SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) One fancies cutesy word play about salacious shrimp (porn star, get it?); the other prefers a more innocent, little- girl cuteness.
But while The Prawn Star and May May are poles apart in concept, there's something similar about their approach to cuisine - in the sense that you don't know exactly what kind of food you're eating.
As in, it's neither modern European nor even mod-Singaporean.
It's not avant garde or rustic.
It's familiar, but yet alien - surely there's some word to describe it?
Oh yes: masak-masak.
This Malay colloquialism for playing around in the kitchen reflects, too, a growing new confidence in Singaporean chefs.
The kind that frees them from the rigours of old-school kitchen rules - whether Western or even hawker - and allows them to indulge in a cowboy, free-association cooking style where no tradition is sacred and deliciousness really depends on how you look at it.
THE PRAWN STAR
21 Duxton Hill, Singapore 089604
The Prawn Star (which takes over the space from Duxton Hill pioneer BROTH) is pretty much on a different planet from its predecessor's likeable, easygoing Aussie fare.
Its brazen menu- that lets you order cheese-covered fries in the same breath as claypot crab with glass noodles - is packaged in one achingly hipster package with its casually-dressed staff and graffiti-inspired mural over its bar counter.
This offshoot of the Tiong Bahru Bar is not opening without precedent, so the food - with a very arbitrary division between starters (things to share) and "bare hands" (literally eat with your hands, complete with finger bowl and folded paper bowls for discarded shells) - has substance despite its haphazard variety.
Despite our misgivings about starting our meal with a movie snack, we're glad we let our friendly server persuade us to order the sriracha caramel popcorn (S$8).
The addictive crisp popped kernels arrive slightly warm with a lingering butteriness that tempers the unforgiving heat of the sriracha sauce that forms a sugary crisp sheen around the corn.
Calamari "yaki udon" (S$18) is a dead ringer for the Japanese fast-food staple, except that stodgy noodles are replaced by fresh firm curls of squid sauteed in salty Worcestershire-ketchupy sauce showered with bonito flakes,shredded seaweed, pickled ginger and crunchy cabbage.
The Prawn Star's signature river prawns (S$26) in a spicy kimchi-miso butter is a winner not so much for the fresh and firm (but not sweet) prawns but the smoky, spicy chilli garlic oil amped up with the brininess released from the sauteed shells that justify an extra S$3 portion of chewy grilled bread to soak it up with.
Less satisfying but still worth a shot is the deep-fried battered swimmer crab on a bed of glass noodles just like you get in Thai restaurants.
The crab loses moisture from being deep-fried but it's at least fresh with a fair bit of meat.
At least you know this is the real thing, unlike the fat, treated scallops tossed in XO sauce that edges close to spongy fishball territory, even if the sauce does a good job of distracting you.
65 Tras Street, Singapore 079004
Tel: 6221-4698 6221-4698
Open for dinner only
Mon to Sat: 6pm to 11pm
Closed Sun& Public Holidays
Not so far away in Tras Street, the same mix-and-match is going on at May May - run by the same people behind Peranakan stalwart Blue Ginger.
There's no inkling of its nonya parentage at May May, where the chef makes stopovers in Korea, India, Thailand and possibly the Mediterranean, with no sign of ever having stepped foot in Malacca.
There's a serious attempt at originality going on in the kitchen, even if much of it goes over our heads, like an unusual starter inspired by the Korean bossam (S$12) which sees pork and spicy kimchi wrapped in cabbage leaves.
Here, dehydrated watermelon with the texture of roasted red peppers, pickled crunchy watermelon rind, shredded shiso leaves and a spicy red pepper sauce are rolled into fresh lettuce wraps and sprayed with garlicky sesame-soy sauce for a refreshing if underwhelming crunch.
Matching chat masala-spiced fried cauliflower (S$14) with soft pears is an inspired combination, but the freshness of the idea is lost when the pears reappear in the almost unpleasant slow-cooked rubbery and stale squid (S$15).
Unlike The Prawn Star, which takes pains to offer fresh seafood, it's the other way around at May May with its bad squid and the overpriced lobster noodles (S$28) with undercooked noodles and small mushy lobster tail in a mediocre Thai-inspired coconut broth.
The meat dishes are a safer choice, especially the tender braised lamb (S$32) infused with fragrant spices, on a bed of fluffy quinoa and pickled papaya to keep things from getting too rich.
Coming in a distant second is the braised wagyu (S$32) which competes with the bed of rice puree it sits on to see which has a greater sticky mouth feel.
The loser is you, with your gummified lips.
Dessert looks like what happens when Frankenstein tries to bake chocolate lava cake but can only find raw ground meat instead of cocoa.
Kudos for ingenuity but, visually, the steam/baked red bean cake (S$12) is not something to surprise your blindfolded lover with unless you're planning to marry someone else.
Seriously, though, it's a clear jelly-glazed hawthorn sponge that you cut into and a greyish red bean sauce oozes out...ok, it tastes better than it looks.
There's no lack of creativity in either The Prawn Star or May May, but not everybody likes playing with their food.
Sure, there's a fun meal to be had - but it's not something you can take seriously.
Prawn Star: 6.5
May May: 6
This article was first published on December 8, 2014.
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