SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Madonna may be the mother of re-invention, but for everybody else, we would say tread with care.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting a makeover. You can't have metal boobies forever. And if you're a restaurant, the day will come when you just have to let go of the miso-marinated cod on the menu. Please. But change also needs to be thought through. It should be for the better and not about swopping miso cod with equally mind-numbing mentaiko pasta.
There've been a few restaurants in town lately that have moved, changed chefs or revamped their concepts, with varying results. One of them is Five and Dime, a catchy- named eatery which opened in 2012 as part of the first wave of trendy cafes serving brunch and casual meals in heritage properties.
But four years and competition from several hundred cookie-cutter cafes later, Five and Dime found itself at a culinary crossroads - either seek a business path beyond buttermilk pancakes or head for that great batter maker in the sky.
297 River Valley Road
Open for dinner only: 6pm to 11pm (Sun to Thurs); 6pm to late (Fri & Sat). Closed on Sun
And so it's back as Fat Lulu's - a seemingly more serious restaurant and dessert bar with equal emphasis on savouries and dessert. Its chefs get equal billing and separate menus even: Sam Chablani builds up a food menu around an Asian barbecue theme, while pastry chef Song offers a three-course dessert menu for S$35. You'd think the servers want you to be as fat as Lulu with their constant reminders to "make sure you save room for dessert" but as it turns out, the sweet stuff is actually the best thing on the menu.
There are three things we love about Fat Lulu's - the free private parking, the warm banana bread, and the grilled Mangalica pork chop from the quirkily named "Duh Meat Board". Everything else is a tiresome attempt at Asian fusion cleverness - trying to figure it out is almost as frustrating as having Pokemon Go on your smartphone with an avatar that has nowhere to go.
Cold potato salad (S$8) dressed in tamarind yoghurt, rice krispies and coriander has us anticipating some inspired exotic twist to the common staple. What we get is a muddy blanket of yoghurt intensified with tamarind paste and Indian spices that tastes like an act of aggression against other tasty dressings that potatoes prefer to hang out with. Puffed rice just adds to the confusion.
You're better off with the boring but reliable burrata and tomato salad (S$15), where creamy burrata and ice cold juicy tomatoes come together in refreshing familiarity. Apparently gula melaka is used in the balsamic vinaigrette but we don't notice it.
The almost ubiquitous kong bak or braised pork belly bun (S$12) appears as the day's special. Expect slightly sweaty steamed buns folded over moist sticky pork drizzled with bang bang sauce - some kind of spicy orangey mayonnaise that passes off as Asian in some parts of the world and tastes okay in a chop suey kind of way.
We're also convinced that the chef likes Indian spices but Indian spices don't like him as they refuse to co-operate in the over-elaborate fried cauliflower (S$12). An otherwise simple vegetarian option gets over-the-top treatment by being fried and then assaulted by Madras curry yoghurt, grapes and conflicting herbs like mint and dill.
There's a bit of reprieve when the chef turns to simpler grills. Pieces of king crab leg (S$28) are grilled with just butter and lemon - not great quality or as firm-textured as we'd like, but at least it's not frozen.
Pan-fried beef tongue (S$16) has been braised first and is tender, topped with a Thai-accented herb salad that's tangy and counters the oily tongue pretty well.
"Duh meat board" (S$28) is one highlight - with perfectly seasoned, bouncy slices of grilled Mangalica pork which is easier to eat than the chewy strips of skirt steak it comes with. Even if everything else pales, the juicy Hungarian pork is a sure bet. And we regret not ordering the ikan bakar, which smells scrumptious as it passes by on its way to another table.
In contrast, we'd go back to Fat Lulu's just for its warm banana bread (S$14) - intense, sticky banana cake topped with coconut ice cream and sitting in a rich pond of chocolate sauce with the now-familiar rice krispies.
We also won't refuse the Black Forest (S$16) - a deconstructed presentation of chocolate ice cream, torn bits of dehydrated chocolate sponge, nitrogen frozen chantilly cream and juicy cherries cooked in kirsch.
If you stump up S$35 for the full dessert course, you can get these two desserts and end off with a boring mango cream stuffed in a paper-like roll that spoils an otherwise refreshing lychee granita.
As far as revamps go, Fat Lulu's has the right intentions if not the best execution. But while you wait for the savoury part of the equation to work itself out, just do what most people with a sweet tooth always want to do: eat dessert first.
This article was first published on July 18, 2016.
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