Opening last December on what’s rapidly become the city’s premier food and drink enclave, Praelum faced an invidious challenge. With swanky Russian bar and restaurant Buyan and Hispanic tapas bar Sabio as next-door neighbours, the bistro bravely set out its stall with no obvious unique selling point save for its Enomatic wine vending machine. But if fine wine and French- Asian fusion nibbles hardly sound revolutionary, that very lack of fancy faddishness, coupled with exemplary execution, exerts its own appeal.
Praelum’s not lacking credentials: amiable manager Gerald Lu – formerly of IndoChine – won 2010’s Singapore award for Best Sommelier (praelum in Latin means ‘wine press’ or ‘mangle’), and along with fellow oenophile Elizabeth Lin converted this old shophouse into a streamlined modern bistro, with neat touches like an antique dial-up telephone and Parisian-style menus strung from a wooden headboard.
If Sabio next door lacks space, Praelum has plenty; or it would have if it weren’t for a cluttered set-up that sees tables jostling for position, and an excess of seating (an odd mix of Eames rocking chairs, spinning PVC stools and leather sofas, with seating outside as well) that suggests they’re optimistic about customer numbers. It’s the artwork that really saves the space from monochrome monotony. Birdcage-style lamps loom above the black granite bartop, while a lively tetraptych of Philippine- and Indonesian-sourced avant-garde imagery bedecks the walls alongside two artfully painted mirrors that jazz up the otherwise undistinguished interior.
The card-operated vending machine is foolproof and fun to use, taking the sting off what would otherwise seem unpalatably high wine prices. With its easy-to-peruse selection of 16 European and New World whites, reds, rosés and dessert wines, we tried Terrazas de los Andes’ Malbec Mendoza Afincado from Argentina ($5.50) – a perfectly fiery complement to our $15 set lunch of gorgonzola salad and chewy wok-fried sesame chicken rice, with a Lavazza coffee.
Other drops oscillate wildly in price up to $125 for a glass of Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España’s 1970 Gran Reserva Imperial, underscoring Praelum’s ambitions as a serious wine bistro – further evidence coming in the shape of the impressive Lin-curated, 600-bottle walk-in cellar.
It is, of course, by night that the place truly comes alive, with punters spilling over into the alfresco area, and draught beers flowing as freely as the wine. Stella Artois is offered only in half-pint measures at $6 (perhaps the owners have witnessed its unruly effect on British boozers), but Hoegaarden comes in the proper dose ($12). Cocktails, while decently prepared, are largely of the common-or-garden variety, and canapés such as tarte flambée ($14) and green mango salad with shrimp sashimi ($16) are served up alongside the liquid dinners.
Drinker-diners are fed a standard jazz/ pop/soul soundtrack of Jamie Cullum, Adele and James Morrison; by stark contrast, as I left, Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ filtered forlornly through the speakers. It was an unusual choice of song, but somehow in this buzzing haunt Thom Yorke’s words seemed perfectly apt. While you can’t pick serious bones with its drinks, food, ambience or service, you’re hardly blown away by Praelum’s scope or originality, either. In a way, though, we like that – for its quality alone, this deserves to be a keeper. Jonathan Evans
Cost: Beer (pint) $12; Enomatic wines $2.50 (taster)-$125 (glass); cellar bottles $55-$10,000; cocktails $14-$22.