Foodie Confidential

A taste of Singapore

For comfort food, Mr Sam Wong enjoys a bowl of well-cooked plain porridge.
For comfort food, Mr Sam Wong enjoys a bowl of well-cooked plain porridge.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Nutmeg & Clove bartender Sam Wong uses local ingredients such as Milo and kopi O in his cocktails

Sam Wong is unabashed about why he decided to become a bartender.

"I thought that bartending was cool and the chicks would come to you," says the 31-year-old head bartender at Nutmeg & Clove in Ann Siang Road.

At the age of 21 and fresh out of national service, he started as a bar assistant at the now-defunct Ministry of Sound club in Clarke Quay. He picked up cocktail-making four years ago while working at Orgo Bar & Restaurant at the Esplanade.

He went on to work at bars such as Jigger and Pony in Amoy Street before starting cocktail bar Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall in Boat Quay with business partners two years ago.

It was there that he began experimenting with local ingredients such as Milo, red bean-flavoured potong ice cream, Kopi O and herbal tea.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • My grandmother's suan pan zi (Hakka abacus seeds) and a plate of good chicken rice.

Two cocktails that he came up with using such ingredients - Golden Straits, which has scotch whisky, kopi-infused vermouth, pandan syrup and coconut cream; and Kopi O Gao, made of whisky, coffee-infused vermouth and walnut bitters - clinched Occasion Challenge accolades at the South-east Asian leg of the Diageo Reserve World Class competition this year.

The annual event is considered one of the world's more prestigious mixology competitions.

Mr Wong left Ah Sam last month to join Nutmeg & Clove as he says being with the bar opens doors to international cocktail events, such as London Cocktail Week and Berlin Bar Convent this month.

The oldest of three siblings, Mr Wong is married to an air stewardess, 27. The couple have three children, aged two to seven, from his previous marriage.

He says: "I am a patriotic boy and like to think about how I can evolve my favourite everyday local flavours into liquid form so that foreigners can be introduced to these new tastes."

What are your favourite Singapore foods and where would you go to eat them?

I like steamed chicken rice from a stall at Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre. I don't remember the name. The tender chicken meat has oil oozing out of the chicken and goes well with the flavourful rice.

Where are your supper haunts?

Dosukoi Sakaba, an izakaya place in Cuppage Plaza, for dishes such as grilled mentaiko and octopus with wasabi. I also head to Old House, a zichar restaurant in Neil Road. I like the cockles, butter sotong and "white-style" lor mee.

What is comfort food for you?

A bowl of well-cooked plain porridge. It has to be thick and flavourful.

I like the one at Tak Po Dim Sum Restaurant in Smith Street.

Which was the most memorable meal you had overseas?

Braised pork rice from Jin Feng Lu Rou Fan restaurant in Roosevelt Road in Taipei. A bowl of soft rice topped with braised pork and sauce costs just 80 cents.

You can also add a big slab of kong bak (braised pork belly), which breaks up easily in the mouth and oozes with oil.

Are you an adventurous diner?

Yes, I have tried braised duck head from a street stall in Taipei and fried grasshoppers from Teppei restaurant in Orchid Hotel here.

I also tried balut (boiled developing duck embryo in shell), which my colleagues brought from the Philippines.

Do you have any dining quirks?

I will never touch food with my bare hands. When I am having a burger, I make sure my fingers are only on the wrapper around the burger.

When you sit down for a meal, what drink do you order?

At hawker centres, I order sugarcane juice with lemon as it cleanses and opens up the palate.

For a cocktail, I start with a Paper Plane (made with bourbon, lemon juice, Amaro and Aperol). It has a sweet start, with citrus notes in the middle and a bitter end.

Is there a drink that best represents you?

Old Pal. It is a cocktail that is made with whisky, dry vermouth and Campari. Its name encapsulates what a bartender should do - be a friend to customers.

It tastes bitter and has a sweet aftertaste, and represents my belief in life - you need to endure hardship before getting a sweet ending.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be?

My grandfather who died when I was 12 years old. He took me out to eat dishes that I had not tried and inspired me to be more adventurous.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'A taste of Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe