Upper Place reimagines local flavours for affordable mod-Sin cuisine

Slow cooked pork belly tacos from Upper Place, Wangz Hotel.
Slow cooked pork belly tacos from Upper Place, Wangz Hotel. PHOTO: UPPER PLACE
Rice in the laksa risotto from Upper Place restaurant.
Rice in the laksa risotto from Upper Place restaurant. PHOTO: UPPER PLACE
Short rib congee.
Short rib congee. PHOTO: JAIME EE
The carrot cake served with cinnamon sorbet and candied chai poh, from Upper Place restaurant.
The carrot cake served with cinnamon sorbet and candied chai poh, from Upper Place restaurant. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

Rooftop restaurant in Tiong Bahru puts thought into its food; the flourishes come second. Oh, and the prices are affordable too.

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - As far as first impressions go, Wangz Hotel doesn't exactly strike you as the gold standard of boutique hotels. Its building in Tiong Bahru looks like it snuck into position when no one was looking, while its tight basement with precious few parking spaces probably goes to bed at night dreaming of becoming a multi-storey carpark.

The hotel may have harboured aspirations of being an edgy hipster abode when it first opened, especially when it leased out its rooftop restaurant to a progressive chef with a menu that was more concept than real food. Now, it seems to have come down to earth with a cosy, easy-to-like restaurant that overlooks the surrounding Tiong Bahru neighbourhood.

        
The bright, breezy garden setting is artificial, but still puts you in a relaxed mood. It's got a brunch-like air about it even on a weekday, and while the menu doesn't try to be clever, it doesn't mean it's not smart. There's much thought put into the food, focusing on flavours first and flourishes second. While much of the current mod-Sin movement tends to veer off-kilter, chef Gregory Lau keeps it mostly together with flavours that stay authentic even when he pushes the boundaries.

It's not a challenging menu - it's basically coffee-house fare - but it's so pleasant and the prices so reasonable that this place is a no-brainer choice for an easy meal.

A basic mushroom soup (S$10) has mushrooms painstakingly arranged in the dish before the intense, creamy broth is poured at the table for piping-hot satisfaction.

Slow-cooked pork belly tacos (S$10) could have gone wrong if the balance of sweet, savoury and acidic had tipped in the wrong direction, but all the flavours fall into place. Cubes of melting soft, fatty pork cubes and shredded cabbage piled into three soft flour tortillas make a surprisingly satisfying bite.

We also like the "reconstructed" laksa risotto (S$27), one of the more successful versions we've tried. The short-grained rice soaks up all the goodness of a proper laksa broth, retaining enough bite without any of the stodginess we're averse to. Authentic sambal is cleverly smeared attractively on the side of the dish - doing double duty as decoration and condiment. The heat from the sambal keeps the risotto from getting boring.

The chef's most far-out creation would be the very original short rib congee and veal sweetbreads (S$17), which takes the idea of rice porridge and egg and throws convention out the window. So you get thick rice congee cooked in a savoury braised short rib gravy, with a sous vide egg in the middle. It's garnished with short rib meat tucked into crunchy, shredded filo pastry and deep-fried, while pan-seared veal sweetbreads give a bit of a foie gras effect. It's weird, but once you break the egg and swirl it into the congee for a rich smooth mouth feel, and counter it with the crunch of the short rib "nest" and rich sweetbread, all your comfort-food markers are met.

Meanwhile, a mild, shiny-textured salmon fillet (S$17) is pleasant, if underwhelming in comparison, sitting in a creamy daikon soup and barely-discernible curry oil.

Dessert is a disappointment. The tiramisu that is offered us in place of the unavailable matcha parfait from the S$24 set lunch reminds us that we're eating in a hotel, with all the tell-tale signs of a garden-variety dessert.

The carrot cake (S$8) with cinnamon sorbet and chai poh fares only slightly better; the cake sandwiches stiff cream-cheese frosting and is garnished with real chai poh (preserved radish) soaked and cooked in sugar, which is more gimmicky than useful.

Still, it doesn't put a dampener on an overall pleasant meal, and the efficient, personable service of the sole server on lunch duty that day.

Of course, it's not the most stylish of eateries - the messy bathroom outside will remind you of that - but when it comes to the ability to pair local flavours and imagination with restraint, chef Lau has the upper hand.

Rating: 6.5

WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average

Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication. 

Upper Place
Wangz Hotel
231 Outram Road
Tel: 6595-1388
Open for lunch and dinner daily: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm