Backdoor @ Seng Poh / Dough & Grains
71 Seng Poh Road #01-35
Tel: 6225 5223
Hours: 5pm-midnight daily
THE air at Dough & Grains is thick with the aroma of baking breads - and a whiff of irony.
For tucked behind the Tiong Bahru bakery, which specialises in healthy confections made with traditional Chinese herbs, lies its polar opposite: a full-fledged bar complete with sports on television and beer on tap.
"It's so hidden, some of our regular customers who buy bread from us daily still don't know about it," laughs Khoo Chee Wee, who runs both Dough & Grains and Backdoor bar together with business partner Coreen Wong.
Backdoor occupies 330 sq ft of the entire 1,300 sq ft unit shared by both outlets. Bar patrons can enter into the cosy 18-seater nook through the bar's main door, which opens out to a tiny back alley beside zichar eatery Por Kee, or trundle down a small corridor at the back of Dough & Grains before the bakery shuts at 9.30pm.
The area was initially used as the bakery's storeroom up until six weeks ago, when someone approached Mr Khoo and Ms Wong to run a coffee joint in the space.
"We said no because we didn't know much about coffee and we already have enough coffee places in Tiong Bahru, but then we thought, why not use the space to create something for the neighbourhood?" says Mr Khoo.
And not for them another industrial-chic hangout that is good to look at but slightly cold to linger in. Instead, antique window grills, quirky glass lamps and two rustic, communal wooden tables breed a homely, rustic-chic vibe, not unlike the designer apartments the neighbourhood is increasingly becoming known for.
Food-wise, they've tapped on the expertise of close friend and private chef, Melvyn Lee, who operates under the moniker Funky Chef, to come up with a small but sufficient menu of mains and bar bites.
The smoked duck risotto ($12) is the signature here. It is simmered in a sauvignon blanc sauce instead of the conventional cream or butter and makes for a perfect late dinner, while the Hello Kitty seafood spaghetti ($12) is bathed in a pale pink sauce that strikes a curious balance between creamy and tangy.
The fiery green monster hot wings ($8) go down perfectly with beer, while the"dancing" prawns ($8) are lemongrass-infused prawn croquettes so tender, they seem to bounce back on each bite. Erdinger Weiss is served on tap, and there's a range of bottled beers too ($13 onwards).
Running both a pastry kitchen and a hot kitchen in the same 400 sq ft space is challenging, admits Ms Wong. The bakery has a separate team of pastry chefs while the bar kitchen is manned by a sous chef and herself. The pastry kitchen shuts at 4.30pm daily, and the bar kitchen fires up at 6.30pm, so there is a buffer period of two hours to clean and transform the kitchens each time.
But there are crossovers too. Most of the current recipes are designed around the baking ovens, such as the pumpkin soup starter ($5.50) made from a baked pumpkin for that extra robust taste and silky texture. Ms Wong is currently tinkering with beer bread recipes. When operations stabilise, she also plans to keep the bar open for weekend brunches featuring sandwiches made from breads in the bakery, and potentially add in a pop-up retail corner.
A majority of the bar's patrons are neighbourhood residents looking for a night cap, and almost 80 per cent are expatriates. "They can walk over here in their shorts and slippers and not have to worry about driving home after a few drinks," quips Mr Khoo. "We like to think of ourselves as a little community centre. Whether you come here with a group of friends, or alone, you'll always find someone to talk to."
By Debbie Yong
Bincho / Hua Bee
78 Moh Guan Terrace #01-19
A HALF a century-old mee pok stall, and a trendy yakitori restaurant: shall the twain ever meet?
It can and will, in fact, two months from now in the former premises of Hua Bee coffeeshop in Tiong Bahru.
When the much-loved mee pok eatery reopens in October - after a short spell of renovation under new management, the Unlisted Collection - the front half of the 1,500 sq ft space will look exactly like how regulars remember it.
The back half, however, will house Bincho, a modern Japanese yakitori joint with "a small hovel of a Japanese bar" doing sakes and "cute cocktails" in the evenings, according to Unlisted Collection's Loh Lik Peng.
The duality is a "happy compromise", he says, struck after several meetings with residents in the local community.
When Mr Loh took over the 1,500 sq ft unit six weeks ago, he also had to brace himself for a huge outcry from the neighbourhood's vocal local residents. Chief among their laments was the rate at which neighbourhood icons such as Hua Bee were being displaced by more monied young restaurateurs looking to plant their flag in the increasingly hip neighbourhood.
"We want to be part of the neighbourhood, we want to feel at home there, and we want people to welcome us too," explains Mr Loh of the neighbourhood outreach. "In these older neighbourhoods, it is much more important that we are in tune with what residents what. That's why we set about to do everything we could to preserve this part of the neighbourhood."
Though the finer details on the space sharing are still being worked out, Mr Loh reveals that the two concepts will be physically demarcated by "a screen of some sort", though patrons will be allowed to pass freely between both spaces.
Bincho, which means charcoal in Japanese, will comprise a 12-stool dining counter with a few table seats. Contemporary yakitori served in mini-griddles rather than on sticks will be dished out from "miniscule" grill kitchen that flanks the space, Mr Loh adds. A native Japanese chef from a well-known modern Japanese restaurant here has been roped in as head chef but he cannot be named yet as he is still serving his notice.
Dinners will cost an affordable $30 to $40 per head, and lunch, which will be introduced a few months after opening due to the manpower crunch, will comprise rice bowl sets for $15 to $20.
The pre-existing mee pok stall owners have been persuaded to return, along with a new drinks stall tenant, and will continue to operate independently in the traditional front half of the space, still to be called Hua Bee. "We're doing our best not to spruce it up. We want to preserve the spirit of the place," says Mr Loh.
Though the concepts differ vastly, Mr Loh says that is precisely why they can gel together. Restaurants typically don't do breakfasts and serve a larger dinner crowd, he says, whereas hawker stalls cater to breakfast and lunch diners, and don't operate in the evenings. There are synergies too: "People can order a bowl of meepok at lunch and have some yakitori to go with it," he says.
"If you have two high quality concepts, and as long as the price point and the concepts are relatively casual, I don't think they will clash. It's not like I'm trying to put mee pok and Andre's together." By Debbie Yong
125 East Coast Road Z6440 6147
Between The Buns
Hours: 5-10.30pm (Sun-Wed), 5pm-12.30am (Thu-Sat)
Hours: 12-2.30pm (Mon-Fri). Till mid-Sep
Double Bowl Signature Soup
Opens in mid-Sep. Hours: 9am-4.30pm daily
WHEN Le Petit Paradis' owner Enoch Teo decided to start a second food stall next to his original in AlibabaR coffeeshop, he knew exactly what he wanted to sell - gourmet burgers. And that meant expensive ingredients like Angus beef, foie gras, and kangaroo meat, which would require him to charge a lot more than the regular coffeeshop rates.
"During lunch, the burgers have very low demand. Because if say I worked around here and drew a salary of $2,500 a month, my budget would be about $4 a day. I can't sell my burgers for below $10, so I thought of a different afternoon concept to draw a lunch crowd," explains the 23-year-old. That's when he came up with the idea for a dual concept - Zheng, a Chinese-style miniwok with prices averaging a little over $4 for the afternoons, and Between The Buns (BTB), which sells Western food from $7.50 for a chicken cheese hotdog to $18.90 for an unconventional kangaroo burger in the evenings.
Though his day and night concepts serve cuisines from opposite ends of the world, Mr Teo has yet to encounter any problems from sharing the same storage and cooking space. "A lot of things can actually be shared, and for storage, you aren't prepping for a whole day, just half a day. So if both just store enough for half a day, it's back to square one anyway," he explains.
But come mid-September, things might get a little bit more complicated. Due to a lack in manpower that has forced Mr Teo to use Le Petit Paradis' staff to run Zheng in the daytime, he gave up his miniwok business to focus on BTB. Instead, his friend Jonathan Low, 24, will take over Zheng and turn it into his own venture - a Thai-local fusion called Double Bowl Signature Soup that makes chicken soup with Thai noodles for breakfast and lunch.
With someone else manning the day shift, Mr Teo's manpower strain is eased, but he admits that there is now potential for conflict. "For most equipment, yours is yours, mine is mine. But the fridge, freezer, and sink are shared. If one is damaged, it will be hard to determine which shift is responsible," he says. He adds that the key for this arrangement to work lies in mutual understanding. "It's straightforward because we (Mr Low and I) are friends. Just split 50-50. No problem," he says.
By Rachel Loi
15 Bussorah Street Z 6293 9010
Hours: 12pm-10pm daily (closed Tue).
Open until Oct 31
QUESTION: What does a cheesecake bakery and a Turkish restaurant have in common?
Posed anywhere else, the correct response would probably be very little, if at all. But in space-scarce Singapore, don't be surprised when the two end up as happy bedfellows.
So it is with Jara Petit, a mini cheesecake specialist that moved in with Turkish restaurant, Alaturka, in Kampong Glam at the start of this month. It occupies the 32-seater next-door unit to Alaturka's main 42-seater dining room and will operate on a pop-up basis until Oct 31. Diners can swing by just for Jara Petit's signature "cheesecups", or order them as a sugar fix after their Turkish meal.
"Cheesecups" are essentially bite-sized cheesecakes baked into little paper cups to resemble cupcakes. They come in seven flavours: classic, blueberry, lemon, durian, cookies and cream, matcha and a seasonal strawberry, and are dense without being cloyingly sweet. ($3 for one, $8.50 for three, $24 for nine).
The nifty confections were created by Jara Petit founders, Toh Jia Hui and Cara Tan, four years ago. But the two ex-schoolmates, both 26 now, had to juggle full-time jobs as a gymnastics teacher and educational therapist at the Dyslexia Association, so they only sold to friends and family intermittently over the years.
In June this year, however, the duo decided to leave their jobs to make the bakery business a viable one. Jara is a combination of their names and petit means small in French. "We decided that if we want to do this, we need to invest in a space with a proper kitchen," says Ms Tan.
The space sharing with Alaturka was an ideal arrangement, adds Ms Toh, as it allows the first-time entrepreneurs to test the market without the significant start-up cost of renting an entire unit full-time.
Ms Toh estimates spending about $10,000 on the business, mostly on baking equipment such as mixers and ovens as the the restaurant's dining space already came fully furnished. As most of the heavy cooking is done in Alaturka's main kitchen, they have exclusive use of the back kitchen in its second unit.
Most of their customers so far are diners from the surrounding Middle Eastern restaurants looking for a post-meal sugar fix, and the youth that throng nearby Haji Lane.
"We love the neighbourhood, and with a physical shop, as opposed to an online one, we get to meet more people from all walks of life," adds Tan.- DY
Two Face Pizza and Taproom
364 Tanjong Katong Road. Z 6348 8238
Hours: 6-11pm (Tue-Thu), 6pm-midnight (Fri-Sat),
THE Western pizzeria-meets-local kopitiam concept has taken off so well that Victor Tan is at it again.
This time, he's ventured East, setting up shop in a Tanjong Katong coffeeshop just across the street from another popular neighbourhood drinking hole, Bar Bar Black Sheep.
"Our regular customers at Tiong Bahru started asking for other outlets elsewhere, and most of them seemed to live in the East, so this location made sense," says Mr Tan, who set up Two Face's original Tiong Bahru outlet in December last year. The Tanjong Katong outlet opened in early June.
The same idea applies here: after the 70-seater coffeeshop's other three tenants, a Hainanese curry rice stall, a Chinese noodle shop and a drinks stall, close for the day at 3pm, Mr Tan and his team take over the entire premises, doling out pizzas, pastas and a range of craft beer. Large blackboards, which double as giant menus, obscure the coffeeshop stalls from view come nightfall.
Popular dishes have carried over from Tiong Bahru, such as the har chong gai ($10), the meat lover's pizza ($18) and the sinfully tasty pork belly with maple honey mayo ($8) - a chunk of crispy roasted pork belly heaped atop a bed of French fries - along with an expanded range of rotating specials such as the smoked duck aglio olio ($20) to keep things fresh for returning customers. Wash it all down with Belgian craft beers or the Two Face signature drink ($4), a gut-cleansing blend of sour plum, pineapple and chye sim.
For his sophomore effort, Mr Tan estimates spending less than $100,000 to plug in kitchen equipment, cosier tungsten lamps and new plywood dining tables for the entire coffeeshop. He muses: "It's like starting a new relationship, you have to get to know each other all over again - each stall owner's likes and dislikes, where to leave the pails when we pack up at night so they can find it the next morning."
The greatest advantage is that it was much easier to get sceptical coffeeshop owners on board the second time around. He explains: "Before the first outlet, nobody understood what we were trying to do. But now, all we had to do was invite the coffeeshop owner down to our Tiong Bahru outlet, he took a look around, tried our food and said yes." By Debbie Yong
14 Jalan Kuras
The Bread Table
Hours: 11am to 8pm daily, closed Sun
Tel: 6100 1345. thebreadtable.com
Choon Ming Bao Dian
Hours: 7am to 11pm daily Z6553 0806
IT was 2008 when Sarah Tan observed 20-year-old pau-making apprentice being severely scolded by his master. Like a fairy godmother, she pulled him aside and asked if he would like to start his own pau shop with her instead.
Today, she's the owner of 13 Choon Ming Bao Dian outlets, a social enterprise dedicated to helping orphans, widows, and single parents. She has since ceded six of her outlets to under-privileged employees who have proven themselves capable of running an independent business, and her apprentice has started his own enterprise.
On top of that, the mother of three has, to date, spent over $200,000 of her own money starting six orphanages in China and Malaysia, with over 800 orphans under her charge. She teaches the older and less academically inclined kids pau making too, so they can make their own way in the world in the future. "I'm very lucky; when I started my first orphanage from scratch in China with $3,000, the sponsors came immediately," says the ex-beautician who comes from a humble background.
In the same year Ms Tan founded Choon Ming, Joseph Lee stepped into a Hanoi bakery and learnt bread making. Six weeks ago, he truncated a career of over 20 years as an engineer to start bakery The Bread Table.
Mr Lee and Ms Tan now operate out of the same shop space along Jalan Kuras. You may walk right past the schizophrenic-looking eatery at first, what with its kopitiam-meets-indie-bakery aesthetic; there're even Chinese desserts and zi char to go with your brioche if you like. But that's because Choon Ming and The Bread Table is not all about sleek-packaging - it's a joint concept with heart.
"Joseph is also starting out as an entrepreneur, so I'd like to support him," says Ms Tan. Adds Mr Lee: "I can't afford a big place. Right now I'm not contributing to Sarah's charities, but my wish is to have The Bread Table running successfully, and then working together with Sarah in her philanthropic efforts."
He's looking at hiring ex-convicts, because he "believes in giving people a second chance" and will also visit Ms Tan's orphanages in Malaysia to explore how he can contribute.
Mr Lee's selections of breads include crusty baguettes ($2.90), chewy sourdoughs ($7.90 to $8.50) and sweet buns ($1.60 to $3.90), all adjusted slightly to suit local palates, whereas Ms Tan's inexpensive handmade paus have a good bite. Try her coffee paus ($0.70) or the Dinosaur Buns ($3.80), which are monstrous paus almost the size of sourdough loaves.
By Tan Teck Heng