The Lokal cafe in Singapore. There’s no escaping the Aussie coffee shop.

After a traumatic encounter with a monstrosity at The Plate which they have mistakenly labelled ‘laksa’, I needed to be on safe ground for my next Singapore experiment. Hence I dropped in on The Lokal.

Originally of Tetsuya’s team, Darren Farr has both impeccable experience and a mature attitude:

I’ve reached a stage in my career where I just want to keep things simple, and let the produce speak for itself.

That could certainly be the motto of Lokal in Neil Road. It was one of two places we visited more than once in our brief time in Singapore. I guess the highest accolade one could give any cafe of this type is that it would survive in the Melbourne-Adelaide-Sydney scene and Lokal does everything right. Reflecting the philosophy quoted above, much of the stepping stones of a cafe meal is made on the premises including butter, ricotta, yoghurt and the bacon/fish are cured/smoked onsite.

How much could we sample in the course of three days in a city of food? We did our best is all I can say. Coffee and tea were excellent. The milk, to my relief, after an unfortunate encounter with UHT at my hotel, was fresh. Tea drinkers will be pleased to hear that extra hot water came on demand. The granola was good enough to tempt me.

Granola with goji & berries, chia & seeds, pumpkin & sunflower seeds,
walnuts, almonds with homemade vanilla yogurt $14
Choose poached fruit or fruit salad

Mostly I find granola to be one of those things cafes think if they’ve made themselves, that in itself is sufficient, it doesn’t have to pass a taste test. Sort of like that disaster of cafe breakfasts ‘Our Baked Beans’. Well, I reckon if The Lokal ever turned its attention to this tortured food stuff it would get that right too.

Unfortunately I was a bit sick the first breakfast here. I had

Toasted banana bread, home-made vanilla yogurt, toasted macadamias, caramelised banana $12

It was okay, but the lack of enthusiasm in putting it that way was of my own making, not the fault of the dish. No, I’m going to blame the godawful laksa from the day before which was still casting its shadow. Next day I tried:

Smashed avocado, pomelo, our own ricotta, toasted almonds on sourdough $18

Such is the fashion for ‘smashed avocado’ in any number of permutations in Australia, that this can be used as The Coffeeshop Benchmark at the moment. Lokal’s passed with flying colours. The house ricotta was mild and thick and I have never seen as much attention paid to the preparation of fruit as was given to the pomelo which was broken down to its tiniest shard-like form sitting atop the avocado and ricotta along with some toasted almonds. The picture is on the indifferent side, but please note the pomelo (you can click on the picture to make it bigger):

Smashed avocado Lokal style
Smashed avocado Lokal style

It was no more than a hint of pomelo but that was just as it should be. The bacon was unique in my experience, a generous serve of crisp slices which had a gentleness coming, no doubt, from being prepared onsite.

We went back twice for afternoon tea. A white chocolate cake was as good as it could be – as I’m a milk chocolate addict I can’t really give white chocolate higher praise. NZ icecream was mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. I regretted only getting the three scoops once Manny decided to assist me with its demolition. An apricot and pear muffin was perfectly nice, but it isn’t the something I will miss when I think back longingly to my time here. (I’m back in Geneva. Sigh.) Given the opportunity I would have been happy to try everything on the menu.

Staff were great, even when things were frenetic. Music was not too loud – I HOPE it stays this way. Please, Lokal, don’t make this a place where everybody has to shout. It would really detract from the atmosphere you have going now.

Bottom line: I agreed to queue on Saturday morning to go here and this is right up the top of my list-of-things-life’s-too-short-for. Things like don’t go swimming with crocodiles: I’m serious about not queuing. But then, we were in Singapore, a country where it is a national hobby to queue for food. It even occupies blog posts. What would you queue for? How long would you queue? Is two hours too long to queue? So I’ve queued. I survived. I’m practically a local. Or should that be Lokal?

There are lots of reports/reviews of Lokal online with much better pictures than mine! Try here and here

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Singapore’s chicken rice war

Hainanese Chicken Rice is Singapore’s unofficial national dish and I, for one, can understand why. I adore it. Having discussed the passion for food of all types in Singapore, an open-minded curiosity, a willingness to be both traditional and experimental, it will be no great surprise to discover that ‘best chicken rice’, which is a hawker dish, is a source of endless dispute. Just try keying into a search engine ‘Best chicken rice in Singapore’ and you will be flooded with newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, food site forums. Every day I walked past a branch of Fook Seng Goldenhill which lays claim to being the best – and lots of people agree.

It is such a big thing that Gordon Ramsay thought it was worth while getting into the act, last year competing against various hawkers for a public vote as to best chicken rice. It was with much hoopla and fanfare that Tien Tien of Maxwell Food Centre was declared the winner. Obviously this is a rather meaningless affair, but nonetheless, go to Maxwell Centre and you’ll see the queues for Tien Tien.

Now, as it happens, several doors down is a stall run by Ah Tai. Who? I’m glad you asked. Ah Tai was the master chef at Tien Tien for many years, but left to set up his own business after an argument with his boss, the details of which read like the plot of a Shakespearean thriller. Places where you will read more about this side-line of the chicken rice war are here and here and here and here.

Get the idea? This stuff is the fabric of Singaporean society. Our plan had been to try both Tien Tien and Ah Tai. We went to Ah Tai first and really, it didn’t seem necessary to try Tien as well. What we got – for $3, rather than Tien Tien’s $3.50, I might add – was this:

Ah Tai chicken rice
Ah Tai chicken rice

It may not look like much, but trust me, I could eat it every day. The chilli ginger sauce was excellent, the chicken moist and tender, the rice made me chicken-rice-happy. Somebody reading this will know what that means. I can see I’m going to have to start making this here in Geneva. I don’t really understand how I’ve lived without it for so long now!

If you are going to patronised for being white….

….make sure it’s by a Singaporean taxi driver. It’s worth paying for. On Sunday I thought we should go to Singaporean Dim Sum and had in mind Tim Ho Wan’s Orchard Rd outlet in the Singapura Plaza. Famous for his one Michelin star HK venture which he brought to Singapore, he rather shocked the sort of people who think Michelin starred restaurants must be expensive. He wanted to provide high standard dim sum at a good price.

Straight away the taxi driver asked ‘Why you go to Orchard Road’. I said we wanted to eat dim sum there and he immediately set us right. ‘You white people don’t know. Orchard Rd twice as expensive as Chinatown. I take you to good dim sum in Chinatown and cheap shopping, I show you wholesale shop’. As we headed in our changed direction he interrogated Manny ‘Why you have beard? Why you not shave?’, the start of a hilarious conversation in which he was rather disappointed to hear that Manny was a researcher and not a Beatle. At any rate, he dropped us in front of a hotel in Chinatown with directions to go upstairs. We did that, queued for a bit and then we left to get another taxi to Orchard Rd. Manny wanted to know why we hadn’t just got the driver to take us to where we wanted to go in the first place. Because I figured pretending was the best way out? Because the trip to Chinatown was so entertaining?

They know how to make queuing efficient in Singapore. When we arrive at Tim Ho Wan, there is a girl ordering us around like the boss of a taxi rank, we are all given order forms so we can make our decisions while we wait – there are pictures and descriptions of the dishes at points along the queue, as well as stools so you can sit as you progressively shuffle along. As soon as we got our seats inside, we gave our order to the staff and sat back.

First up were baked BBQ pork buns. I have to say, these are the only buns of its type I’ve ever liked. The filling was not too sweet, the casing was sensationally light. We ordered one more of the ‘big four’ as they are referred to here, that being the rice noodle rolls with pig’s liver. I got to eat all three of these – well, eat is almost the wrong word to use, as their silkiness slips down the throat. A couple of the dishes didn’t inspire: the chickens’ feet were not a great rendition of this dish and the squid, a chef’s recommendation, left me cold, though Manny was enthusiastic. The glutinous rice in banana leaf was wonderful – I’ve never had Chinese sausage I’ve enjoyed eating before and I surmise it is their own creation rather than the mass produced, and in my opinion very indifferent, product normally found in this dish. I really liked the congee too, though I’d be curious to know if a congee afficionado would agree. I suspect those who complain this is just an over-hyped place may be correct. Not that it wasn’t good, but I bet there are stacks of wonderful dim sum places in Singapore. Another claim to investigate next trip.

A comment was put on the facebook page of The Lokal a while ago, that if you are going to make the kitchen open to view, it has to look like the workers are of good cheer. I agree, but is it possible? Working in a restaurant kitchen is generally stressful and frenetic. I guess the answer is to have a closed kitchen and it is certainly my preference. Here at Tim Ho Wan, the kitchen staff cannot possibly be having a good time – and it seems to me that the food that comes to the table is divorced of any good karma that comes into enjoyable preparation. The staff are efficient, but equally pushed. The packed tables of eaters were having a great time, but was it despite this? Do none of them notice? I wonder.

We pay $47 including tea which is presented in mugs and filled when needed. We ordered just at the too much mark, but not uncomfortably so. This makes it about the same price as in Melbourne but very different in style. Apparently the way of serving via the trolley where you look and pick and choose is out of favour in Singapore. I rather think that’s a shame. It’s part of the fun, those trolleys coming around. I guess if space is at a premium, then ordering from a menu is necessary.

We walk up Orchard Rd, which turns into an arty, old area. It’s hot and it would be nice to while away a couple of hours of the oppressive afternoon heat so we pick the Intercontinental as the place to do that. The Lobby Lounge is magnificent, a perfect retreat. Good quality tea is presented well, an extra pot of hot water came upon asking. Four macaroons accompanied our drinks and they were far superior to any I’ve tasted before. They melted in the mouth, it was the first time I’ve ever liked one of these biscuits that are inexplicably the fashion world wide at the moment.

Next Raffles and although we were disappointed, I imagine it would normally be much nicer. Sunday was the big day for petrol heads in Singapore, and I speculate that Raffles was expected to host the biggest of them. The Grand Prix really made it rather hard to judge and even access the area around it.

On our way to Little India for dinner, our attention was taken by Park Square. This is the most incredible building I’ve seen, though some prejudice may attach to my view since I love Art Deco and this building has had Art Deco lavished upon it. It is perfectly 1930s, but an early 2000s building commissioned by the Taiwanese businessman Mr. C. S. Hwang who has surely immortalised himself with this monumental tribute to a period. A $90M fan building. Wow. Although the building is largely offices, the ground floor is a lounge bar which is like no other: Divine. You must MUST click on the link to look at the pictures. Apparently it is not permitted to take pictures inside the building. But we didn’t know that….so without further ado:

Divine Bar Park Square
Divine Bar Park Square

Manny had to try the Singapore Sling. As usual, I was happy to have dessert before dinner:

A chocolate mint concoction which was not light on the alcohol.
A chocolate mint concoction which was not light on the alcohol.

What a marvellous contrast was our next stop. As we walked rather aimlessly around Little India, we came upon two chaps jamming at the Prince of Wales a grungy Aussie pub, according to Lonely Planet. It comes well regarded as a backpacker’s haunt. We’d just missed the Sunday barbie, so it was a quick drink before moving on.

Jamming at the Prince of Wales. A bit of Australia in the middle of India in the middle of Singapore.
Jamming at the Prince of Wales. A bit of Australia in the middle of India in the middle of Singapore.

Little India is overwhelming. Packed streets, a million places to eat and we had no idea what we were doing. I wasn’t feeling entirely comfortable, not least because of the thousands of people on the streets, about two of them were women. Consequently when we were spruiked into trying the Jungle Tandoor, we were kind of relieved the decision had been made for us. I really wished we hadn’t fallen into this, the place was plain creepy. When I go out for Indian, I’m really only interested in the breads as I can do all the rest better myself. Both the breads we tried – a naan and a roti – were dry and hard, quality test failed. Bread’s always a good indicator and it’s the hardest thing to do. I’m really surprised to see that it is very highly regarded on trip advisor, but on the local site Hungrygowhere, it is not, and I’m rather inclined to trust the latter.

A lot of people rate this place highly for the decor. I will leave you with that thought.

Surely only in Singapore. An Indian restaurant boasting a plastic jungle including elephant, polar bear and various dinosaurs.
Surely only in Singapore. An Indian restaurant boasting a plastic jungle including elephant, polar bear and various dinosaurs.

The Singapore food scene

One of the things that’s hard about living in Europe is the number of times you get told that you can only eat French in France, Italian in Italy etc. You can’t even eat Vietnamese in France without being told upon complaining of how dreadful it was, ‘What did you expect?’. Well, I expect a respect for food that goes beyond national and cultural boundaries. Australians will know exactly what that means. Europeans won’t have a clue. They think it is normal and acceptable that Italian food in France will be execrable and vice versa.

Singapore is like Australia. It’s a fantastic mix of ethnicities with a common respect for food. The respect is there irrespective of the price you pay. Singapore is becoming awash with expensive high-end eating of a Western or fusion kind. But you can pay several dollars for a bowl of soup or chicken rice or noodles – hawker’s food – and the arguments will rage as to the best place to go for any one of these things. The arguments will take place at the refined blog level or with your taxi driver and everywhere between. It is normal to CARE about food. Even on the way to the airport to come back to Geneva yesterday the driver was giving us advice about next time we are in transit. ‘Get a taxi to the East Coast Food Centre for chilli crab. But if you want Char Kway Teow ask the driver to take you to….it’s local food centre. Where the locals eat. Write that down. Remember it.’

So the food scene is not only incredibly diverse in every sense of that word, but it is important to be good. No wonder Australians and Brits are setting up shop in droves there. Let me explain by describing the meals we experienced after my laksa experience was over.

Blue Ginger is a Peranakan establishment, I would say a little more traditional than Candlenut, but in similar vein. Also known as Nonya, it is the cuisine that resulted from the mixing of local Malays and Chinese immigrants in the 1800s. I could never tire of eating Nonya, so our second dinner in a row saw us eating this cuisine. It was so frustrating having such little meal time in Singapore. You will recall we over-ordered at Candlenut and here we were doing it again. I hadn’t even got to the seafood when our waitress said we’d already ordered too much. Indeed we had. So we cut it down to:

Otak Otak
Prepared in our kitchen, our homemade fishcake recipe will tantalize your taste buds with turmeric and lime leaves enriched with galangal, chilli, candlenuts and shrimp paste.

Ayam Buah Keluak
Braised chicken flavoured with turmeric, galangal and lemongrass cooked with Indonesian black nuts # additional Buah Keluak nuts at S$1.50 each

Tauhu Nonya Style
Deep-fried beancurd topped with our very own homemade concoction

Juhu Kangkong
Stir-fried kangkong with cuttlefish and sambal

You can see from their menu how much we’d missed out on. My idea of heaven. No pictures – but their site tells it all, so take a look. The prices were similar to Candlenut; our meal came to $70 or thereabouts. Opinions vary on the Buah Keluak. I’d never tried them before. We both liked them and I’m more than pleased we tried this dish, but with so much else to tempt on the menu, next time we’ll be trying other things. Rice was replenished as required and achar were provided.

Next morning saw us at

The Lokal. I am separately reviewing this. For now, the point to make is that it is impeccably executed Australian cafe breakfast food. The prices are of Australian cafe level.

Early afternoon and it was Maxwell Food Centre for chicken rice, which I will also review separately. The price $3.

Evening and the famous Telok Ayer market also known as Lau Pa Sat for satays. Twenty sticks for $12. Wonderful roti, three for a few dollars. A plate of green beans. A beer. $30 altogether.

Dessert. Sofitel So Singapore. I don’t know why the Xperience restaurant, headed by French chef Anne-Cécile Degenne, has no menu online. Even when you look at the printed menu, it isn’t at all clear what you are getting. We got two things. One, a bill for tea and dessert that far exceeded our layout for dinner and chicken rice combined. Two, creative desserts that looked spectacular and tastewise lived up to that. I see that this restaurant is getting mixed reviews in the local press. There is a sense that Degenne is being too complicated – complicated for the sake of it, perhaps. We need more than a taste of dessert to join that discussion.

Banana and passionfruit creation at Sofitel
Banana and passionfruit creation at Sofitel
Chocolate dessert at the Sofitel
Chocolate dessert at the Sofitel

Candlenut. High end Nonya/Peranakan

Our flight to Singapore with Swiss Airlines had a retro touch – I can’t remember the last time I ate such bad food on a plane, but I’m inclined to measure it in decades. It was all the more of a culture shock to end up at Candlenut for our first meal in Singapore. As soon as the food hit the table I realised what a fine thing Manny had done talking me into this trip.

Here’s some of what we ordered:

Nonya at Candlenut
Nonya at Candlenut

I can only assure you that the quality of the photo is inversely proportional to the quality of the food. You can see proper pictures on their site. In the fore ground is Mum’s curry, Candlenut’s rendition of Nonya chicken and potato curry. In all we ordered:

Candlenut Satay 10
Grilled spiced marinated meat skewers served with rich homemade
pineapple peanut sauce, cucumbers & red onions

Sambal Kacang Petai 14
Stir fried stinky petai beans w tamarind and chilli sambal, crispy shallots

Crispy Pork Belly 16
w mustard greens, sambal chincalok

Mum’s Curry 14
This curry is so demanded by friends and family that it has become a must have at every
special occasion. Fresh local chicken red curry with potatoes & kaffir lime leaf

Wok-Fried Gula Melaka King Prawns 24
Coconut butter sauce infused w gula melaka, lemongrass & roasted coconut,
fresh herbs & chilli

The only thing that disappointed in the least were the prawns. Two huge prawns presented with head and tail, but otherwise ready to eat, I thought were over-cooked. To me the test was in the cutlery available on the table. Everything was supposed to be in size and tenderness accessible with forks and spoons. This dish required a knife. I ended up eating it with my fingers. I have to say that Manny did not agree with my thoughts on this, although he agreed that it needed a knife. But surely any prawn which requires such effort to cut through is overcooked?

Satay is one of the things you go to Singapore for and we are heading to a specialist satay hawker centre while we are here, so much as these were lovely and I’d be happy to eat them for the rest of my life, it won’t surprise me if I get better! The pork belly was done to perfection, crunchy outside, soft inside. At Asian Gourmet, home of Nonya Chicken in Adelaide, the meat is served on the bone. This was a slightly posh, because boneless, version, but posh is fine as long as it keeps to the spirit and taste of a dish and this does. Of course the meat is from the thigh not the breast. I’d go back just for this, but alas I also want to order everything else on the menu.

Ah, to be back in a part of the world where they cook vegetables well. The beans were wonderful, but again, all the vegetable dishes called to be eaten. I can’t help thinking we may go back to Candlenut tonight instead of a hawkers’ market.

Sambal Kacang Petai
Sambal Kacang Petai

Room for dessert? Absolutely not. Okay, after some discussion with the staff. Perhaps we could fit in a small dessert between us.

Buah Keluak 14
Rich and earthy buah keluak ice cream, made with
80% Valhrona chocolate –
on a bed of salted caramel, chocolate crumble & chilli specks,
topped with warm milk chocolate espuma

Another dish that deserves a better picture…but being a chocolate pleb, this may have been wasted on me. Next visit I’ll have my eye on the Banana Caramel Pudding. I will report.

Buah Keluak
Buah Keluak

The bill: $127 SD. 94CHF. $100US. $111AUD. Like a lot of restaurants in Singapore – look for the ++ sign – this includes service and taxes added to the prices you see on the menu. Note that we ate too much for two, and also had one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. We had one beer and one pot of tea.