Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong
55 Haji Lane
Open for dinner only from Tuesdays to Sundays: 5pm to 12am. Closed on Mondays
(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - For those who play in the predictable parts of town, Haji Lane is a jolt to the imagination, if not the appetite.
It's gained street cred as an arty, bohemian enclave full of indie shops and tattoed residents; the kind of place Airbnb would list under "local experiences" - attracting water bottle-toting tourists who come to Singapore to rediscover their sweat glands. But under the cover of dusk and twinkly lights, the shops wind down and the day crowds thin.
They're replaced by strange, nocturnal creatures who peer at you from within the garishly-lit confines of a seedy cafe-bar, or ignore you as they unload mysterious goods from a van that clearly should not be parked there.
There are others that hang around, clearly part of a social milieu with its own code of dress, manner and swagger. We feel like fish out of water, stumbling into a hotbed of secret societies where communication is by password or special pinky handshake, and entry anywhere is through hidden passage.
Our initiation comes when we ask for directions to 55 Haji Lane, where we're told we can find a seafood restaurant called Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong. A random guy on a cigarette break nods wordlessly towards a dark staircase. He must be a double agent trying not to blow his cover, we figure, even as we cautiously climb the stairs that don't seem to lead anywhere.
We're almost fearful until we tumble into what looks like a dimly-lit bar - empty except for a small group of people on one end speaking in hushed serious whispers about world domination, while a fierce looking bartender/secret agent asks if we have the password.
Actually, he was asking us if we had a reservation but our imagination had gone on way ahead of us. Scaled is not so much a restaurant as it is the hiding place of a brood of enthusiastic anglers who wanted a place to play with their catch.
It is run by Ah Hua Kelong, a local fish farm with an eye on sustainability and a mission to prove that locavorism is possible even in import-obsessed Singapore. They already have an online delivery service, a physical shop and even an eatery serving home-style cooking. But Scaled is a little experiment to see how far they can evolve as a proper restaurant.
The double agent who pointed us here turns out to be the manager of Bar Stories, the indie bar which is the real tenant of the space. The bar has essentially carved out a little dining space for Scaled, to give it a platform to see just what imaginative things it can do with locally farmed fish, prawns and squid and the occasional wild catch.
The menu is tiny - and it changes - so a group of three can easily order everything on the menu without going into overdrive. For example, locally harvested XL clams ($12) are just four giant-sized clams with a super thick shell that are coaxed to open by steaming with a touch of burnt miso which we can taste, and butterscotch, which we can't. The flesh itself is medium-sized, juicy if a tad rubbery, but certainly quite pleasant.
Seaweed butter prawns ($16) are tender but on the skinny side, with a nice hit of smoke and sake infusing what little flesh there is, with added umami from the seasoned seaweed topping.
Hands down, the best dish on the menu is the curry mussels ($16/$18). These are brought in live and wild, so there's none of that shellfish roulette you have to play, when a nasty specimen pops up just to remind you that life is full of little setbacks. They're all sweet and perfectly cooked in an addictive broth of natural mussel juice, onion and lots of chilli. A big bonus comes from the freshly fried mantou that you dip into the gravy between irresistible sips of it.
The chefs do take a gamble with the fish, offering three varieties done in ways that test the patience of the flavour-matching gods.
Sous vide pomfret fillet ($22) is served strangely cold with a bland tofu puree that looks just like creamy potato mash with none of the joy. The tofu does at least pick up the piquant flavours of pickled onions, kimchi, chimichurri and crunchy croutons. But the sous vide method makes the pomfret taste fishy and the cool temperature out of synch.
Also needing a rethink is the confit seabass ($20), whose marriage to creamy hummus leaves it overwhelmed, forcing it to find better companionship with sweet caramelised onions and lemon dill vinaigrette.
The only one that makes the grade is the steamed black grouper ($26) done in familiar Chinese style - with a sweet soy sauce gravy and slippery glass noodles. For good measure, a serving of "la la" clams adds decoration and a pleasant brininess.
If you need carbo, the chefs whip up a pretty decent vegetarian pasta with good wok hei, lots of onions and chillis but too much salt.
The highlight is the accompanying vegetable tempura with a super oily but addictive crunch. Scaled is a little restaurant that needs more time to grow, but it's got a charmingly quirky environment to do so. It can be sometimes overshadowed by Bar Stories' elaborate and really good cocktails, but with a bigger repertoire and some imagination, we're sure it'll scale up soon.
WHAT THE RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
The Business Times' 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.