The original Gluttons Bay was on Orchard Road, but it closed in the 1990s. In 2005, hawker food bible Makansutra hand-picked a dozen or so of Singapore’s best stalls and set up this open-air, mini hawker centre bang next to the Esplanade theatre complex. It’s touristy (the stalls are retro-style push carts) and pricier than other centres, but the food is great and the waterfront location is a bonus on a balmy night. With its recent revamp in 2012, the hawker street is now divided into four sub-themes, from old school stone furniture to country-style picnic benches in sorbet shades.
What it's like Opened in 2005 by established local food expert KF Seetoh under his Makansutra brand (which started as a guidebook and has since grown into a food empire, with his own TV show and several restaurant ventures), this open-air hawker spot takes its name from the defunct Orchard-area Glutton’s Square, which ruled the hawker scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Located right beside the Esplanade, with a front-seat view of the Marina Bay skyline, it’s a big draw for tourists and late-night punters. As such, expect to pay an average of $1-$2 more per dish. And though locals generally agree that Seetoh is serious about his food – the centre boasts well-established hawker brands as well as Makansutra’s condition for tenancy that each stall must have the owner or head chef present at all times – we’ve had a few off-putting experiences with surly staff and less-than-stellar servings, which we’ll get to in a minute. Nevertheless, it’s a good starting point for the uninitiated, and having recently completed a $400,000 overhaul, the 500-seat Gluttons Bay now has 12 stalls in total and has enhanced its 1970s retro vibe with Malaysian-sourced stone tables, pastel picnic benches and nostalgic, low-slung PVC string chairs.
What to eat? Since the revamp, a few new stalls have joined the fray, including 23-year-old brand Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice of Top Chef fame. Gluttons Bay is the Wee family’s fourth outlet (they’re also located at Novena, Marina Square and Katong) and we’re happy to report that prices remain the same as the rest of its stores ($4 for a plate of roasted chicken rice), and the chicken is tender and juicy with a crisp skin. The only letdown was the slightly dry rice, which pales in comparison to the gloriously oily version at their Novena flagship.
After 25 years of operating in the Bukit Merah area, Red Hill Rong Guang BBQ Seafood has relocated to the city – with the stall in a prime spot nearest to the waterfront and a correspondingly long queue. Their specialty, grilled sambal stingray ($12/$16), is a local bestseller. It comes smothered in owner Joe Eng’s secret blend of piquant sambal belachan, though the sauce here is a bit drier and less spicy than the one we’re used to. But the spiciness isn’t toned down at new addition Eng Kee Noodle House, an offshoot of its parent shop at Bukit Batok. Each strand of their wanton noodles ($4) was coated evenly in fiery, sweat-inducing chili, although the rather bland slices of char siew lacked the rich, red caramelisation and burst of sweetness to complete the dish.
Of the pre-established stalwarts at the centre, Alhambra Padang Satay (which we’ve visited in other hawker centres around town, having been around since 1969) is still top-notch, with their chunky, velvety peanut sauce packing a sweet and spicy punch. Made with 18 secret spices, it’s great for dipping your skewered morsels of chicken, beef or mutton ($7/ten sticks) and handmade ketupat (rice dumplings) in. We were severely disappointed with Huat Huat BBQ Chicken and Carrot Cake, where we witnessed the chef ladling a portion of black carrot cake ($4) from a cooling premade batch onto our plate rather than cooking it to order – which is enough for us never to go back. And though we’d heard good things about the kaya fondue ($3.20) from drinks stall The Sweet Spot, we recommend passing on it and going for regular kaya toast instead. Supposedly, a cup of melted butter and kaya should be provided for dipping the bread into (hence, fondue); what we got instead were rectangular, wafer-sized pieces of crispy toast buried under a creamy but cloying concoction of kaya and butter. It’s a fitting metaphor for the overall experience at Gluttons Bay: things are good but not perfect – and certainly nowhere near the best local food Singapore has to offer. Leave it for the tourists. LMK