Forget the overpriced chook at Mandarin Orchard’s ChatterBox or the long queues and tourist hordes at Maxwell Food Centre’s Tian Tian. In-the-know locals and visiting foodies make a beeline for the fascinatingly dodgy interiors of Far East Plaza in Scotts Road for Hainanese Delicacy, on the fifth level. Operating since 1986, this no-frills eatery only serves chicken, rice, salted vegetable duck soup, braised egg and vegetables in oyster sauce.
“There are only two chicken rice places that I really like and frequent whenever I can. This is one of them, along with another spot in Pathumwan, Bangkok,” says Benjamin Yong, chief eating officer of The Big Group. “The real test of chicken rice lies in the breast meat and if it is, as the Cantonese say, wat (smooth and tender), then I would give it a tick. What I like about Hainanese Delicacy is that there is xian cai tang (salted vegetable duck soup), which, to me, offers all-round comfort. The chilli sauce also gives a good burn, so, unless you have a masochistic streak, ladle it on gently. And, considering this is Singapore, it is good value for money as half a chicken will set you back about S$20 while a bowl of rice is 80 Singapore cents.”
Hainanese Delicacy, #05-116, Far East Plaza,14 Scotts Road. Tues-Sun, 10.15am-8pm.
Devotees flock here for its justifiably famous deluxe beef bowls and aburi (flame-grilled topside) sushi. But if you are seated at the portion of the 24-pax pinewood counter that happens to be manned by Goh Seng Hoe, Tatsuya’s senior sushi chef, chances are you can order the Ben Yong Menu and be rewarded with a gourmet parade of sushi that will send your tastebuds (and tummy) to high heaven. “I’ve been frequenting Tatsuya for years and I always order my favourites — sea bream with Himalayan pink salt and lime, amberjack topped with bonito flakes, caviar and sea urchin, scallop and foie gras dusted with furikake, swordfish belly fritter rolls with tobikko, uni temaki and beef sushi. Even the California Rolls are worth ordering — not for the purists or traditionalists but delicious nonetheless.”
Tatsuya, Goodwood Park Hotel, 22 Scotts Road. Daily, noon till 3pm & 6.30-11pm.
“If you have overdosed on sushi and need a bit of a Western-style sugar rush, stroll over to nearby ION Orchard. I had chanced upon Plain Vanilla while my wife Liz was shopping at In Good Company, where it operates a small in-house café. A good salesman promptly asked if I would like to try a cupcake while I had my coffee and, since then, I have been a fan. Some people say these are Singapore’s best cupcakes. While I haven’t tried enough to make that declaration, Plain Vanilla’s are very good indeed. If you only have the stomach space or calorie quota for one, make it the strawberry white chocolate cupcake! The coconut and gula melaka doughnuts are also well worth your while. I also like this particular outlet of Plain Vanilla (there are at least four around Singapore) because it reminds of the original Delicious outlets — a small café within a clothing store.”
Plain Vanilla, #B1-06, ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn. Mon-Thurs, 11am-7pm; Fri-Sun, 10am-7.30pm.
“This was a recent and unexpected discovery. I was on my way to Luke’s when I spotted a neon light logo of a steaming burger and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s Burger Joint from New York’. If you haven’t been yet, you would know it’s a contradiction of a place ... a no-frills speakeasy-style burger bar hidden inside a swanky hotel, Parker New York — whose Norma’s, by the way, serves up one of the city’s most famous brunches. I still remember my first visit. It was winter 2014 and my wife was pregnant and so promptly threw up her burger. Singapore’s version seems to stay true to New York’s, complete with the doodles on the walls. Order the hamburger with the works, laced with Holy Fxxx sauce for a bit of heat and a side of bacon cheese fries!”
Burger Joint, 115 Amoy Street, #01-03 (entrance at back of Gemmill Lane). Mon-Wed, 11.30am-11pm; Thurs-Sat, 11.30am-midnight; Sun, 11.30am-8pm.
Luke's Oyster Bar & Chop House
If the idea of Bostonian or American East Coast eating sensibilities appeals to you, chances are Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House will get your vote. “I was surprised to learn this is a Singapore brand and not an overseas franchise. I discovered it about five years ago and I make sure to get my fix every time I am on the island. I love the jumbo shrimp cocktail — plump, juicy, clean, cold and ultra-fresh shrimps served with cocktail sauce made from scratch. It’s the definition of simple done right! Oh, and the jumbo lump crab cakes
Maryland-style with coleslaw and grain mustard plus the kale salad with roasted peanut dressing. As I normally stay around Orchard, Luke’s other outlet within Robinson’s at The Heeren is infinitely more convenient to get to but, if you’re closer to the CBD, it makes sense to come to the original.”
Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House, 22 Gemmill Lane. Mon-Sat, noon till midnight. For reservations, call +65 6221 4468.
Man Man Unagi Japanese Restaurant
The queues are said to be as legendary as the establishment’s main offering — Nagoya-style chargrilled unagi (freshwater eel). Located in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown, Man Man’s unassuming dining room is small and cosy, filled with focused patrons and tanks of squirming, slithering creatures from the Mikawa Isshiki region, which is famed for its eels. The Hitsumabushi is the set to order and you are advised to enjoy it four ways — as it is, with dashi, with condiments and as you please. “I like my unagi cut slightly thicker, so if you have room, order an extra portion of the eel. It’s simple and well done, freshly grilled and smeared with tare (mirin, soy and sugar). You even have your own personal grater and nub of fresh wasabi for an added wallop of flavour. Even the rice is excellent — Tsuyahime rice from Yamagata, which is said to be perfect for unagi.”
Man Man Unagi Japanese Restaurant, #01, 1 Keong Saik Road. Mon-Sat, 11am-2.30pm & 6-10pm.
Beauty in The Pot
“One of my favourite things to do in Singapore? Eat hotpot in the wee hours of the morning,” says Yong with absolute glee. For the uninitiated, Beauty in The Pot is a steamboat chain that is an immense hit with Singapore’s foodie brigade who lap up the idea of nourishing, comforting soup thick with all kinds of delectables served from 10am right up until 6am at most of its outlets. “The ladies like it for its famous collagen-rich soups but, honestly, what better way to wind down a day or after a night out than with the quintessential Chinese comfort food? Order a wide range of goodies, from short ribs to dumplings and the like, but don’t miss the ebiko prawn paste as well as the homemade fish tofu that features soft yellowtail paste shaped into an eye-pleasing fish. There are a few outlets, including the latest at Jewel Changi Airport, but I always frequent the one at Centrepoint.”
Beauty in The Pot, #05-15/16, The Centrepoint, 176 Orchard Road. Daily, 11.30am-6am. For reservations, call +65 6235 3557.
J.B. Ah Meng Restaurant
Singapore safety standards mean it’s quite all right to wander the red light district late at night without fear of losing one’s wallet or having the car broken into. But the city’s formerly notorious Geylang district is now one of the best foodie destinations on the island and this unassuming cze char (or tai chow, as the Malaysians would say) restaurant has hosted far more culinary luminaries than you can imagine. Everyone from Ferran Adria to Gordon Ramsay and, of course, the globetrotting Anthony Bourdain has dined here. “It’s the ultimate chefs’ supper club. In fact, the night we visited, the winning Japanese teams of Den and Narisawa were here, celebrating after the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards,” says Yong. “What to order? Definitely the white pepper crab, the San Lou meehoon and the garlic chilli lala.”
J.B. Ah Meng Restaurant, 534 Geylang Road. Daily, 5.30pm-2.30am. For reservations, call +65 6741 2418.
Keng Eng Kee (KEK) Seafood
“This is probably the farthest you would have to travel for a big cze char dinner but Keng Eng Kee, located in an industrial area, is something of an icon in Singapore and quite possibly the most popular spot for locals to bring their out-of-town friends. The owners are Hainanese, although the repertoire includes some Cantonese dishes. My Singaporean friends love coming here too and always order the claypot pork belly, crab in a variety of styles and even old-fashioned favourites like sweet and sour pork.”
Keng Eng Kee (KEK) Seafood, #01-136, Block 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Alexandra Village. Daily, noon to 2:30pm & 5-10pm. For reservations, call +65 6272 1038.
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle
It is inconceivable to come to Singapore and not indulge in a bowl of mee pok noodles. Some argue that Bak Chor Mee (dry or soup mee pok with minced pork) is Singapore’s iconic hawker dish and it is not hard to see why its legions of fans would agree. Slurpy, springy medium-width noodles are tossed with bits of pork and crackling in a dark, dense, chilli-spiked vinegary sauce. “I actually prefer the stall at Hong Lim Food Centre, but Crawford Lane’s is the more famous and the one with the Michelin star. Both stalls are run by members of the same family tree, anyway, so, which outlet you decide upon eventually really depends on where you are staying. But be warned — be prepared to queue for at least 45 minutes at Crawford Lane, regardless of time of day, in order to get your fix!”
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, #01-12, 466 Crawford Lane. Tues-Sun, 9.30am-9pm.
This article first appeared on July 15, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.