On reflection, there was a period in my youth when Bukit Panjang actually figured quite prominently. I used to take piano lessons there, and when Bukit Panjang Plaza was still new, it was where I went for BBQ pork ribs. (Cafe Cartel doesn’t even exist anymore, I don’t think.)
But I haven’t been here for a decade, and so – after a Sunday afternoon stroll in Choa Chu Kang – Dad and I decide to head down. We try the Hillion first, but think better of braving those crowds and retreat to BPP, and to Ju Hao. A nice, grounded choice – it’s a lamian/xiao long bao joint. We know exactly what we’re in for.
Sometimes we see a place so often we can’t recall what it looks like. Sometimes we leave a place so long it seems to have changed dramatically when we return, even if they haven’t. So it is with Chinese Garden. Walking through it with Dad, about ten years after my last visit, and everything is nice – but somehow off. It turns out I’ve been remembering locations and scenery all wrong all this while.
In short, it was nice, but also disorienting. The sort of feeling that makes you want some food that anchors yourself. So it’s a good thing Jurong’s got plenty such places – places like Tonkotsu Kazan.
There’s nothing quite like dessert to make old Babette ponder the big questions of life. In the case of Poppy Pops, the obvious question is – is it better to serve ice cream in a cup or cone, or on a stick? This is an important question, for from an objective perspective, popsicles are clearly worse. The whole ice cream is exposed, providing a bigger surface area for melting. Licking is an ungraceful activity that only speeds up the melting, after which gravity naturally pulls the melted ice cream onto the hand that’s holding it. And you can’t take a small sample of a popsicle, either.
It’s a poor arrangement, but for one thing. It looks great. It’s photogenic, it shows off the ice cream. And in the days of Instagram, maybe that’s enough. Thankfully Popppy Pops doesn’t stop at merely good looking. They work a little harder.
It is absolutely pissing down outside, and with my usual foresight and forethought, I am stuck. As the clouds gathered above Bukit Timah, I dithered my way around a range of possible choices, before heading for the one which would be hardest to escape in case of rain. For you can’t get out of Crown Bakery & Cafe without a car if it pours. It’s right in the middle between two MRT stations and there’s no covered way, not even to the bus stop.
I am stuck. I might even have to get me another of their pastries. And you know what, that’s perfectly fine by me.
A lot of great cooking, we’ve been told over and over again, is about the triumph of ingenuity over material limitations. When your range of ingredients is limited by the seasons or by poverty, when fuel is not plentiful or decomposition and decay threaten your food – these are the circumstances under which cooking styles and dishes became time-honoured classics.
This does not, however, mean that limitations are what makes the food great. And this comes to mind when the manager at Envy Coffee, contrition all over his face, explains why the har jeong gai in the eponymous sandwich has not gone the way of most har jeong gai, into the deep fryer. ‘It’s because open-flame cooking is not allowed here,’ he says. Envy’s answer to that is to grill the marinated patty and reanimate it in house. Personally, my suggested answer would be to go through the cookbook and find another way to season the chicken.
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.