Kampong Glam, a historical neighbourhood also known as the Arab Quarter, is a colourful hodgepodge of Malay and Arab culture. It’s best experienced at night, when alfresco tables are set up under the stars and aromatic shisha pipes scent the air. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Middle Eastern restaurants hold court here, and a plethora of inviting cuisines from Turkey to Lebanon do line the streets, but there is a whole lot more on offer here, from tortillas to sushi. Intrigued? Then step this way…
Café Le Caire
39 Arab Street
6292 0979 | cafelecaire.com
Café Le Caire has been around for over a decade, serving Middle Eastern fare from numerous countries. It is a rabbit warren of different dining areas, from food court and pavement seating to a lounge room and dining room upstairs. The homey dining room has large, chunky wooden tables, table lamps, dark floorboards and mirrors. It has only a few nods to the Arab world, in the form of a wall hanging and table lanterns.
This place is great for groups, and what better way to start a meal than with a great sharing dish like the mezze platter ($16). Its seven mezze and dips include a tangy feta cheese and tomato dip, a fresh-tasting dish of chickpeas with tomato and chilli, a cucumber salad, olives, tahini (sesame seed paste) and batata harrah – an unusual dip of mashed potato and chives. My favourite was definitely the hummus; I couldn’t stop dipping triangles of unleavened Arabic bread into it, even during my main course.
The shish tawouké ($14.50) is a great choice for a main and isn’t too filling. The tasty skewered kebab of very tender, grilled, marinated chicken is served with salad, tahini and spiced Bukhari rice. We also tried the fragrant Bukhari chicken ($12) – chicken on the bone cooked in Bukhari spices including cardamom and cinnamon.
Although we didn’t have room for dessert, we did have a bagalawa milkshake ($8) that was divine. It’s made by blending a piece of baklava – a Middle Eastern pastry filled with chopped nuts and doused in syrup – with milk, ice and vanilla powder. It was sweet, but surprisingly not overly so, and had lovely chewy, crunchy bits of baklava in it. If you prefer something less sweet, the karkadeh fizz ($5) is a refreshing hibiscus drink with a slightly earthy, herbal taste.
There were a number of groups on the night we dined there and no wonder; it has a great selection of Arabian dishes that are perfect for sharing and it’s good value for money. Be warned though, no alcohol is served.
9 Jalan Kubor
6291 9901 | symmetry.com.sg
There was no symmetry about the way I parked the car on Jalan Kubor before dining at this newish restaurant near Haji Lane, but when you find a rare empty space at 7.30pm on a Saturday night, haste is more important than accuracy.
There’s not a lot of symmetry inside Symmetry, either. Instead, the décor is a pleasing jumble of shabby-chic cool: Eames chairs, retro fans, spice jars of preserved fruit. The crate that the coffee machine arrived in has been disassembled and used as roof art. (It’s an extremely expensive Slayer machine, by the way, and the coffee is unsurprisingly excellent.)
So where does the restaurant get its name? Presumably from the balance of flavours in the superb French-and-Aussie-inspired food. This has been my best meal of 2013 so far.
An emphasis on quality ingredients was clear from the outset with our starter, tomatoes ($19). (Dishes are named after their starring item.) Served with burrata cheese, basil and a honey-olive emulsion, this fresh and flavourful salad features imported tomatoes in a variety of shapes and colours.
A second salad, bulgur ($18), is just as good; its chewy grains mixed with cranberries, hazelnuts, crème fraîche, spring onions and quinoa. I’d have this for lunch every day, if I could.
A couple of memorable seafood dishes followed: tuna ($22), beautifully presented on a black serving platter alongside green peas, goat cheese curd, cress and mint; and squid ($16), perfectly crisp, with a daub of amazingly peppery and pitch-black aioli.
All dishes at Symmetry, including mains, are designed to be shared. This can come in handy when you’re facing generous portions of lamb ($36, served on barley risotto with char-grilled capsicum, eggplant and olives) and beef short ribs ($38, braised for 12 hours and accompanied by potatoes and a brown-butter emulsion).
Chef and founder Abby has done the hard yards, working for no pay at some of Sydney’s best restaurants during a stint Down Under. It has paid off. Symmetry is getting a reputation as a popular new brunch venue, but I suggest coming for dinner to see what the kitchen is really capable of.
We finished our meal with a fascinating dessert, beets sorbet ($16),earthy at the top with its combination of pistachio, shiso (a Japanese herb) and the sorbet itself, then sweet at the bottom, thanks to raspberries, lavender and milk pudding.
Then it was just a matter of extricating the car from its wobbly park. (Actually, my better half did this for me – bless her – because I’d had too many of the restaurant’s strong and zingy signature cocktails.)
20a Baghdad Street
6291 1151 | sushiairways.com
“Your booking is confirmed for tonight, Madam. Have a pleasant flight!” is not the standard issue phrase to confirm a dinner reservation, but the set-up at new sushi bar SushiAirways is anything but standard.
We admit we were more than a little sceptical about the thought of eating aeroplane food in a tiny 30-seater rendition of a 1930s Douglas DC-3, complete with overhead compartments and smiling stewardesses. In reality, though, it was something different and a bit of fun. Plus, with executive chef EC Wong, ex-head chef at Grand Hyatt Singapore at the controls, we were prepared to stow away our initial doubts and get into the spirit of it.
On entering the cabin, awash with metallic paint and looking onto the Arab quarter through portholes, we noted that our co-passengers were a group of very hip-looking Japanese enjoying themselves. We took that as a good sign.
Favourites included the refreshingly tangy salmon tataki ($15) – raw salmon with yuzu dressing – and, the standout, prettily presented avocado and crabmeat maki roll ($25). The premium assorted sushi of the day ($58 for large) included salmon belly, yellowtail, tamago (cooked egg), prawn, tuna, and deliciously fresh sea urchin that was worth fighting over (and we did). Sake is on offer, or go with an ice cold Japanese beer. There was a fair wait for some of the food, but the chef was flying solo, and to be fair there wasn’t much room for anyone else. A quirky little spot; let’s see if it takes off.
20 Kandahar Street
6294 0078 | maison-ikkoku.net
All-day breakfast has been making waves on the Singapore dining scene for quite some time, and Maison Ikkoku (MI) is stepping things up with its excellent coffee. Apart from your eggs, it’s the next most important thing. Trained by Japanese barista and latte art specialist, Hiroshi Sawada, MI baristas brew their coffee using four different methods – filtered, French-press, drip and siphon, using beans from Brazil and Ethiopia that are roasted weekly in-house.
Enjoy your cuppa joe with the popular eggs Benedict ($18) or smoked salmon scrambled ($18), a hearty dish of Norwegian smoked salmon and scrambled eggs served on multigrain toast with a side of deliciously tangy guacamole. We like the umami Florentine ($16), too. Or expand your culinary experience and try their exotic Signature Snacks – MI pork bun ($3.90; steamed bun stuffed with pork belly) or MI musubi ($3; spam served on Japanese short grain rice). It can get pretty crowded, so come early or make a reservation.
257 Beach Road (corner of Arab Street)
6396 9096 | fikacafe.com
Ta en kopp fika? That’s Swedish for “Would you like a cup of coffee?”, a beverage that is central to Swedish life, and a legitimate reason to gather with friends, family and colleagues over a hot drink and something to eat. Three years ago, Singaporean Tasneem Noor and her Swedish husband opened a slice of Scandinavian culture here, dishing up hearty fare to tourists and locals alike. The cheery, white-painted Beach Road café is in stark contrast with the surrounding Middle Eastern restaurants and colourful local joints.
Unable to choose from the extensive menu, I was given an excellent insider’s tip by the helpful waiter, but there were crêpes, open-faced sandwiches and divine-looking cakes vying for my attention, too. It seems Swedish meatballs ($18.50) are a popular choice, and no wonder. The walnut-sized beef balls, smothered in a creamy sauce with lingonberry jam are melt-in-the-mouth tender. It’s a generous helping, with steamed potato to soak up the sauce and a small salad too.
After following that with a dessert of rich chocolate Swedish brownie and ice-cream ($8.90) and a Gevalia coffee ($5.50), I’m feeling positively Scandinavian. Open for breakfast at 11am, they also do a three course set lunch ($19.90) and dinner. There are genuine Swedish soft drinks, including non-alcoholic Kopparberg pear cider ($7.50) to quench the thirst on a hot day. More good news is that they’ve just opened at Milennia Walk, too.
241 Beach Road
Some Mexican restaurants can be Mexican by menu, but mainstream by décor, which makes munching on nachos and sipping on a Margarita seem somewhat tacky. Not so at Piedra Negra, a cool little Mexican housed in a couple of converted shophouses on Haji Lane. Walls are daubed in reds, blues and oranges with artsy murals here and there, and glass lanterns and shelves of trinkets make it feel less like Singapore and more like Salamanca.
So what did we eat? I didn’t fancy the standard meat-and-cheese Mexican fare on a Monday night, so the ceviche de salm ó n ($12.90) was perfect – fresh wild salmon marinated with lime juice and mixed with green apple, pineapple, mango and green chilli. That was until I saw the sizzling platter of alambre ($15.90) heading towards our table. Tender diced beef with bacon, onions and bell peppers was topped with melted cheese and served with tortillas wrapped in the dearest little embroidered napkins to keep them warm; I just had to do some sampling.
Another signature dish that had greedy husband Paul thinking Olé! was the costillas de cerdo al BBQ ($17.90) – marinated baby pork ribs glazed with tamarind sauce, chilli and herbs and grilled over a slow fire.
From the bar, we tried (and retried) the margaritas ($13) and a concoction called the Cactus Berry ($13), a deceptively innocent name for a blend of tequila, Cointreau and red wine that’s muy alcoh ó lica and fant á stica!
3 places for a pre- or post-prandial tipple
1. Bar Stories
57A Haji Lane
6298 0838 | athousandtales.com
These guys are serious about their cocktails. Set in an eclectic space, the bar on the top level (there’s a little crostini joint and restaurant beneath) hosts small groups and couples hovering over their drinks. There’s no menu – you have to put your trust in the experts. Tell them your mood and they’ll conjure up some deliciously unexpected concoctions. Head here for dessert and a nightcap and you’re in for a treat.
2. Maison Ikkoku
(see details in main review)
Maison Ikkoku has a semi-alfresco bar on the third level – a great spot for a good view of the city and Kampong Glam area to go with your pisco sour or martini.
3. Blu Jaz Café
11 Bali Lane
6292 3800 | blujaz.net
Known for its live music, Blu Jaz is always packed, so expect a bit of competition for an outside table. There are also three floors inside to explore.
|Kampong Glam dawn-till-dusk checklist |
Hear the call to prayer from Singapore’s largest mosque, the Masjid Sultan,which looms over pedestrianised Bussorah Street. To visit (free entry), make sure you are appropriately dressed – there are cloaks you can borrow inside.
Browse the one-off fashion labels and vintage shops along Haji Lane. Then stop off for your caffeine fix in quaint little patisserie B Bakery, housed in a shophouse on Bussorah Street.
Try out some local Malay food at Sabar Menanti II (747 North Bridge Road). Eye up the dishes at the counter (beef Rendang is always a winner) and choose your favourites to accompany your plate of rice. Wash it down with some teh tarik.
Add some culture to your afternoon at the Malay Art Gallery (31 Bussorah Street), then rummage through antique treasures and old knick-knacks at Grandfather’s Collection (42 Bussorah Street).