259 Outram Road
Tel: 6221 7060
Open for lunch and dinner Mon, Wed to Sat: 11am to 10pm. Sun: 10am to 5pm. Closed on Tues.
SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) SO what does COO stand for? We ask our server at this new pitstop in old Tiong Bahru, thinking of quirky phrases like Come On Over, Chefs On Overdrive, Carving Our Octopus . . . whatever.
"It's 'Cool', but without the 'l'", says the slim, bookish woman brightly, like it was the most obvious thing. Oh. But we should have guessed from the moment we stepped into this self-titled "sociatel" or hipster hostel located on the periphery of Tiong Bahru - a dark spot, if you like, in a row of old shophouses headed by the stalwart Tiong Bahru Pau on one end.
Black and neon lights form the main colour scheme in COO Bistro. The windowless space with steel mesh and blackboards as walls gives it an on-trend, detention class feel, as if many a recalcitrant student had spent hours here writing the equivalent of "I must make this place look cool" on the board. All the bistro walls are covered with whimsical chalk sketches of bird cages, old flats and dim sum, right down to the history of Tiong Bahru's flats. Yes, the retro-cool vibe is strong in this one, hammering the point home from the decor to the menu of "glocal" cuisine.
The mod-Sin cuisine movement is steadily becoming the norm rather than the exception in new eateries run by Singaporean chefs looking inwards, rather than out, for inspiration. The jury is still out on whether taking a local favourite like prawn noodles or bak kut teh and giving it a Western spin is the right way to find our cultural identity; until then, expect a lot more where that came from.
For its part, COO makes a pretty decent attempt in the Singapore fusion department, even if it doesn't quite make you sit up and clap. The kitchen tries hard and the basics are there when it comes to freshness of ingredients and cooking standard. But there is no wow.
The Tiong Bahru platter (S$28) is a thoughtfully put together selection of roast pork, satay and salt 'n pepper fish. It's hard to resist the seductively fat roast pork belly, with an even if not particularly crisp skin. What we like is the sweet pickled achar that offsets the richness. Thick slabs of grilled chicken thigh meat are marinaded in satay spices and smothered with a competent peanut sauce, but satay isn't satay without the stick. We're not sure where the salt and pepper fish fits in our hawker vernacular, but it's pretty forgettable. So is the tiger prawn casserole (S$14) which has thin slivers of chorizo making a rather useless cameo in the plain tomato sauce that coats chunks of fresh shrimp. Thick strips of toast are provided for you to dunk into the sauce.
The star of the menu is the prawn noodles (S$18) where pasta and hae mee shake hands and sign a culinary treaty. You could be negative and say it looks like the chef didn't have enough stock to go round, hence the gravy-like portion, except that this gravy tastes like intense reduced stock with extra fixin's like an umami chilli kick that clings to slippery fettucine. The two prawns seem rather stingy, but there's a soft cooked egg that you can mix into the noodles for extra oomph.
The soft-cooked egg trick is repeated in the pork cheek cappellini (S$18), this time to enrich the otherwise underwhelming thin noodles bathed in a diluted braised pork gravy studded with fork-tender strips of meat.
The satay also makes a repeat appearance in the kampong fried rice (S$16) - a mound of fried multi-grain rice that tastes like a happy fusion of fried glutinous rice and conventional nasi goreng. It's topped with a fried egg, crunchy fried ikan bilis and sambal belacan.
Dessert of "Tiong Bahru Chwee Kueh" (S$9) is misspelled as "kuey" in the menu, but maybe that's because there's something lost in the translation of this cute but blah panna cotta served in a little metal plate topped with a granola-like mixture of candied walnuts and balsamic strawberries. We'd rather bypass this twee interpretation of the savoury snack for the conventional but delicious crisp waffles (S$13) groaning under the weight of ice cream and grilled, slurpily soft bananas.
The repeated visual cues reminding you of COO's coolness can come across a little strong, but you can't deny that they're trying really hard. At least the food can hold its own without coming across as being overly contrived. Still, you can't help wishing it would just loosen up and let its personality grow naturally instead of stage managing it to such an extent. To go by its own vocabulary, maybe it should just CHIL - without the "l" at the end.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
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.