SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) I fear for my future.
I fear a future where restaurants no longer accept old people.
They're doing it now. They don't say so, but I can read between the lines: "If you do not like cramped spaces, communal-style eating, bar stools, frat boy servers, loud music and horrors - tiny font on the menus - do not come. You will only embarrass us. We're hipsters. You're like, Pet Shop Boys fans."
But you have to credit the likes of Maggie Joan's and Humpback for successfully equating physical discomfort with street cred. We don't mean it in a bad way.
MAGGIE JOAN'S DINING & BAR
110 Amoy Street #01-01 (entrance from Gemmill Lane)
Open for lunch and dinner
Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm and 6pm to 11pm.
Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun
Independent restaurateurs have always had more creativity than money, so trust them to turn limited space and resources (tight shophouses/hawker stalls/food trucks) into places so cool that dining with total strangers at your elbow becomes a badge of honour, not a blinking tight squeeze. It's all pretty brilliant marketing, actually. Airlines should hire them - so people would quit complaining about economy class and embrace it as hipster heaven.
Naturally, Maggie Joan's and Humpback score high on the "vibe" meter, even if the food lags a couple of steps behind. While Humpback touts itself as a seafood place, both menus follow the same sharing plates template with bar snacks and casual starters and mains.
At Maggie's, you eat in a self-styled bunker space aka cramped partial shophouse with neither windows nor front door. You enter by the back from Gemmill Lane, just off the noisier Club Street strip. You could eat in your own bomb shelter with mood lighting but it would not look as nice as the tastefully claustrophobic Maggie Joan's, where your individual dining space is so tight that your handbag already takes up half a person's space.
The appetisers aka snacks are pretty uncomplicated: light and airy pork crackling strips (S$8) that you dip into slightly spicy kimchi mayonnaise - you don't want these in front of you when you're binge-watching Netflix, for sure.
And if you need bread, it'll cost you S$5 to get a smallish rosemary-infused loaf that comes steaming hot from the oven that you dunk into oil and vinegar. While the freshness is appreciated, it's not the greatest-textured loaf with a crust that's a little too thick and hard.
But it comes in handy to scoop up the unctuous yolk of the soft-cooked egg that's deep-fried in a dukka-spiced crust with saffron (S$6). It's hard to go wrong with eggs, but we're not sure what is so complicated about deep-frying one solitary egg that it has to cost six bucks. Would it help if we brought our own so we could get two on the plate?
Meanwhile, yellowtail sashimi (S$23) is served with dollops of creamy brandade and very acidic carrot shavings. Both the sashimi and brandade are good enough to eat individually - together, they're distracting like a pair of twins who want you to like one more than the other.
Of the mains, the salmon comes perfectly pan-seared (S$29) although a shaky hand with the dressing makes the shaved fennel and shiso salad so mouth-puckering that they totally overwhelm the sweet pomegranate seeds.
A real or imagined taste of the fridge in the sous-vide and char-broiled Iberico pork collar (S$34) keeps us from enjoying this tender, slightly stringy chop paired with grilled prunes and sweet-sour cauliflower wedges.
What nails it for us is the homemade orange cake - beautiful crumb with an almost crunchy crust, soaked through with syrup and served with yogurt on the side.
At Humpback, the real draw is happy hour when its range of American oysters are half price (S$2-S$3 a piece) and a really good deal.
HUMPBACK SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
20 Bukit Pasoh Road
Open Mon to Sat: 5pm to 12am
Except that they aren't super fresh enough for us to go on a binge. But that's not stopping the eatery from filling up just before the witching hour of 7pm when happy hour ends. That's when it gets hard to catch the attention of the two servers (one super-efficient and the other with dreams of not being a server in his next job), the music gets too loud and the high chairs remind you of the condition of your knees.
Still, we manage to work our way through a nice chunk of hot toasted bread eaten with honey and a hunk of roquefort cheese (a pricey S$12); good kale salad of buttermilk dressed leaves and kale chips with sweet compressed pear slices and pecans (S$14); and a not so good beetroot and tasteless fig salad (S$15).
Slow-cooked rainbow trout (S$16) has a firm yet smooth gravlax-like texture that's well matched with a creamy almond milk dressing, drizzle of egg yolk sauce and the mild crunch and astringency of mustard seeds to counter the richness.
A bouncy, pink-cooked pork collar (S$16) is more enjoyable than the stringy and tasteless braised short-rib (S$23) which doesn't do justice to its 120-day grain diet.
Will this culinary generation gap continue? We don't know, but as we continue our quest for the ultimate match in both hip quotient and cooking quality, we hope our knees hold out.
Maggie Joan's: 6.5
Humpback Seafood: 6
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on October 5, 2015.
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