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.
There are several ways to measure restaurants, but there’s one quality I’m thinking about with Macellaio RC. It’s something like boldness – it’s the guts and gusto to unambiguously holler what you are about, from the moment a prospective diner so much as walks past your shop front. It’s a fine balance between looking anaemic and uncommitted, and becoming merely gimmicky.
Whatever we call it – boldness, chutzpah, candidness – it is clear that Macellaio scores 11/10 in this quality. Their shopfront is nothing short of spectacular – there’s a bright red sofa (real leather, I’m guessing) outside, and inside there is a whole curtain of meat – bone-in hulks, aged and carmine, hanging from hooks and piled one against the other. It’s a very clear message, in case you didn’t know that ‘macellaio’ means butcher in Italian. It says that if you don’t eat beef, you should turn around and walk away.
This was an invited tasting. Thanks to the hosts and fellow bloggers.
I arrive in Sprigs for the tasting about half an hour earlier than the appointed time, and am taken to the appointed table in an empty restaurant. So far, so normal. But then I start listening to the background music, which I don’t recognise until the main theme is reprised. It’s Bésame Mucho – no, actually, it’s jazz variations on the theme of Bésame Mucho. The music swirls out, trails an arc, and then comes right back to the old theme again.
In retrospect, maybe this was a sort of signal they were sending, consciously or not. The stuff we eat at Sprigs, which is pushing out its new menu, is a little like that music – each dish a different tune, but with similar motifs popping up here and there. The new menu itself was created by Shubri, the chef de cuisine (who’s been with them since the start, and with Gunther’s down the street before), with Titus, the co-founder who is in attendance at the tasting.
The other impression I get before anything hits the table is of the PR, which is pretty competent and thorough. They do part of my work for me, which I always welcome. I do like the 1.8m (metres, not millions) paintings of everyday objects. The high, black benches at some of the tables must be great for dates.
One of my companions on the visit to Roots Kitchen Bar is very quick to nail the vibe of the place. ‘It’s very Shoreditch,’ he says. And he’s right, in several ways. The interior is ‘well-worn’ concrete, baring the brickwork beneath in places. The bar is concrete with Peranakan tiles. Even the location fits, reasonably; we are on the east stretch of Dickson Road, on the fringe of the tumult and noise and scents of a thriving Indian area.
And no doubt the vibe is completely intended by Roots, if their website is any indication. They salute the hungry, which is fair enough for a restaurateur. But they also salute ‘the verge hipsters’, which goes right over my unbearded head. (Is verge an adjective now? What does it mean?) Also, I heartily dislike Shoreditch and the aesthetic. I can only imagine the look on the face of the worker who laid all the concrete on two days ago, and is now being told to chip part of that concrete off the bricks. Let’s hope he wasn’t asked to do it in an ‘ironic, vintage way’.
But surely, you may ask, I already figured that much just by looking at the website. They’ve got photos of the interior and everything. Why go at all, then? At which I point to the pals, a lovely couple who are taking the place far more in its intended spirit, sipping Chardonnay while poring over the menu. They’re liking it. Dear Babette, after all, is for the benefit of readers like them (and you), not for me to be curmudgeonly and correct about everything. So it is incumbent on me to at least try it, and if need be to stand corrected.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing for someone who reviews restaurants to really, really like eating? You would think it’s a silly question, but when you think about it, passion is really no indicator of ability; it’s one thing to love food, another to be discerning. I’m definitely in the first category, but whether I’m in the second is probably more for you lot to decide. (My sincere gratitude goes out to all of you.)
Now, the friend who recommended Pasta Brava to me is the exact opposite. She’s generally chill and sharp and a little picky, but I never really got the sense that she likes to eat. And that is precisely why her word carries weight with me – while I talk about food all the time, it’s not every day she comes at me on Facebook going PASTA in all-caps. If she’s impressed, I conclude, they must be doing something right.
Laws are like sausages. It’s best that people not see how they are made…
— Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898)
Quick, think of something to do with the ancient Romans and their cuisine. Did you think maybe of orgies, of wild, drunken revelry, and of people inducing vomiting after a few courses so they could go back and eat some more?
(That last is a myth, by the way; some modern people saw the Latin word ‘vomitorium’ and thought it was like an auditorium for puking. It’s not; it’s a corridor leading out from a building, where the building ‘vomits’ the people.)
If you did, well, you are right in a way. The wealthy, the one percent of Rome, certainly did their share of debauchery. The other ninety-nine percent, meanwhile, lived on flatbreads and porridge, and on a very good day some sausage. But there is something that one hundred percent of Romans had with their food, and knowing about it adds a new layer to what Rome must have been like – a new, pungent layer, which may be surprisingly familiar to Singaporeans.
The pizza is, by nature, an amorphous beast – easily imported, easily adapted. In the days when the Mediterranean diet was a lot more restricted, the Greeks and Romans were putting herbs, onions and olive oil on their flatbreads. As the tomato arrived and became accepted by the poor in Italy (the rich were more paranoid; the tomato was said to be poisonous), so pizza as we recognise it appeared. Even nationalism played a part; the margherita, it is said, was invented in Naples because its ingredients (tomato, mozzarella, basil) evoked the Italian tricolore.
Well, at least that’s how it went down in its land of origin. For Singapore, the movement towards a pizza more like its Italian original, instead of products from Pizza Hut et al., has been a gradual process; I don’t tend to have them, because they mostly appear in Italian restaurants as part of a menu, and rarely the best part. Bottura, for instance, has its piadina (a north-central variation on the more familiar Neapolitan dish), but it also has arancini and a mean polenta, so why would I order that?
The real niche is a place where pizza is the main thing, but where it’s also made properly – for one, where the pizza’s journey to the table does not include a spell in a fridge. And now there are two recent entrants to that niche, Alt Pizza and The Pizza Collective, representing the burgeoning trend towards pizza as it is made, instead of as it was made and refrigerated.
A meal at a restaurant is like any transaction – beyond all the marketing and fluff, it’s about something being promised and delivered on both sides. I know my part as the diner – I’m here with the money and the appetite – and I like restaurants who know their part too. And when the server in Pasta J tells me to the face that ‘we’re all about the flavour’, well, that’s a promise that makes me eager.
Actually, backtrack a little, because I have a confession to make. While on the bus heading down to Thomson, I had no intention of visiting Pasta J; in fact, I didn’t even know the place existed. Rather I was aiming for Pacamara Boutique Coffee Roasters, which stood on the corner of the same street; or at least I was until I saw all the people hanging out, languid in the cloudy afternoon, on the steps in front of those glass panel walls. Trust me to be surprised that a much acclaimed cafe is also rammed on Sunday; but I was not about to brave that crowd, and went up the street instead to find somewhere, anywhere, to eat.
Well, you have to give credit to them – the meal that I had at Saveur Art really made me think. And not just me – all three of us think about the meal, really hard, while strolling from ION to a nearby fast food joint for some soft serve ice cream to cleanse the palate. We mull in long silences. We posit and postulate and reminisce. Were we still as well-versed in econometrics as we were in university, we’d be drawing graphs on paper napkins.
But let’s backtrack a little, to clarify the first premises of our discussion. We were not, like some underfed, cranky jury, debating fiercely among ourselves about the merits of the meal; the point of contention was never its quality, or its lack thereof. Rather, like investigators at a gruesome crime scene, the entire debate revolved around the causes. How? Why? Where did it all go so spectacularly pear-shaped? Had there been earlier signs?
The Americans take its name, transmuted into sausage and slightly modified, as a byword for nonsense. Stendhal considers Rome the city of perfect love, while ‘when we are in Bologna, we are perfectly indifferent’. And its great contribution to Italian and world cuisine appears in many an ‘Italian place’, bastardised beyond recognition – chunky, hapless tomato paste with some mincemeat thrown in, slipping off spaghetti that it was never meant to be paired with.
Bologna, poor Bologna. But in Singapore at least, the cuisine of the region has found an adept representative; its name is Bottura, and it resides in the renovated part of Suntec City. When I first walked past the hoardings around April, the name made me do a double take. Wait, Bottura? That Bottura? The Osteria Francescana guy?