(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Membership has its privileges, but there's still a way to breathe the same elite air on the cheap at Clan Cafe - the only public space at the private club Straits Clan. Since it opened, it's become the go-to meeting place for the air-kissing crowd, all of whom meet the unspoken criteria for entry: regular anti-ageing laser treatments or merit certificate in Korean V-Face makeup artistry; cocktail-ready dresses or athleisure yoga gear; Noo Yawk accents or start-up entrepreneur wardrobe. All enough to make you squirm in your lowly all-purpose daywear until you realise: oh hey, if they really are such high-calibre contributors to society, why aren't they INSIDE where the real members are?
So, just a little perspective for anyone who might be feeling a little intimidated in this otherwise cookie-cutter hipster cafe. You're there because you're too cheap to cough up the several-thousand-dollar membership fee to enter the fancier, much quieter restaurant inside - and so is everyone else.
Every second person in the cafe seems to either be working on a laptop or engaged in a casual business meeting - it's almost like hot-desking for foodies. But if you're there to actually eat, you can focus your attention on the much-Instagrammed grain bowls, otah toast and kueh salat that star on the large, deceptively comprehensive menu.
Given its pedigree - being the former New Majestic hotel and managed by the Lo & Behold Group - the cafe's stylishness is a given. No reservations are allowed, and it's free seating - which is fine on a good day when the crowd is comfortably small. But on a bad day when the tables are full, you can expect your boorish hawker centre survival skills to take over as you dive for a freshly vacated table and hover while the somewhat-untrained staff clear and wipe the table with a very damp cloth. You sit triumphantly with elbows in the air as you wait for the table to dry, and ignore the rather disgusting detritus on the floor left behind by the previous diner who had just concluded a fruitful working lunch in a baby chair.
The food is passable, but mostly ordinary sticky rice bowls decorated with assorted vegetables and proteins. Quinoa-crusted chicken (S$17) is suitably tender with a healthy crunch, flanked by bright fresh greens and sweet corn niblets; grilled angus ribeye (S$19) is partnered with an onsen egg for added richness; the bestselling miso salmon (S$17) is seared with creamy-textured flesh; and the vegetarian kakiage (S$15) is an enjoyable, satisfying tempura of mixed vegetables paired with a funky mushroom genmaicha tea broth.
Both the chicken and beef broths are good - just a tad oily but rich and comforting, poured out of dainty tea pots and a worthy component of any paleo diet. The otah sandwich (S$16) is nothing that you can't do with a similarly thick slab of decent spicy fish paste sandwiched between thick buttered toast and gooey melted Comte cheese.
Finally, the over-hyped, stodgy Chalk Farm kueh salat (S$8) gets some competition from Clan Cafe's home-made version. It's more refined, with a slightly too-wet sticky rice base and more-sweet-than-rich coconut custard, but still a worthy contender in the kueh sweepstakes.
The food is a bit of a no-brainer - and maybe the real food is inside the semi-fine dining restaurant within - but until we save up the few grand to get in, we won't be able to tell you what it's like.
If Clan Cafe's USP lies in its cool aesthetic rather than substantial food, the opposite is true at the House of Mu, which isn't quite as grandiose as its name suggests. It's a cosy, unpretentious eatery whose name refers to the Chinese character for wood. A Little Cabin might be more appropriate given its simple, all-teak decor and menu that doesn't try to do anything beyond getting the basics right.
A pasta menu that lets you pick spaghetti or linguine to go with your sauce of choice feels quite archaic but so does the rest of the menu with starters such as creamy mushroom soup (S$9) and roast lamb rack (S$32). But that adds to its no-frills charm where you're welcome to just hang out and be taken care of by its easy-going servers.
The mushroom soup is whipped into a cappuccino and served piping hot - standard but satisfying. As far as seafood goes, don't expect great quality but the chef (a Les Amis alumnus) pulls ingredients together competently. Pan-seared scallops (S$19) are average in quality but get a lift from a crisp green apple salad, cauliflower puree and a kind of apple sauce-olive oil emulsion.
A Josper grill seems to be its prized feature, turning out commendable and perfectly pink New Zealand lamb chops that need to be gnawed right to the bone for full enjoyment. Sous vide chicken breast (S$24) gets an over-enthusiastic sear that detracts a bit from its tender poached texture, but an old-fashioned creamy mushroom sauce helps to even things out. A very spicy aglio olio pasta (S$14) passes muster, and you can add just S$6 for a couple of pieces of crayfish - or not, since the sad little lumps of crustacean don't do its species any justice.
End off with its house-made mud pie (S$7), a promising slice of brownie layered with chocolate ganache and peanut butter crunch; or a dome of raspberry mousse (S$7) which hides a filling of similar nutty chocolate crocquant.
House of Mu lacks finesse but sometimes, good intentions and heartfelt cooking make up for it.
31 Bukit Pasoh Road
Open Mon to Sat: 10am to 10pm
House of Mu
11 Mohamed Sultan Road
Tues to Thurs and Sun: Noon to 10.30pm
Fri and Sat: Noon to 2am
Closed on Mon
Clan Cafe: 6
House of Mu: 6.5
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times 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.