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New chapter in an old story
#06-19 Far East Shopping Centre
545 Orchard Road
Open for lunch and dinner
Tues to Sun: 12pm to 2.15pm; 6.30pm to 9.15pm
WE'VE come to see the old people.
That's what it's really all about at Shashlik, isn't it? To reminisce about a different era and eat oxtail stew - which everybody but us seems to know is (apart from weekends) a Wednesday-only lunch treat.
When Shashlik first closed down some months ago, it was, logically speaking, a natural death for a restaurant that had long outlived its relevance. Crumbling premises, retro food, crotchety old waiters not schooled in the finer art of customer service. As far as growth charts went, it didn't have much of an upside. It's not like they could put out an ad to say, "Help wanted. Only 80-year-olds need apply." It was time.
But its demise hit Singaporeans personally because it meant closing the door to a past that they liked to visit now and then, but not enough for it to stay in business. Older people could go and eat something that hadn't been cooked sous vide. Younger ones could go and marvel at how their parents could ever think escargots in garlic oil and borscht were the ultimate in hipster food. Well, kids, we still like them snails in hot butter and garlic.
So now you have the new Shashlik version 2.0, brought back to life by the younger generation of owners- partly for nostalgia's sake and partly to tap into the "lost" generation's growing appetite for heritage.
Still in its original location in the equally retro Far East Shopping Centre, the new-old Shashlik has been spruced up a little, but not so much that it alienates the dialect-speaking grannies and the 70's towkay types (who weirdly still look like extras in Beauty World) who have filled the restaurant in anticipation of their Wednesday oxtail feast.
We don't get to experience its famous bad service because most of the said crotchety old waiters have either retired or passed on. We spy only one elderly gent pottering about but not actively serving. Maybe that's why he looks pretty chill. Instead, we're looked after by an assortment of smiley servers of various ages - some young enough to work in the hipster cafe of their choice, and others mature enough to lend a comforting, home-spun air that sets the stage for the food to come.
The old cues from the past are still there, from the single-serve silver foil-topped SCS butter to the fluffy kopitiam-style buns. Occasionally, wooden trolleys trundle by, holding sizzling griddle plates of the signature shashlik - marinated cuts of meat seared and left to cook on the hot plate for as long as you choose.
We know that escargots (S$32 for a dozen) come canned but it doesn't dampen the thrill we remember of this childhood equivalent of foie gras. Here, the snails are smothered with enough piping hot butter, garlic and parsley to mask the otherwise tasteless but pleasingly chewy nuggets. It's also an excuse for more buns to mop up the garlic butter.
We're quite sure no beets were harmed in the making of the borscht (S$7) - which tastes a lot like thinned out oxtail stew simmered with cabbage. The sour cream seems more like a token effort, like a Hainanese chef's grudging move to accommodate his ex-Russian bosses' quirks. Tender meat peeled unceremoniously from its bones sit in jagged pieces in the bowl. Remember, plating and presentation are not Russian strong points.
French onion soup (S$6) - nobody questioned this French-Russian discrepancy back in the day - is the coffee house classic of melted onions in weak chicken broth topped with melted cheese on toast and a dash of indifference.
The aforementioned beef shashlik (S$32) is the poster meat for a garnish-free lifestyle. A naked slab of meat, couple of grill marks, hot cast iron plate. You can imagine an eager young 'un in the kitchen getting shoved into the meat locker for even suggesting a sprig of parsley to soften the meat and metal image. Anyway, if you don't let it sit on the hotplate for too long, you'll get a reasonably tender, perfectly acceptable piece of beef.
Now, the much-heralded oxtail stew (S$32) - a flour-thickened gravy surrounding gelatinous, sinewy meat barely clinging on to its bones, is satisfying even as it milks every nostalgia cliche. A post-meal thirst also reminds us of the chicken cubes aka ajinomoto that no cook would do without in the 70s/80s. But this is not a place to mull over such post-millennium pickiness. It would be like telling your mother you don't like her corned beef hash now as much as you did when you were in school.
Because the words "Baked Alaska" (S$24) pop out at us faster than cherries jubilee, we opt for this elaborate fruit cocktail, sponge cake and whipped meringue dessert that's brought to the table and flambeed before us. But not before our friendly server assures us that the suspicious (to us) faint-blue liquid she sprinkles on the meringue isn't lighter fluid. Well, you can never be sure what they could get away with in the 70s. Nonetheless, the "rum" doesn't set fire as much as it should, so our Alaska is a little half-baked. But our youthful memories of fruit cocktail - before they started putting pineapple chunks into the mix at least - prevail, and we're happy to scoop up this squishy Eton's Mess/sherry trifle offshoot for what it's worth.
Since neither Shashlik nor its predecessor Troika was a fixture of our childhood - Magnolia Snack Bar was about as extravagant as we went - its nostalgic appeal is more academic than anything. We think this is what food tasted like decades ago, therefore it must be authentic. But we know how good heritage/comfort food can be if done well - Shashlik does an okay job, but it could be so much more. Imagine if they went beyond sentimental appeal and focused wholeheartedly on reviving long-lost Hainanese recipes. Both young and old would head over just for the good food, and nostalgia would be a thing of the past.
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.