There is no shortage of ambition among people venturing into the ultra competitive food and beverage industry in Singapore. But those who do not think things through quickly crash and burn.
In the midst of all this comes Magic Square in Portsdown Road, from the people behind The Naked Finn in Gillman Barracks. The idea behind restaurateur Tan Ken Loon's year-long pop-up is one that sounds brave or foolish, depending on how you look at it. He wants to groom a new generation of Singaporean chefs, by giving them the space to create, learn, fail and to pick themselves up again. Talent alone is not enough, the chefs have to be hard workers too.
In the Magic Square then are Desmond Shen, 25; Marcus Leow, 26; and Abel Su, 29. Each chef presents his menu for one month, with the other two supporting him in the kitchen and the cycle begins anew.
Shen's menu is showcased in the opening month and it is intriguing and ingenious, with some real gems. The chef has worked at two-Michelin-starred Odette at National Gallery Singapore, Whitegrass at Chijmes and Blackwattle in Amoy Street.
The meal starts on a high note with a bouquet of baby herbs, grown in the restaurant, to be dipped into a caramel tempered by a tart juice made from some of the more sour herbs. Aromatic and complex, this amuse (above) sets the stage for the rest of the meal.
Other highlights include petai miso, petai and wingbean salad in a tangy dressing, to be spooned on rice crackers studded with kaffir lime leaves. That miso has such depth of flavour and tastes very different from the base ingredient petai, otherwise known as stink beans. Another course of charred alliums, Shaoxing wine and bottarga butter sauce with black vinegar caramel is a knockout, showing that simple ingredients can add up to something glorious.
I also like a course of confit pumpkin glazed with turmeric, with a serunding-like coconut mixture on top, on a pool of burnt coconut cream and galangal oil. The flavours are familiar, yet different. Most importantly, the dish works.
Already, there have been casualties. A course of steamed threadfin in warm coconut broth, topped with chopped young coconut flesh and shaved ginger flower, has been jettisoned because not enough diners like it. I did, unfortunately, love it. It takes courage to put such a simple dish on the menu and the idea of serving fish in coconut water is a great one, and the ginger flower is an inspired addition.
Diners eat at a communal table with 18 seats and there are two seatings a night. It is best not to be late, so you can enjoy the nine-course meal without rushing.
Is the meal perfect? No, but the willingness of the chef to take constructive criticism bodes well for his future. Is the dinner worth its $78++ price tag? Yes. I have paid more for mediocre meals.
Now, what will the two other chefs come up with? I cannot wait to find out.
WHERE: Magic Square, 5B Portsdown Road MRT: Kent Ridge OPEN: 6 to 8pm, 8.15 to 10.15pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays and Mondays TEL: 8181-0102 INFO: www.facebook.com/magicsquare.sg/
If you were among the fervent fans who used to swarm Liberty Coffee, back when it was in Rangoon Road and opened only sometimes, good news. The home-grown coffee roaster has opened a cafe bar in Jalan Besar.
The coffee is stellar, but of course. Not on the menu, but a must-order, is the Gooey ($6), a deliberately over-extracted shot of espresso floating on cold milk. Take a sip immediately to get a blast from the coffee, then set the glass down and swirl it, so the shot mixes in with the milk. Heaven in a glass. The Nitro Brew ($6) kept me perky one long work day.
Also on offer are two cocktails ($16 each), both made with slow-brewed coffee. The coffee is not front and centre in either drink, but you know it is there, humming in the background. The Slow Fashioned is made with bourbon, sherry and bitters, while the Libertine has gin, Campari, Cointreau and lemon.
Along with the drinks, there is food.
Sloppy Jo Fries ($9) is something I can pick on all afternoon because I love the gutsy beef Bolognese piled on top of fries. I say all afternoon because these Stealth Fries, coated with potato starch, stay crisp a lot longer.
Hot Butt Sub ($13) is inspired by a Cubano sandwich owners Terence Tay and Pauline Tan had in Seattle. It has a distinct banh mi vibe, too. Strips of pulled pork are piled into a soft bun and topped with jalapeno aioli, caramelised onions, fresh coriander leaves and pickled carrot and cucumber. This Cuban-Vietnamese hybrid is a winner in my book.
Chickichanga ($13) is expertly fried and greaseless. Quite a feat, since the chicken, cooked in adobo sauce and wrapped like a burrito in a tortilla, is substantial.
Ms Tan used to offer a cake of some sort at the old Liberty. Her gula melaka and pandan cake set off a wave of copycats.
If only she would bake something, anything, now.
WHERE: Liberty Coffee Bar, 387 Jalan Besar MRT: Jalan Besar OPEN: 10am to 6pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 10am to 8pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays and Mondays TEL: 6392-2903 INFO: www.libertycoffee.sg or www.facebook.com/libertycoffee
You know right away you have walked into a cafe run by the people behind Strangers' Reunion when you look at the upholstery on the chairs. The fabrics are gorgeous, natch, a little retro and very covetable.
The group's newest cafe, Wakey Wakey at the Concourse Skyline, has an added draw - it is not crazy crowded at the moment. How long this will last, I don't know, so make tracks there quickly.
I love the chilled bottled drinks and Matcha ($7) is a must. It gets bonus points for not being too sweet. Sea Salt Chocolate ($7) is another good one and, on a hot day, both are very soothing.
On my first visit, there was a Big Boys section of substantial main courses, with the tantalising "Coming Soon" tag, but that has been replaced by a rather more prosaic list of Grain Bowls, which interests me not at all. However, I find many things to love in the Green Things section, dishes I'd go back for.
Chief among them is Zucchini ($13.90, above), comprising ribbons of the squash artfully arranged in a ring, tossed with a very lemony pesto and topped with toasted pine nuts and grated Grana Padano cheese. It is the perfect food for hot weather. Cauliflower ($12.50) is just as good. Fried florets seasoned with Vadouvan, the French version of masala, sit on lemon puree and fish sauce caramel. They are so easy to pop and the flavours are strong and true.
For something a little more indulgent, order Bergedil ($13.90), deep fried potato balls on Romesco sauce, yoghurt, pine nuts and fried curry leaves. I have to stop myself from finishing the whole plate.
If vegetables do not appeal, order the Grilled Cheese ($9.50). The brioche comes lovely and golden, and the sandwich is filled with mozzarella, cheddar, emmental and parmesan cheeses. Simple but done well.
WHERE: Wakey Wakey, 01-04/05 Concourse Skyline, 302 Beach Road MRT: Rochor OPEN: 9am to 6pm daily TEL: 6291-0227 INFO: www.facebook.com/WakeySG/
DUCK WORTH QUEUING FOR
Tucked away in Upper Thomson Road is the smallish Sembawang Hill Food Centre. I usually go there for bak chor mee and curry puffs and have found yet another reason to head there: braised duck rice.
One recent Sunday morning, I walked past Seng Huat Duck Rice and the warm, sweet smell of cinnamon and star anise stopped me in my tracks. I had pretty much written off the stall because there was a queue and I was hungry.
Something told me to get in line and I have no regrets.
My Duck Rice Set ($4.50, above) comprised a sizeable platter of chopped up braised duck, to which I added an egg for 60 cents and duck liver for 70 cents.
I find the meat chopped too thin, but there is no mistaking the skill that went into making it taste good. Duck leg meat, which can be chewy, was silky. The lightly spicy soya sauce braising liquid, which so captivated me, had permeated the meat thoroughly. Aromatic coriander leaves on top add a note of freshness, never to be underestimated when eating a rather heavy dish in hot weather.
What surprised me even more was the bowl of deep, dark soup. With bak chor mee and other similar dishes, the soup tends to be throwaway. Some might even dismiss it as just water and MSG boiled together.
Seng Huat's is like a thinner version of its braising sauce, aromatic and full of oomph.
Even though it was sweltering, I finished every drop.
WHERE: Seng Huat Duck Rice, 01-07 Sembawang Hill Food Centre, 590 Upper Thomson Road MRT: Yio Chu Kang OPEN: 8.30am to 12.30pm (Wednesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays and Tuesdays