SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Just when you thought Tiong Bahru could not get any more gentrified with its mix of speciality coffee, French bakery, Japanese, Korean, mod-European, mod-hawker and gourmet deli outlets, along comes a group of Greek people who think the neighbourhood is not complete without some good old-fashioned Mediterranean hospitality.
So they take over a large space on Seng Poh Road vacated by a steamboat/zi char place, splash it with lots of white paint and homey bric-a-brac and achieved the unexpected - a breezy, casual, welcoming Greek getaway in front of a busy traffic intersection.
Bakalaki seems to have struck a chord with diners who have been filling the place at dinner time - eager converts to a supposedly healthy cuisine focused on mezze, salads and grilled seafood. It is open for lunch only on Fridays and weekends. When we drop by on one such Friday, it is relatively quiet, but we are charmed by the cheerful blue-and-white blinds and unpretentious, happy decor that makes the place a welcome respite from the blinding sunlight and searing heat outside.
Barely a few moments after we sit down, a small wooden crate lands on our table holding freshly toasted slices of bread topped with dried herbs and olive oil for a crunchy welcome bite before we look at the menu. It is a big menu and, well, it is all Greek to us. So we look to our servers for help to decipher the mezzes from the moussaka.
Our server is not particularly helpful nor especially Greek, and seems to vouch only for the lamb chops, so we order that. Later, we settle on an assortment of dips and pita bread, halloumi cheese and octopus.
Meanwhile, we cannot help observing that while Greeks are supposed to be warm, friendly people, they must also be closet border collies. Their herding instinct comes into play when diners who arrive are all crammed into tables in one section, even though the restaurant is seriously huge. The servers are walking all over the place anyway, so surely a bit of spacing out will not kill them.
Anyway, we are soon distracted by the selection of dips placed in front of us. We asked for a mixture of three (S$21.90) - a smoky eggplant that is silky smooth, tangy and pepped up with red peppers. An order of pita bread ($2.90) is needed to scoop it all up. The bread is nice and chewy when it first arrives but cools and hardens very quickly. There is also creamy feta cheese whipped with red peppers into a nice shade of orange and extra spreadability with yogurt and an equally creamy taramasalata or salted cod roe spread.
The dips are quite heavy-going so you cannot really have much without them weighing you down. Breaking the routine was a grilled halloumi cheese salad ($16.90) - two slices of conventional firm, chewy white cheese grilled with nice markings, and very pretty fresh cherry tomatoes.
We try our luck with the grilled octopus ($32.90) - a large tentacle that looks impressive with its expertly charred edges and drizzle of olive oil. It is not bad, except that it is just a little short of tender, so it is up to you whether you prefer the mushiness of a tender sous vide octopus or the slightly rubbery texture of this one.
The lamb chops (S$32.90) arrive well-done rather than the medium-rare we order, although the first bites are still tender enough. We try to see if they will willingly take it back to have it re-done to order. We get a hint of a pained expression, but the manager whisks it away and it returns pink and much more enjoyable.
For dessert, traditional doughnuts ($14.90) catch our eye and approval - little puffy balls of deep-fried chewy mochi-textured goodness dusted in cinnamon and sat on a bed of honey. Chocolate sauce for dipping adds a churros-like familiarity.
We are also pleasantly surprised when a serving of Greek yogurt and honey appears without us ordering it, with the manager saying that the chef wanted us to taste it. Its creamy texture almost resemble ice cream, while the honey helps to counter the tartness. The tartness totally describes our demeanour when we happen to check the bill a few days later and discover we were actually charged for the yogurt.
We have to say that Bakalaki has a charming appeal about it, given its unlikely location. The food is passable, certainly good enough for a fuss-free night out. But did it make us converts to the Greek style of eating? Not yet.
Bakalaki Greek Taverna
3 Seng Poh Road, tel: 6836-3688; open: 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Thursdays), noon to 2.30pm and 6pm to 1am (Fridays to Sundays)