IF there’s one thing we can agree on about Singaporeans, it’s that we love our food heritage and hawker fare. Not everyone’s willing to fork out more than a fiver for the meal, however, even if the prep times and experise involved are comparable to that found in fine-dining restaurants.
Yet in recent years we’ve seen a few joints break out of this mould and brazenly hawk their cuisine for upwards of ten bucks a pop. And they’re thriving. Have we finally reached a crossroads where we’re willing to put the money where the mouth eats (sic), and place our local nosh on the same pedestal that we’ve accorded avocado toast and mass-prepared truffle fries?
Read on, and have your say in the poll at the end of the article.
The Coconut Club – Nasi Lemak
The humble nasi lemak breaching the $5 mark is nothing new by now. Most decent ‘sets’ with the irreplaceable fried chicken cost at least that much even at hawker centres. But $12.80? That’s new ground.
Anyone who hasn’t been to Coconut Club at Ann Siang (it’s moving soon) may do a double take at that price. Then they’ll try it, and realise just how much has been missing from their plates.
At the core of it are honest, good ingredients. The coconut milk is pressed daily; it’s not processed stuff poured out of a store-bought carton. This is a back-breaking, expensive and time-consuming process (we’ve done it before) – but the resultant ‘milk’ is so tasty that Shangri-La’s picked it up for use in their kaya toast sets. The coconuts themselves are the fruit of a laborious two-year search for the perfect plantation and supplier. The chicken’s rubbed with turmeric and lemongrass and fried just the right amount, instead of being dunked in a generic deep-frying vat.
Extend that same care to each of the ingredients, and you get a gob-smacking plate of fragrant coconut rice that you can put away with little reservation. Expect healthy lunch queues even on the weekends. Above all, the service at the Ann Siang Hill restaurant is excellent, thanks to a keen focus on simply ‘spreading the love’ – happy staff make great food and satisfied customers, after all.
The Butcher’s Kitchen – ‘Flaming’ Char Siew noodles
There’s no pretense as to whether you really need flames leaping from your dish. Butcher’s Kitchen founder Lee Kok Lam straight up tells AugustMan that “Instagrammable” was one of the key pillars in mind when he sat down with his marketing team to conceptualise a groundbreaking dish.
But you’re not paying the premium for simple flambéing. Your dollar’s really gone towards getting some choice cuts from suppliers who are certified with every sticker in the book. This means no antibiotic-assisted growth throughout the lifetime of the livestock, zero genetically-modified procedures or hormones administered, and no nightmare feed made from the leavings of anything else. You know – all those things used to keep pork (and beef) cheap to produce.
It all makes sense when you find out The Butcher’s Kitchen was (and is) “first and foremost a butchery”. It’s actually the F&B spinoff of The Butcher, which went out of its way to secure partnerships with legit suppliers in Australia. They were, really, selling “peace of mind” to health-conscious denizens near Holland Village, UE Square and Marine Parade. Even now The Butcher’s Kitchen at Suntec sells those prime cuts in meat fridges out front. Stepping into the food scene was “just the next step” towards educating the public about responsibly-sourced and farmed meat.
And so for slightly over $10, you get to tuck into firm slices of char siew glazed over with caramelised honey, sizzling fat and an astringent corona of char, courtesy of the torching of either the new whisky-infused ($12.80) or huadiao-‘drunk’ ($10.80) marinades. Aficionados of peaty drams, go straight for the former; you’ll appreciate the mild bitterness and smoky notes imparted by the flambeed concoction (Lee wouldn’t share what goes into it – copycats abound!).
Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill – Satay
Violet Oon restaurants have always delivered unabashedly spicy Peranakan cuisine – but it wasn’t long ago that the respected matron decided to set up in the heart of nightlife hub Clarke Quay. The Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill doesn’t hold back with the ingredients nor the price tag – for $15 to $20 (chicken to prawn) you get three sticks of satay.
That’s about tenfold the price of most regular satay. But it’s an expenditure that many find themselves repeating, even if the mind tries to inhibit the rather exorbitant habit. It’s really the confluence of reasons: the volume of meat clinging to the stick alone trumps all but the old, legendary Satay Club members.
Chunks thicker than your thumb, slathered in spiced marinade (sometimes coconut rempah infused with divine calamansi), alternate with fatty cubes of meat. The whole affairs are grilled to smoky perfection, and served alongside some drool-inducing spicy peanut sauce that we wouldn’t mind as a breakfast spread. Most of the platters come with the usual rice and onion accompaniments, too. Now, if only it were still open after a long hard night at Zouk… (it’s located next to that taxi stand we’re all very familiar with.)
Chatterbox – Chicken Rice
Nothing hits home harder than any affront to Singapore’s most beloved dish, chicken rice. And it’s easy to see why – we’ve had all ‘grades’ of chicken rice growing up, it’s been doled out at camps, events and while working odd jobs, and it never fails to please (unless your absent-minded colleague or friend forgot the chilli.) The chicken rice scene is more polished now than ever, but chances are, that $2.50 to $3.50 packet at any hawker stall will still hit the spot if we aren’t feeling too picky.
So when anyone brings up the fact that a $30-ish chicken rice set exists, they’ll elicit guffaws and scoffing . “That’s ten packets,” is a guaranteed comment. But the set at Chatterbox, Mandarin Oriental, is so much more than that. It was easily the forerunner that started the trend of ‘elevated’ hawker food we see today – lambasted at first, then attracting enough of a loyal crowd as proof of concept that Singaporeans will (sometimes) part with a lot of money for quality food – even if a $3 version is available.
Having spent time in the kitchens with long-standing Chatterbox head chef Liew Tian Heong while working on a food-related project, I picked his mind as to why the chicken rice should command such a high price.
Most of is mirroring the stringent selection process of chicken meat and even vegetables used in the creation of a set; much like how the Swee Kee (the now-defunct, undisputed former kingpin of chicken rice stalls) founder rejected a high percentage of chicken from its suppliers. The fattiness has to be just right, the skin unmarked (check out the pristine surface of the set displayed above). You get almost double the portion of chicken at some dollar stores, ditto that for the rice. The classic condiments are top-notch and free-flow. The dish is consistently fragrant, and never greasy, so those with frail guts can satisfy their chicken rice urges here.
Granted, they have sinced launched a much more affordable shopfront supplying the CBD, Chatterbox Express. Here the prices fall in line with the likes of Sin Kee or Wee Nam Kee, but the original Chatterbox remains a fixture whenever the national conversation turns to what is arguably a national dish. After all, the restaurant must have thrived all these years for a good reason. Try it just once, we say, and give the desserts a chance, too.
Have your say and vote with your dollar: