My friend D is a living example of cosmopolitanism – he comes from Italy, studied in Ireland and the UK, lived for a year in Japan, works across Europe, is in love with a Singaporean. More to Babette’s point, he knows and loves eating. He can hold forth on the virtues of Italian food today, and be a partisan in the Fukuoka ramen chain rivalry tomorrow. (He supports Ichiran. They aren’t in Singapore, unfortunately.)
So when he proposes a ramen joint – especially one that his friend from Japan recommended – I’m all too happy to go along.
Ikkousha is a relative newcomer in its native Kyushu, seeing as its founding date was during the Heisei era. But in Singapore, it’s been around since 2014, which would count as ‘established’. The Chijmes branch, nestled in along a whole stretch of Japanese joints, puts out an open welcome with its warm lighting and wood-based decor.
This evening was not supposed to go this way. I had a reservation for another restaurant ready, but the companion was having none of it, chanting Yoogane at me until I gave up. So here we were in Bugis, in the queue poring over dishes spanning all the shades of gochujang crimson, sandwiched between excited groups of the beauteous youthful.
People say eating chilli makes your skin better but I think causation runs the other way – it is the taut-skinned and finely chiseled, who would simply glow if they sweat, that don’t mind hunching over jjigae or hotpot. That, or the very hungry, which I was.
For the sake of readership, let me say something controversial – the hipster cafes that spring up around Singapore, like amanitas from compost, bore the bejesus out of me. They experience the same paradox of other hipster establishments, which is that they are not ‘mainstream’ only in the same, banal, safe way. It’s in the look; it’s in the drinks, and it’s also in the food, full of ‘reinventions’ that are at best little twists.
Okay then, Babette, I hear you say, I’m going to go away now because you just told me how you feel about Ninja Bowl. Oh, ye of little faith. I loved my visit to Ninja Bowl. I stayed the whole afternoon! We had to be gently chased out by the staff who were closing up and hungrily eyeing the pizza that had been ordered for them. Which in retrospect is a pretty bad sign for a cafe with food front and centre. Does the stuff not deserve the staff, or does the staff not deserve the stuff? And which is worse?
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.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
Going up the Ann Siang Hill footpath, I come upon the quieter end of Club Street and the hotel where Mr & Mrs Maxwell reside and realise I’ve been here before. On some Sunday in 2015 I had, by misadventure, ended up in the post-apocalyptic silence of Telok Ayer, and they were the only place open. Inside the gorgeous, dimly lit Art Deco space, I had their signature chicken rice (pretty good) and thought, well, the menu writer clearly hasn’t got the memo about the decor.
When I tell Azrin, the manager during the tasting, about my previous experience he laughs and assures me that they’ve brought the food in line with the looks. They’ve also done a bit more brushing up. Now MMM looks even more like a place where Gatsby might have practiced his party-hosting skills before graduating to West Egg – it is a lovely Art Deco parlour, from the bright and warm lighting to the splendid porphyry bar counter. Coffee table books and curios line the shelves, but the sofas have been replaced with sleeker dark wood tables.
It’s funny how chicken, which is just about the mildest and least flavourful meat, has one of the most distinctively flavoured fats. My favourite step in making homemade chicken rice is the rendering – low flame and a pot half filled with scraps and skin, and then the slowly spreading aroma, if aroma is the word for it.
At Menya Takeichi, they certainly are aware of how potent this smell can be, judging by the flasks of mild soup they offer to thin out the noodle broth. Nutty, sweetish, with a subtle whiff of feathers and gooeyness from collagen, the stock can reek a little – a property it shares with roasted pork bones, the base of tonkotsu ramen. But can chicken also play well with the versatile, easygoing noodles? Well, in the hands of an acclaimed Tokyoite chicken ramen chain, yes.
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.
Once I watched this TV show about interior design where some designer from Hong Kong or Singapore blabbed on about how ‘industrial’ settings were so very hip and trendy, interspersed with footage of installed ‘exposed’ brick, clothes racks masquerading as soot-smeared piping and tiny apartment closets pretending to be the least spacious factory warehouses.
It was, to put it gently, aggravating. But on entering Caravan, past the rather modest entrance to one side of the facade, I kind of get that designer’s point. The real problem is that an industrial setting does best in an industrial setting, the likes of which don’t exist back home. When you have a spot like Caravan’s – in a Grade II listed building which was once a vast granary, supplied by barges coming up Regent’s Canal – the idea and the reality fit like mortise and tenon.
For Caravan is a very handsome restaurant. Long, solid wood tables, flanked by comfortable but clanking chairs, stretch into the distance; pillars are steel, bearing a lofty, wood ceiling. And of course the brickwork is exposed. They couldn’t not have the look – that’d be against regulations.
This is an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
I was thinking about the angle for this review while playing Europa Universalis IV at the same time, and it occurred to me – culinary empire-building is not unlike the real thing. It’s always a balance. You can sell people the equipment and a licence and be done with it; Subway does this and they’re everywhere. Or you can keep a shorter leash, keep a firm hand on the reins; the growth is slower, but more of the original is preserved.
You’d think Tokyo Sundubu would take the first path, considering what their specialty is. Sundubu jjigae is a little more complicated than its name suggests, but it’s still a straightforward stew. But no – the Singaporean outpost of the chain, which has grown to some 35 outlets in its native Japan, is adamant about consistency and control over its chief ingredient.
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.