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Heartland food meets haute cuisine
Jiakpalang Eating House
456 Alexandra Road
#01-04/06 Fragrance Empire Building
Tel: 6266 8511
Open Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 10pm (Dinner menu from 6pm). Closed on weekends.
WHEN it comes to mod-Sin cuisine, there are different ways to approach it. You can go the serious R&D route, turning chilli crab into an intellectual exercise of ice cream and mantou crumble, served in discreet, under-lit surroundings. Or you can spin a grandmother's story about heritage with a hipster touch, switching noodles with pasta or adding a Spanish accent to Hokkien char with Carabinero instead of local angka prawns.
Or you could be like Jiakpalang, the Mr Brown of mod-Sin, which flaunts its heartland origins with the brazenness of Kim Huat - that Singapore namba one fan of kopitiam caarlture, you know or not.
On the ground floor of the Fragrance Empire building on Alexandra Road - which sounds more like the headquarters of a bak kwa maker than serious office space - Jiakpalang nails the HDB eating house look with its standard issue glass frontage and metal door handles. Even the warm air that follows you inside to counter the air-conditioning feels familiar, even if the cake display and modern cafe set up inside reveal its true nature.
In the daytime, it's a quick service rice bowl set up with a choice of toppings from "saliva" chicken to black pepper wagyu brisket. But from 6pm, the chefs start to play, with a menu of wildly inventive derivations of local food and drink: bak kut teh jelly with yu tiao; salted egg crab; har cheong kai, milo dinosaur and goreng pisang.
Go beyond the front cafe portion into the inner sanctum of this eating house, which reveals a loud, loving tribute to life in Singapore. Red metal chairs are an upscale version of the plastic variety, and a wall-sized mural screams Jiakpalang (which could be a twist on chapalang (all mixed up) or refers to one who has eaten his fill). What grabs us is the rendering of a block of flats, complete with laundry (and the cutest tiny good morning towels) hanging out the windows.
The food itself is enjoyable, largely because chef Nixon Low and his team put just as much thought and heart into the detail and execution. It doesn't feel contrived, and doesn't take itself too seriously. It's just fun, easy to eat food backed by solid cooking skills.
Bak kut teh jelly (S$9) is just that - the familiar herbal pork rib soup reduced and compressed into a jellied terrine that could be just a little more wobbly, garnished with crisp slivers of yu tiao and chilli slices. They're not there just for decoration. On its own, the jelly is one-dimensional but add the crunch of the yu tiao and the potent chilli and it's a whole different level of enjoyment.
"Wu Xiang" seared duck breasts (S$9) has no immediate reference point apart from a five spice-based, ngoh hiang-like fragrance of the smoked duck breast thinly sliced on top of pickled black fungus and cucumber. But the tender, home-smoked duck doesn't need to resemble anything to taste good on its own.
Har cheong (S$13) or prawn paste chicken is what happens when you kidnap a passing goreng pisang and replace the banana with a roulade of plumped up chicken marinated in familiar seasoning, and prawn paste mixture that's well-slapped to achieve a bouncy prawn ball texture. You get a satisfying thick, goreng pisang-like coating that's crunchy all the way to its juicy filling. The accompanying calamansi mayo overpowers it, so skip it or dip judiciously.
Ko lo yoke (S$15) is a Japanese tonkatsu by any other name, juicy crumbed pork chop served with a sweet, garlicky chilli sauce that beats Worcester anytime. Just to show off a little, there's a refreshing garnish of jellied pineapple cubes and cucumber.
Salted egg crab (S$12) goes too far with the milk powder that makes the already rich creamy sauce even more cloying, undermining the good-sized soft shell crab which is a worthy crunchy fried creature. Having said that, eating it with rice and a spot of house-made chilli oil pulls it back from the brink of overkill.
Yuzu clams, in turn, are pretty generic tasting, with a citrusy lift to its natural juices.
Instead of drinking a milo dinosaur (S$8), you can dig into spoonfuls of wobbly panna cotta covered in addictive milo crumble - the salty sweet, malty crumbs are a crunch from the past when eating Milo straight from the tin was a guilty treat. Chewy mochi balls are a bonus.
Goreng pisang (S$9) is deconstructed as caramelised bananas in gula melaka syrup on the side, and a "mystery" fritter of deep fried egg white batter encasing the melted remnants of what might have been ice cream. Not quite successful, but good try.
If it's possible to have fun at a zi char stall, Jiakpalang has it down pat. Just put your cynicism aside, and like the name suggests, eat your fill.
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.