(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - The Salted Plum isn't a restaurant. It's a canteen run by frat boys - a bunch of easy-going, food-lovin' dudes refreshingly unschooled in the finer points of restaurant etiquette or decor. If you walk in here in pyjamas, they may not only serve you but give you a high-five. And instead of an obsequious "Good evening, I shall be your server tonight", a variation of "yeah, come on in" is more their style.
That's exactly what they serve in this come-as-you-are setting in the fittingly unglam Circular Road, which always feels like a halfway house for indie concepts too raw to sit with their slicker cousins in Boat Quay, much less Keong Saik or Amoy Street. Which probably suits The Salted Plum just fine because what they lack in finesse they make up for in hearty, Taiwanese street food-influenced grub at prices that would put other restaurants to shame.
It's dude food to the core, with taste being the deciding factor, not health or calories, and heaven forbid there should be anything resembling a salad in this menu dominated by braised pork belly, intestines and "shiny" rice which gets its sheen from a liberal use of pork lard and garlic oil. It's food to fuel growing boys and comfort food-seekers looking for a rib-sticking meal on a cool evening or to revive memories of Taiwanese night markets.
The most identifiable dishes from The Salted Plum - okay, they got the name from the common ingredient supposedly used in Taiwanese cooking - would include the pork belly, their version of lu rou fan. Instead of the pork diced and braised till the fat leaves a shimmering gleam on the surface of the intense dark gravy scented with cinnamon, star anise and a hint of Shaoxing wine, the pork belly ($10, above) is presented as two generous slabs in a retro bowl. You scoop up the precious gravy with an awkward-sized metal Chinese spoon specially brought in from Taiwan, and carefully drizzle it over the packed mound of rice that's squeezed into a too-small bowl, trying to keep the food in the bowl and not hurtling onto your lap.
As dudes are experienced at eating happily over any kind of surface or maybe none at all, little thought is given to how cramped our tiny table for two is once all the food starts coming. Before long, we abandon all semblance of decorum and dive in wherever we can. The gravy is sticky sweet delicious with the shiny rice, which also goes with the similarly braised pig's intestines ($10, above) which are on the gamey side. Liberal lashings of home-made ginger chilli sauce made with dashi help to mitigate the "offally" pungence.
Chef Shawn Koh adapts, rather than sticks to original Taiwanese recipes, and what he achieves is honest-to-goodness home-style cooking that hits the spot, if not any highs. We don't quite understand the vinegary touch to the nicely charred, stir-fried brussels sprouts with shiitake mushrooms and chilli ($5, above) and prefer it without.
His take on Taiwanese sausage is presented in the form of minced pork patties ($10, above) with a good amount of fat to ensure a nice bounce, and tastes a little like lap cheong with a pleasant sweetness and fragrance of rose wine.
Oyster steamed egg is a casserole dish of steamed dashi-based chawanmushi and decent-sized oysters ($10, above) which we order although we would much prefer an authentic oyster mee sua.
The priciest dish is a hamachi collar ($15, above) - moist, clean-tasting oily flesh underneath a crisp-chewy lightly floured crust seasoned with a barest touch of salt and pepper and extra-flavoured salt on the side for you to season it yourself. It's much better with the chilli sauce actually.
The only dessert on offer - and our young server gamely admits upfront that dessert is not their forte - is a concoction of firm tea jelly ($5) that almost has the texture of chin chow, and tapioca pearls in a milky cream base. It's a deconstructed bubble tea which leaves us pretty much on the fence.
The Salted Plum is a permanent offshoot of the pop-up Five Ten, so named because everything on the menu was priced at either $5 or $10, except that they've now added a couple of pricier options for variety. Even so, at these prices, you want to borrow some choice words from a frat boy's vocabulary to call out some so-called sharing plates restaurants on their pricing.
Despite its rawness, there is a certain charm in the ungainly yet earnest dining approach at The Salted Plum, with its unexpected touches like a playlist of old Taiwanese melodies to ramp up the retro charm. A few more classics on the menu like the aforementioned mee sua would up its credibility a notch, though. And also, a bit more polish is needed if they want to be taken more seriously.
Otherwise, while you view The Salted Plum with the vague disapproval of a parent making tsk tsk noises at their free-wheeling offspring's total disregard for restaurant conventions, it's hard not to get caught up in their unbridled enthusiasm and spontaneity. Go for it, dudes.
The Salted Plum
10 Circular Road
Open for lunch and dinner from Monday to Saturday: Noon to 3pm; 6 to 10pm.
Closed on Sunday
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good