SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) CreatureS isn't a new restaurant per se. It's just that the idea of yet another indie bistro proclaiming a modern approach to local food triggered our "code red" hipster alarm and sent us running for cover in our padded bomb shelter, rocking back and forth as we screamed, "no more bak chor pasta, no more bak chor pasta!"
Almost a year later - and not before we send out an elite squad to patrol the area for cooking cliches and heightened pretensions - we finally venture into the spice-scented air of Little India to this endearing eatery which, while not always spot on, is brimming with sincere intentions.
CreatureS is an odd name, seeing that the restaurant staff look like normal young people with recognisable Singaporean speech patterns. Apparently, it refers to both creature comforts and creatures of habit - the objective being that if you find their food comforting you will make a habit of coming back.
120 Desker Road
Open Tues to Sun from 12pm to 10.30pm (until 11.30pm on Fri and Sat). Last order for lunch: 3.30pm (Closed on Mon)
We don't know about that but you'll certainly need a few trips to run through the multi-page menu filled with so many original creations, it makes fine dining chefs with their tasting menu-only options sound like a bunch of lazy entitled so-and-sos.
Still, a plethora of choices also has its own setbacks. Just like the stress you feel in an empty carpark trying to decide on the best spot, it's a tough job cherrypicking from dozens of dishes that all sound equally delicious. You can't rely on recommendations either since personal taste varies so much - so we spend much of our meal obsessing over "what we could have eaten".
We start off in a great mood, though, happily crushing thick pieces of keropok into our mountain of roast duck and pear salad (S$17) - a winning Asian combo of meaty strips of fresh roast duck (not the stringy leftover variety) tossed with crisp Romaine in a plum sauce-based dressing that's an addictive blend of sweet and tart. Crisp sweet Chinese pear slices and the savoury crunch of keropok put the fun in every refreshing bite.
It helps that CreatureS feels more like a serious restaurant and not a hipster cafe - it's got a warm, eclectic design ambience with black-and-white textured walls, functional plastic chairs and nondescript tables softened with lush plants and fresh flowers. The chef-owner is more self-taught than professionally-trained, so the homespun flavours ring true throughout - there's a free-wheeling, anything-goes approach that isn't bothered by any textbook notions of what should go with what.
A Nonya bibik-worthy ngoh hiang is a good match with the cuttlefish kueh pie tee (S$24) - imagine fat rolls of crinkly fried beancurd skin stuffed with loosely packed minced pork perfumed with five spice, and equally stuffed pie tee shells filled with braised shredded turnip riddled with dried cuttlefish. The latter is a little dry but the sambal belacan condiment is blazingly good.
Crazy Cheong Fun Revolution (S$18) is just that. Take two familiar dishes - minced pork in lettuce cups and the breakfast staple of chee cheong fun. Put them together and you have a marriage as awkward as one arranged by a bridal agency - the couple have nothing in common but they'll try to get along anyway. So you have minced pork sauteed in a dark-as-night sweet-savoury sauce, with rolls of cheong fun and lettuce on the same plate. You're advised to eat whichever way you like - the rice rolls and pork, or pork and lettuce. A coriander-chilli dip is on hand to spice up the union. It's an amiable combination but no fireworks here.
We can't help thinking that it also explains the relationship between Ah Gong's Fried Chicken and Ah Ma's Noodles (S$22) - an assertive deep-fried chicken chop marinated with garam masala that overpowers the demure, almost character-less cold thin noodles simply dressed in shallot oil and soy sauce. A dollop of chinchalok (fermented baby shrimp) infused mayonnaise is like a stranger who pops up for no rhyme or reason.
While Ah Ma's Noodles are bland on their own, order a portion of spicy vongole with hua tiao (S$18) and slurp up the magic that the two create together. The clams stir-fried with garlic, chilli and Chinese wine release a heady broth that is the perfect foil for the slippery noodles, coating each strand with a deliciously briny sheen.
Funnily enough, CreatureS falters most when it comes to reproducing classics like laksa (S$24). Served in a bowl large enough to feed four very small people, the noodles are drowned in a thick, cloying gravy that has all the spices but none of the flavour of a good old fashioned Sungei Road equivalent. Undercooked prawns also undermine this heavy-handed under-performer.
If there's still room for dessert, the thick Mao Shan Wang durian flesh that holds together somewhat dry layers of sponge (S$12) is a decent enough end to the meal. It's infinitely better than the listless yam orh nee ($10) version.
The mind-boggling variety in the menu means that some will have more successful meals than the others. Even though we're not won over by what we try, we like that the kitchen doesn't cut corners and gives really generous portions. There's an honesty about the cooking that we appreciate, and while we're not creatures of habit, we don't mind returning to try our luck with the rest of the menu.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on May 23, 2016.
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