Singapore Food Challenge Episode 3 – Cafes

I set myself a food challenge since I had a few days back in Singapore. Try tasty food from as wide a spectrum as possible, all of which must come from new stalls, eateries, cafes or restaurants to me. Rather than go chornologically I decided to cluster the individual experiences according to the establishment. Today, Cafes.

Whereas the hawker scene in Singapore is facing the increasing threat of extinction (through lack of young people taking over) the food scene in Singapore is far from finished. The Singapore culinary scene is an oasis and not a desert and its most bright florescence is in the cafe scene. The cafe scene in Singapore is positive exploding, a cut throat industry with new concepts and items reappearing practically every month.

A cafe in Singapore does not just sell the black gold, it sells food, it sells a concept, it sells a lifestyle and the prices match that. These places are uniformly more expensive than a traditional eatery and a food centre but that’s not too surprising since a cafe is more aspirational than the functional options I covered in the previous two episodes (hawkers and eateries).

But I was not looking for a concept, I was tolerant of a concept cafe but I wanted great food (ideally both at the same time), and so I racked the brains of my friends and this was what we got up to. As you would expect, all these restaurants are new and hence low on history but bold in concept and flavours. It also means that they are low on direct competitors, how do you have competitors if you are one of a a select group of one in your category?

This is the bold new face of culinary experience in Singapore.

KRAVE @ Bali Lane

It was once really difficult to get halal food in Singapore. Despite the significant Musim population in Singapore, there were few places that had halal food, even Subway the fast food chain was not halal certified. Old style food stalls that did not go the certification way advertised that their food contained no pork and no lard. Otherwise the dining options were mostly restricted to a select handful of fast food shops and more traditional restuarants (such as Hajah Maimunah). So it was a pleasant surprise when a friend recommend we try the food at KRAVE.

Located at Bali Lane just at the edge of Kampong Glam, KRAVE represents Malay-Western fusion cuisine at its most avant-garde in Singapore. For mains we had such whacky dishes such as (clockwise from left) sambal seafood marinara, ayam bakar, deep fried otah-otah (spicy fish cake) and beef rendang bolognese. A sambal is a southeast asian hot sauce made out of chilies as well as shrimp paste and fish sauce among other ingredients, ayam bakar means fried chicken and in this case was beautifully presented and served with malay ketupat, some spicy sauce, purple onion slices and sprinkled with coriander, a rendang is a meat dish thickened with coconut milk and flavoured with chilies and other spices. We all had a sampling of each others orders and we liked them all.

They may not seem like workable combinations, but these certainly did.

We topped our meal off with a selection of desserts such as deep fried Chempedak with ice cream, Chempedak Creme Brulee and a durian pandan chiffon cake. Chempedak, Durian and pandan are a fruits and plants native to Southeast Asia but a chiffon cake is American, Creme Brulee is French and ice cream is just sinful.

At SGD 32 per person (EUR 20.05, USD 24.11) this was a more expensive meal than the regular that I am used to, but the fusion was something to enjoy. KRAVE has been so popular that they have already gone on to set up a branch in another part of Singapore.

ON THE MAP

Spize @ River Valley Road (SGD 13 per pax)

KRAVE was amazing but still a little on the high side, so imagine my excitement when this time with another group of friends we managed to find another halal restaurant that was serving good local cafe style food at much more competititve prices. Spize does not do fusion but has a much larger and more eclectic menu of Asian, Western and Mediterranean flavours on its plate. It’s selling point is good authentic food, in large portions, with a much better ambience at broadly affordable prices.

It’s a mouthful, lets just say that its value for money. We ordered all sorts of items, from seafood fried noodles, to fried rice pattaya to fried rice and chicken and they were all well done.

The final bill was on average a shade under SGD 10 per person (EU 6.30, USD 7.60), which is a great price in my view.

ON THE MAP

Sinpopo Brand @ Joo Chiat Road

Whereas the concept behind the former two cafes was fusion and value, the concept behind this one is modernised nostalgia. I had initially suggested dining at a big food centre – the Old Airpot Road food centre, when my friend suggested trying something else instead. He done Old Airport Road Food Centre too often and was crving something else. I was just craving good and affordable food.

There was nothing in the decorations of Sinpopo Brand to suggest that the food was nostalgic, it seemed like a simple cafe with a logo that reminded me of the Kickapoo (red and white ones). I’d sen it a few times, but never felt overly enticed to go in and check it out.

The nostalgia theme came through the menu, with the first line on the menu being “Sinpopo is an ode to Katong and its heritage”. Sinpopo Brand prides itself on cooking local food the traditional way and updating it so as to preserve and keep the culinary culture alive. I don’t see a reason to think of them as pretentious. There are enough hipster foodies around that a cafe not intent on lasting the long term would not need to go so far as to make food with such complex preparation methods.

We had dishes such as Har Cheong Gai Burger (Prawn Paste Chicken Burger), which was a simple update on a local deep fried chicken dish using the same paste. It was a phenomenal dish I’ll say. Har Cheong Gai beats out any kind of fried chicken you can think off because the batter is so rich and flavourful.

Another dish that we went for was a modern pork chop with hainanese style curry and wedges.

Our dessert was a limited edition cake (bottom left) using the same flavours as a Pernakan kueh (snack) known as Kueh Dadar as well as a Durian Pengat. Kueh Dadar is a pandan flavoured crepe that is rolled and filled with grated coconut and gula melaka (palm sugar). This dish was turned into a cake and it tasted exactly like a kueh dadar except for the texture (cake instead of crepe). Durian pengat is a fermented durian deserted falvoured with pandan and gula melaka. It tastes very much like a sweet with a hint of acidity, and was served with coconut ice cream and butter croutons.

For all the effort it took to prepare, I wouldn’t begrudge the cafe for charging around SGD 30 per person (EUR 18.80, USD 22.60). It was on the high side of my budget but it was certainly worth it.

ON THE MAP

Despite the great tastes, the prices are still too steep for the average person to be able to afford dining at such an establishment regularly (for a weekday lunch perhaps). Despite the cafe explosion, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that until the prices become wallet friendly, the long-term future of Singaporean dining is still in the food centres and eateries.

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