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Greece is the latest word in Tiong Bahru
Bakalaki Greek Taverna
3 Seng Poh Road
Open for dinner Mon to Thurs: 6pm to 12am. Lunch and dinner Fri to Sun: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 1am
JUST when you thought Tiong Bahru couldn't get any more gentrified with its mix of specialty coffee, French bakery, Japanese, Korean, mod-European, mod-hawker and gourmet deli outlets, along comes a group of Greek people who think the neighbourhood isn't complete without some good old-fashioned Mediterranean hospitality.
So they take over a large space on Seng Poh Road (facing the main road leading towards the famous market) vacated by a steamboat/zichar place, splash it with lots of white paint and homey bric-a-brac and achieved the unexpected - a breezy, casual, welcoming Greek getaway in front of a busy traffic intersection.
Bakalaki seems to have struck a chord with diners who have been filling the place at dinner time - eager converts to a supposedly healthy cuisine focused on mezze, salads and grilled seafood. It's open for lunch only on Fridays and weekends. When we dropped by on one such Friday, it was relatively quiet but we were charmed by the cheerful blue-and-white blinds and unpretentious, happy decor that makes the place a welcome respite from the blinding sunlight and searing heat outside.
Barely a few moments after we sat down, a small wooden crate landed on our table holding freshly toasted slices of bread topped with dried herbs and olive oil for a crunchy welcome bite before we looked at the menu. It's a big menu and well, it was all Greek to us so we looked to our servers for help to decipher the mezzes from the moussaka.
Our server was not particularly helpful nor especially Greek, and only seemed to vouch for the lamb chops, so we ordered that. Later, we settled on an assortment of dips and pita bread, halloumi cheese and octopus.
Meanwhile, we couldn't help observing that while Greeks are supposed to be warm, friendly people, they must also be closet border collies. Their herding instinct came into play when diners who arrived were all crammed into tables in one section, even though the restaurant is seriously huge. The servers were walking all over the place anyway, so surely a bit of spacing out won't kill them.
Anyway, we were soon distracted by the selection of dips placed in front of us. We asked for a mixture of three (S$21.90) - a smoky eggplant that's silky smooth, tangy and pepped up with red peppers. An order of pita bread (S$2.90) was needed to scoop it all up. The bread was nice and chewy when it first arrived but cooled and hardened very quickly. There was also creamy feta cheese whipped with red peppers into a nice shade of orange and extra spreadability with yoghurt and an equally creamy taramasalata or salted cod roe spread.
The dips were quite heavy-going so you can't really have much without them weighing you down. Breaking the routine was a grilled halloumi cheese salad (S$16.90) - two slices of conventional firm, chewy white cheese grilled with nice markings, and very pretty fresh cherry tomatoes.
We tried our luck with the grilled octopus (S$32.90) - a large tentacle that looked impressive with its expertly charred edges and drizzle of olive oil. It was not bad, except that it was just a little short of tender, so it's up to you whether you prefer the mushiness of a tender sous vide octopus or the slightly rubbery texture of this one.
The lamb chops (S$32.90) arrived well-done rather than the medium-rare we ordered, although the first bites were still tender enough. We tried our luck to see if they would willingly take it back to have it re-done to order. We got just a hint of a pained expression, but the manager whisked it away and it returned pink and much more enjoyable.
For dessert, traditional doughnuts (S$14.90) caught our eye and approval - little puffy balls of deep-fried chewy mochi-textured goodness dusted in cinnamon and sat on a bed of honey. Chocolate sauce for dipping added a churros-like familiarity. We were also pleasantly surprised when a serving of Greek yoghurt and honey appeared without us ordering it, with the manager saying that the chef wanted us to taste it. Its creamy texture almost resembled ice cream, while the honey helped to counter the tartness. The tartness totally described our demeanour when we happened to check the bill a few days later and discovered that we were actually charged for the yoghurt.
We have to say that Bakalaki has a charming appeal about it, given its unlikely location. The food was passable, certainly good enough for a fuss-free night out.
But did it make us converts to the Greek style of eating? Not yet.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our 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.