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Heart over haute at Roketto Izakaya
#02-12/13, Frasers Tower
182 Cecil Street
Open for dinner only Tues to Sat: 6pm to 11pm
AN Instagram story led us to Roketto. One of those cellphone videos of evil dried shrimp sambal aka hae bee hiam, cloaked in chilli and oil, skating smoothly around a hot pan of pain. With a handful of deep-fried oysters, al dente spaghettini and shreds of omelette, it completes the torture it is about to inflict on whoever dares take a bite. There is a fire warning to go with it, which is as futile as telling a child not to touch a shiny metal object.
So, we bite. We cry. A little. It's not quite as mind-numbing as we'd prepared ourselves for. But what tickles us most is how anyone could have thought that orh luak, pasta and an all-purpose chilli condiment could make such a convincing ménage à trois?
But then you're talking about Willin Low, who dreams up concoctions like oyster omelette spaghetti the way some people mix and match their daily work outfits. The chef-restaurateur who first gave us pasta dressed in laksa pesto and put mod-Sin into our culinary vernacular with his now-defunct Wild Rocket has gone back to his roots - sort of - at his new crowd-pleasing casual dive, Roketta Izakaya.
Roketta is the night version of Relish, Chef Low's lunchtime burger joint in the CBD, and is said to be a reprisal of Wild Rocket. Although it doesn't feel so much of a revival as a kind of anti-Rocket, if you like, where he has ripped out all the trappings of finesse and frou-frou aesthetics and gone straight for the jugular - no holds-barred, rib-sticking Singaporean flavours.
There's certainly nothing fancy about the eatery which is clearly budget-driven but yet doesn't look cheap, even though it shares the same floor of Frasers Tower with a make-your-own-bowl joint and Ya Kun Kaya Toast. Taking his cue from the Japanese salary man's favourite after work pastime, Roketto is deemed a place for you to chill out with an eclectic casual menu that is more substance than style.
In fact, a lot of the dishes, like the oyster omelette spaghetti, feel like a larder raid in the way he mixes and matches things, albeit in a very good way. One can imagine he would have been a highly sought-after flat or dorm-mate in his time.
The way he pulls together a 'bah chor mee' (S$15) with negitoro (minced tuna) instead of minced pork is quite a mindbender at the way he takes such great liberties with the definition of minced pork noodles. Here, mee pok is replaced by warm glass noodles tossed in seasoned oil with fried shallots and crispy bits of pork lard, decorated with a generous dollop of tuna. While the brain does a little dance of indignance at this blatant disregard of national bak chor regulations, your stomach tells it to shut up, because pork lard overrides everything.
There's also a fish collagen soup (S$5) which hasn't got any creaminess that we can detect, whether natural or faux, although it's perfectly good on its own, with a slab of fluffy egg tofu which turns out to be a home made fish cake.
While the oyster omelette spaghetti (S$20) hits the spot for us, we're also sold on the har cheong tin kai (S$12) or Kentucky fried frogs legs seasoned with shrimp paste instead of 11 herbs and spices. These fleshy thighs are way more satisfying than chicken wings, although the prawn paste seems to have gone AWOL.
Chef Low clearly knows his local food and that strength plays out with his instinct for out-of-the-box combinations. Thai green curry and roti are revisited with Krapow prata pizza (S$15) where chicken fried with basil is piled on top of a crispy prata and grilled with mozarella cheese. If it sounds infantile, it certainly appeals to our inner TV dinner-loving personas. Same with the curry chicken shepherd's pie (S$15.80) where mild curry is piled on mashed potato and baked with cheese, topped with cubed tomatoes in an attempt to cut the richness.
Where he lapses into Wild Rocket fancy mode is perhaps with the Aburaage rojak salad (S$15) where the sticky black hae ko is reinterpreted as a pretty intense ice cream meant to be smeared over a 'waffle' of dried beancurd and garnishes of cucumber, pineapple, jicama and ginger flower. Miserly slivers of charcoal yutiao are lost in the mix. We're ambivalent about this as it seems a little more contrived than it needs be.
To end off, there is the original Wild Rocket chendol (S$8.50) with its salted caramel honeycomb and cookie bits lifting the pandan panna cotta, red beans and coconut ice cream combination. Bubur hitam (S$7.80) lags behind with its non-committal combination of bland sticky black rice, ice cream and slightly salty coconut foam.
As a Singaporean, Chef Low knows the right buttons to press that endear you to the food at Roketto. There's nothing haute about it, but it's got plenty of heart. And that's what makes this izakaya rock.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times 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.