like an assembly line. Yeah, okay, it’s the way they do things. But let’s face it – with the overhead menu, it feels efficient but joyless. It’s less Australia (or Mexico) and more, well, Singapore.