Monday, 22 September, 2014

Published May 26, 2014
Hawker fare gets upscale touch
Clifford Pier banks on local favourites to draw in the crowds but may have to do more to wok the talk, writes JAIME EE
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Glam outing: Amid tony surrounds (above), The Clifford Pier plates up crowd-pleasers such as kueh pie tee and char kway teow as well as suckling pig. - PHOTO: THE CLIFFORD PIER, JAIME EE

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The Clifford Pier

The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore

80 Collyer Quay

Tel: 6597 5266

Open daily from 11.30am to 12am

SO I've been thinking long and hard about the progress our nation has made over the past 49 years. Here's what I think: air-conditioning has killed the hawker star.

You know what they say: a good char kway teow is inversely proportional to the surroundings it's served in. The more graphic would add that it's the hawker's sweat or some sewer-related peculiarity that adds up to a winning recipe. That's why you swear by the fried noodles in hot and sweaty Beo Crescent or the dingy hole-in-the-wall in Kuala Lumpur's Jalan Imbi, but smile condescendingly when a newly transplanted expat raves about the best hawker food he ever had in say, Straits Kitchen. Even if, objectively speaking, the latter isn't half bad.

That's why we always approach eateries which try to bring street food into a comfortable - luxurious, even - environment with the scorn of know-it-alls who believe that only sissies and tourists eat char kway teow in a restaurant. Such is the sea of discontent that The Clifford Pier has waded into, with good intentions but inconsistent results.

But first, here's what it has over your garden variety cooked-food centre, and even its predecessor when it was hawker central as far back as the 1940s and 1950s. This is some serious real estate with an amazing view of the river, lit up by dancing lasers from MBS and ambient light from the surrounding cityscape.

Designer Andre Fu has pretty much outdone himself with his interpretation of old-world glamour from the thick-pile carpet your heels sink into, dramatic arched ceiling and light fixtures, to the extravagant sofas and plush chairs that make this a cream upholstered showpiece. Live music from a pianist and a lounge singer setting the jazzy, sultry scene doesn't hurt, either.

Does it seem a little incongruous to be serving char kway teow, kueh pie tee, chicken rice and rickshaw noodles in an environment more conducive for the evening gown and black tie set? A little, but we're not complaining, since the friendly service staff are more than welcoming towards the office-wear crowd.

Despite the glamour, The Clifford Pier is an all-day-dining eatery at heart, with an emphasis on hawker fare although there's a good representation of other cultures from lobster rolls to Thai red curry and kimchi fried rice. The hawker repertoire can be summed up thus: each dish is faithful to the recipe, but that is as far as it goes. Everything tastes as it should, more or less, but the dishes are not as enjoyable as they could be.

Without the cockles, the char kway teow ($16) is a subdued, lightly smoky, wok-fried dish of noodles darkened and overly sweetened with heavy lashings of black sauce so that it's hard to see the fried egg and slices of fish cake or Chinese sausage within. Portion control seems to play a key role, particularly in noodle dishes. Ever felt greedy enough to order a $5 or $6 plate of char kway teow or mee pok tar, only to find the proportions all wrong compared with a regular $3 version? This is what happens when you need to justify a premium price - the tendency to add more in terms of quantity and ingredients somehow pushes the whole formula out of sync.

Fried carrot cake ($16) is simply the same char kway teow, but made with rice cakes instead of noodles, with extra prawns. Enough said. Rickshaw noodles ($18), on the other hand, is new to us - ribbon-like noodles tossed with braised pork chunks in a brown gravy topped with a sous vide egg, served with yet another bowl of Hokkien noodles in a rich prawn-pork broth. We prefer the latter for its cleaner and more defined flavour, rather than the heavy-going hodgepodge of pork and noodles.

The kueh pie tee ($15) and kong bak pau ($18) pass muster, even if the filling for the former seems more like a hasty stir-fry of julienned turnip and carrots with dried prawns rather than lovingly braised turnips in a pork-prawn broth (carrots don't figure in the Peranakan original). But once filled into the crunchy shell, topped with quail egg, prawns and a punchy chilli sauce, all is forgiven. The braised pork belly encased in a pillowy, soft white bun is slightly dry but otherwise a very decent snack.

If you're always looking out for suckling pig, a half portion of porchetta ($38) is worth the price. This Spanish-style pig is juicy and meaty, with a surprisingly crisp skin. For dessert, the kaya ice cream is shaped like a cake with a base fashioned out of the coloured bread you get from those ice-cream uncles on Orchard Road. It tastes deliciously artificial, with the same nostalgic kick you get out of those old-school ice cream on bread snacks - you know it's lousy but you enjoy it anyway.

Say what you will about hawker food never tasting the same outside its original premises. We think there's room for it to move into more upscale surroundings, catering to a growing crowd prepared to pay more for the comfort, if the food quality is of a minimum standard.

Maybe they could even hire retiring hawkers to train existing chefs, as an extention of the current old-hawker-to-trainee-hawker route. You never know. Air-conditioning could actually help revive the hawker star. And lard. Good, old-fashioned lard, not namby-pamby polysyllabic so-called healthy fats. Or is that asking too much already?


Overall rating: 6.5


    10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average


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