Manpower issues are the bane of restaurants here, which is why it is common to see eateries opening without enough staff or with staff who lack proper training. Baba Chews at the new Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong is one of them.
Two recent visits for dinner at the all-day restaurant, which is housed in the old Joo Chiat Police Station building, reveal different problems with the service.
The first time, the staff were competent, but it was hard catching anyone's eye, especially since there is a bar right smack in the middle of the dining room. It blocks the view of half the room from wherever you sit.
The second time, there were enough people working, but their lack of initiative made the dining experience even more frustrating. For example, dishes were brought to the table without serving spoons, including the Fish Head Curry ($34). And you had to ask for one each time a dish arrived.
Also, since the restaurant opened early this month, the staff should realise by now that you need a small spoon or fork to dig out the stuffing in the buah keluak that came with the Ayam Buah Keluak ($18). But, no, you had to ask too - after trying and failing to insert your dinner fork into the tiny opening in the nut.
86 East Coast Road, Katong Square, 01-01, tel: 6723-2025, open: 6.30am to 10.30pm daily. Full Peranakan menu for dinner only
Food: 3/5 stars
Ambience: 3/5 stars
Price: Budget about $50 a person, without drinks
The cooking, however, left me much happier.
The restaurant has two menus. One is an all-day cafe selection of local and international dishes that includes Hainanese chicken rice, char kway teow, sandwiches and a few Peranakan dishes. The other is a dinner menu of Peranakan dishes.
I opted for the Peranakan selection on both visits and many of the dishes were impressive, especially when I found out later that the chef is Cantonese and not Peranakan. They tasted better than those I tried recently at another new Peranakan restaurant.
I like the Itek Tim "Consomme" ($11), a duck soup with salted mustard leaves that boasts a robust flavour without being too salty. It is also not at all oily, which suggests someone in the kitchen had carefully skimmed off the oil before serving the soup.
It beats the Pong Tauhu ($9), which comprises a bamboo shoot- studded meatball in prawn stock. It is decent but having just tasted the version at Candlenut the day before, it is hard to beat the succulence of the meatball there or the intense flavour of its prawn bisque.
But Baba Chews holds its own with the Chilli Crab Cake ($15), which is not Peranakan, but a twist on chilli crab. Western crab cakes that are packed generously with flakes of crabmeat are served with a piquant chilli gravy dip and crispy, thin slices of deep-fried mantou (wheat bun) chips. It captures the essence of the popular seafood dish, but is easier to eat as you don't have to deal with crab shells.
The main dishes are generally good too.
The Ayam Buah Keluak boasts a delicious gravy, though the stuffing in the nuts contains more pork than the inky kernel. I would like a more equal proportion. What I don't like is that the chicken comes as a whole leg. That not only makes it difficult to share if you are dining in a group, but also means that the flavour of the gravy does not penetrate the meat properly.
The Iberico Pork Ribs Pongteh ($25) are just as chunky during my second visit. The long ribs are served whole, making them rather cumbersome to eat. But they are chopped into more manageable lengths at my first dinner, leaving me to wonder if the kitchen is suffering from a sudden shortage of staff.
Tastewise, they are good, with deep complex flavours of fermented bean paste with aromatic spices. It is a little sweet for me, but knowing how many Singaporeans like sugar in their food, that may not be a big problem.
Similarly, I find the Beef Short Ribs Rendang ($25) a tad sweet, but otherwise, the beef is suitably tender and the gravy nicely spiced without being burning hot. Short ribs work well with a slow-cooked dish such as rendang, as the simmering melts down the fat and moistens the meat.
The Fish Head Curry tastes good, but the red snapper is not very big and there isn't much meat in the half-head. The gravy, which is slightly sour with tamarind and not very coconut-rich, is delightful though. The vegetables - eggplant, ladies' fingers and tomatoes - are cooked just right too.
Do not bother with the Telur Dadar Cincalok ($10). It tastes like plain omelette, with little evidence of cincalok (fermented shrimp).
And stay away from the Chendol ($6). This is absolutely the worst version of the dessert I have eaten. It comes frozen, as though it has been assembled earlier and kept in the freezer until someone orders it. And you will find it hard to detect the faint notes of gula melaka and coconut milk.
Do yourself and the restaurant a favour. Skip this and leave the table with happier memories.
•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke
•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
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