Thursday, 2 October, 2014

 
Published August 23, 2014
Dining
Something old, something new
With new restaurants sprouting up on a daily basis in Singapore, some restaurant operators are pacing their expansion by providing a dose of familiarity among innovative new offerings. Debbie Yong and Georgine Verano look at restaurant offshoots that offer something 'same same, but different'
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CASUAL STREET GRUB
Lime Deli (above) has a cheery monochrome and lemon- yellow accented interior and its menu offers items such as curry chicken roti and jerk beef burger

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Caribbean hang-out

Lime Deli

51 Telok Ayer Street

Tel 62227530

Hours: 8am-9pm (Mon-Fri)

A YEAR after introducing Singaporean tastebuds to Caribbean flavours, the people behind Limehouse are now going to town with them. Quite literally.

Six-day-old Lime Deli on Telok Ayer Street is a quick-serve spin-off of his maiden venture on Keong Saik Road, according to restaurant owner Chris Morris.

While Limehouse is known for its elegant plates of classic Caribbean dishes such as jerk chicken and curry goat in a heritage shophouse setting, Lime Deli's menu is padded out with more casual street grub from the region, such as rotis, a dhalpuri roll filled with crushed chickpeas and curry stews, Jamaican patties, or a buttery Caribbean rendition of our local curry puff.

With its monochrome and lemon-yellow accented interiors, you may mistake the 62-seater for a chic Scandinavian cafe at a passing glance, but linger for awhile and subtle tinges of the Caribbean can be spotted. Photo frames of cheery Carnival dancers and jazz singers deck the walls, while wood-panelling around the open food chillers are fashioned similar to those typically found in homes in his native Trinidad and Tobago, says Mr Morris, a Singapore-based business consultant. To Lime, in Caribbean slang, means to "hang out with friends".

"While we wanted to celebrate Caribbean culture, we didn't want a stereotyped restaurant," he adds. So if you're looking for ethnic cliches such as a rum shack or a reggae bar, this is not the spot. He elaborates: "We wanted to build a more aspirational brand that can work in any location in the world, think of this as a Caribbean version of Dean and Deluca or Pret-a-Manger."

Typical deli staples such as soups, sandwiches and salads come with innovative Caribbean twists found in their spices, fillings and toppings, such as a spice-marinated jerk chicken sandwich, a curried pumpkin soup, or sides of mashed sweet potato or okra cooked in savoury curry cream. But for less adventurous tastebuds, there are typically Western dishes such as granola and yoghurt pots, tuna baguettes, and pastries such as danishes, tarts and croissants too.

Already a Limehouse groupie? Popular favourites from the Keong Saik flagship have been carried over and pad out the main course section, though they cost half the price at Lime Deli as they are plated in more dressed down formats, "just like the way we eat them at home", says Mr Morris. A large slab of dry-rubbed grilled jerk chicken with a choice of two side dishes sets you back only S$12, while the jerk beef burger - the most expensive thing on the menu - costs a pocket-friendly S$14.

Head chef Rizan Zalani presides over both kitchens while London-based Trinidadian consultant chef Hassan Defour will continue to fly in every few months to oversee the new menus.

With tables at Limehouse fully booked on Friday and Saturday, the team was more confident to move to the second stage of brand-building, says Mr Morris.

"Before we started Limehouse we were wondering if people would even like Caribbean food, but now that we've proven that they do, the next question we asked ourselves was: how do we make it more accessible to everyone?" he adds of the CBD location.

Besides introducing more hot sauces and products to his retail shelf, the team plans to open five more outlets in Singapore by the end of next year, with the ultimate aim of replicating the deli brand across the region, as well as in London, where Mr Morris lived before moving here five years ago.

"This was always in the works, even when we started Limehouse, which has now become a sort of cultural embassy for the Caribbean," he says. "We didn't want to run a restaurant, the broader goal is to bring the essence of the Caribbean to Asia."

By Debbie Yong

Mexican carnival vibe

Super Loco

#01-13 The Quayside

60 Robertson Quay

Tel 6235 8900

Hours: 5pm-midnight (Wed, Thu, Sun), 5pm-1am (Fri-Sat)

JUST when you thought buzzy Mexican eatery Lucha Loco couldn't get any more boisterous, well, it just did.

The three-year-old Duxton Hill eatery spawned a second outlet in Robertson Quay last Wednesday, and a steady stream of diners has already been packing the 150-seater to capacity.

About half of the menu at Super Loco are new creations by native Mexican head chef Mario Malvaez, such as fresh tuna tostadas with a zesty chili-mayo, mint and lime serving; octopus ceviche with smoked paprika and squid ink, grilled skirt steak rubbed with ancho chilli and the Super Churros, or a Mexican version of Spanish churros dusted with cinnamon and served with chocolate, orange and mezcal sauce.

Think a taco is too messy to share between two people? Also new to the menu is a small range of taquitos - or smaller, 4-inch tacos - served in pairs, which come with fillings such as the cochinita pibil, or pork slow-cooked and marinated in achiote, a typically Mayan blend of spices.

The other half of the menu is padded out with signature items brought over from Lucha Loco such as the mango and snapper ceviche, a blue corn cake and Mexican grilled corn. Prices start at S$8 for the corn and go up to S$32 for a grilled skirt steak.

While Lucha Loco rocked weathered taqueria interiors, Super Loco takes its design brief from a street-side Mexican cantina, with wooden decking in its bar area and strings of fairy lights around the restaurant lending a festive, carnival feel. Mid-meal, someone cranks the music up and waiters don the masks of Mexican lucha libre wrestlers to parade - fists pumping in the air - through the restaurant with long planchas of tequila shots. A long rectangular window panel opens into the kitchen, within which t-shirt and bandana-wearing chefs energetically move around, reminding one of scenes from a food truck.

While Lucha Loco is a dinner and after-hours affair, Super Loco was designed as an all-day and weekend venue, says co-owner Christian Tan.

From October, the restaurant will introduce its weekend brunch spread of hearty Mexican breakfast specialities such as huevos rancheros or fried eggs with beans, avocado and salsa on corn tortilla; a breakfast steak burrito and an assortment of amazing tortas or Mexican sandwiches, along with cocktails such as Bloody Maria and Agua Frescas.

The waterfront spot in Robertson Quay is a nice contrast to the leafy Duxton Hill area, adds Mr Tan, and its proximity to over 15,000 residents and more than 10 hotels made the venue a choice pick.

Those loathe to wait at the no-reservations spot can pick from a late-night take-away menu of Al Pastor tacos, filled with spice-marinated pork skewered off a split grill, a ubiquitous snack on the streets of Mexico. A small retail corner selling Mexican masks, Mexican sugar skulls, and Super Loco branded t-shirts and accessories is also in the works.

By Debbie Yong

Helping youth at risk

Fix Cafe

31 Ah Hood Road

Hometeam NS Clubhouse

Tel 6256 1484

Hours: 9.30am to 10.30pm daily

A SIGNBOARD fashioned out of shiny metal pipes. Grungy upcycled furniture. Middle-of-nowhere Balestier address and smiley teenaged baristas. Fix may bear all the hipster cafe tell-tale signs, but don't dismiss them as just another trend-latcher - there's much more to the space.

The week-old 50-seater is the latest outlet by chef Mervyn Phan and his group of friends that run five-year-old cooking studio Cookyn with Mervyn and two-year-old Grub bistro in Bishan Park. It is also their first entirely corporate social responsibility-driven project.

Instead of merely donating a part of their profits to charity, Fix was created entirely around the aim of giving at-risk youth a second chance in life, says co-owner Dexter Junior Tai.

Unlike some cafes, who may hire the youth with the best of intentions only to have them drop out without proper guidance along the way, Fix has two qualified social workers on board full-time to provide counselling and training for at-risk youth employees during and after operation hours. The counsellors double as pastry chef and coffee barista at the cafe, where they oversee a current team of five at-risk youth hired through the recommendation of youth centres in the neighbourhood.

It isn't all feel-good marketing spiel, for they serve up pretty outstanding grub in a breezy, poolside setting within the Hometeam NS clubhouse too.

The menu reads like typical cafe fare, but the delight is all in the details. Their fish and chips (S$12) is made from sustainably fished hake, and their chicken tikka naanwich (S$10) comes with flavour-packed chunks of antibiotic-free chicken and achar plated atop a fluffy round naan, like a pizza of sorts. For dessert, there's a range of homebaked cakes or go for the salted egg yolk doughnuts, pillowy round dough balls that you dip in a golden yellow salted egg yolk sauce. Prices range from S$6 to S$14.

Everything is handmade as far as possible from the food to the furniture. Old paint cans given a new coat of slate grey paint are upholstered to form cushioned stools, while booths made from repurposed scaffolding will arrive in a month.

"We thought the casual environment of a cafe would be a more conducive platform for our young staff, as it has a less steep learning curve than if we hired them in a busy bistro such as Grub," Mr Tai further explains.

As part of their 12-month training programme, the employees will also be sent for cooking or barista certification courses that will make them more employable, says Mr Tai, who hopes to groom a few to undertake supervisory and management roles within the F&B group eventually.

"We've always known that we wanted to give back to society through a CSR element", he adds of Fix's four partners, childhood friends who often bonded over youth ministry work. "We could donate our profits to a cause, but our idea was to use food as an agent for positive change and that's been something that is consistent across all three of our businesses."

"With Cookyn with Mervyn, we wanted to encourage more people to prepare healthy, nutritious meals for themselves at home. With Grub, we wanted to change mindsets about eating responsibly, and show that responsibly sourced ingredients can be had at a reasonable price," he says.

From just five staff in 2011, the company has a total of 43 employees across all three outlets currently. "With each new venture, we ask ourselves: how can we, as F&B operators, help to change people's lives?"

Besides Fix, the team have also relocated their Rangoon Road cooking studio, Cookyn with Mervyn to a neighbouring unit within the clubhouse. It now holds up to 80 people each time, up from just 65 in their former premises. The clubhouse's ample parking lots, spacious lobby and other recreational facilities such as bowling alleys and function rooms make it an all-in-one destination for corporate events, says co-founder Amanda Phan.

The owners will also open in the coming months, a second outlet of Grub, in an adjacent space. The 80-seater with a leafy street-facing alfresco deck will serve grilled foods paired with craft beers. The three outlets take up a total of 10,000 sq ft within the clubhouse.

Following that, the cooking school's former Rangoon Road premises will also be transformed into a late-night handmade noodle bar serving craft beers on tap. It is expected to open by year-end.

On how they manage to keep expanding in these labour-lacking times, Mr Tai says the key is in focusing on staff retention. Besides quarterly team bonding outings, "we keep to a 44-hour work week, we pay fairly and we make sure we know everyone by name. It helps that we're on the ground every day", he says.

By Debbie Yong

All about Vietnamese rice

COMNAM Broken Rice

Raffles City Shopping Centre

252 North Bridge Road #B1-46/47

Tel 63347377

Hours: 10am to 10pm daily

IF you walked past COMNAM Broken Rice in the basement of Raffles City Shopping Mall, you wouldn't think the 1,200 sq ft space was under the same management as NamNam Noodle Bar next door.

COMNAM's interior, which seats 70, is more minimalist with bright colours and geometric patterns, while its neighbour has a darker palette and more industrial look. The food is also NamNam's polar opposite. The restaurant's focal dish is the humble Com Tam, which originated in Saigon and is famous for its couscous-like textured grains which pack more flavour.

"The rice is broken down five times through a special milling process. This gives them a special texture and helps them absorb the sauces more," explains Nam Quoc Nguyen, owner of NamNam and COMNAM. He decided to introduce Com Tam more to Singaporeans after travelling to California and noticing how popular it was there.

Broken rice, or Com Tam, is not as well known as Pho in Singapore, but Chef Nam feels confident that the dish, which was a staple part of his childhood diet, will soon take root.

"NamNam is all about Pho, so I thought, why not have a restaurant with a focus on rice? People in Asia normally either eat noodles or rice, but no one really knows about broken rice, so I thought it would be interesting to bring it in, but also make it totally different from NamNam so people would not confuse them."

When asked why he chose to introduce broken rice to Singapore now, Chef Nam laughs. "There's no way to know when is a good time to open a restaurant or introduce a concept really, not until you do it. But I felt it was a good time to try since Vietnamese cuisine has increased in popularity lately."

However, Chef Nam was still extremely careful in planning the menu for COMNAM, making sure he adjusted each dish to suit local palates as well. "Traditionally, Com Tam is served with the same set of toppings every time (egg and meat and pickles), but that obviously wouldn't work here, locals would get bored, so I added more variety, including things locals would enjoy such as pork strips, as well as improvised and created the soup rice dish," he explains. "I think of it as the Vietnamese nasi briyani."

The restaurant dishes up aromatic bowls of broken rice atop a variety of toppings, including their signature Sauteed Lemongrass Pork Slices (S$9.00) with barbecued pork ribs, chicken ham, fried egg and pickles. Also recommended is the Four Treasures (S$9.90) dish, with shrimp spring rolls, sugercane coconut shrimp-stick, Viet-steamed egg with pork and fungus for those who prefer more traditional tastes.

Helpings are extremely generous too. For more value for money, try the S$9.90 lunch sets. There's also a range of appetizers including Viet Fruit Salad (S$6.90) - a myriad of fruits including grapes and apples, as well as beef jerky, fresh herbs and roasted peanuts - reminiscent of spicy Thai mango salad.

By Georgine Verano

gverano@sph.com.sg