Shen Tan holds an eclectic résumé. First, a corporate-events organiser, then a nasi lemak hawker in Maxwell Market, she’s now the chef and owner of a trendy all-white bistro dishing up re-imagined stall classics (‘Wok’) that are paired with a range of ciders, lagers and ales (‘Barrel’). The MO is quirky, but Tan’s fare is inventive enough to lure diners to food that was formerly sold as hawker.
The move hasn’t affected Shen much, and it’s clear why early in the day. Lunchtime sees this light-flooded shophouse ground floor packed with a patient, pressed-shirted queue taking turns to fill up the 30 to 35 seats, including stools at the counter, choosing from a selection of six nasi lemak sets. To do so, just scribble down a collective order on the provided sheets, pay at the counter and wait. Like the plates that will soon come out of the back kitchen, the system is an in-between: not quite restaurant, not quite hawker But it works. The plates of nasi lemak are, after all, an assembly of (good) precooked components.
Each comes with the slightly sticky nasi lemak rice, damp from the rich coconut milk; a standard omelette; crunchy ikan bilis (dried anchovies); a comfortably sour, home-made achar (pickled vegetables); an Asian coleslaw; and two types of chilli – the sambal belachan (made with fermented prawn paste) and a sambal tumis (raw chilli) – both extremely feisty. Of the sets, the flash-fried crispy pork stands out for its bacon-like resemblance, while both the gravy-coated curry chicken and mutton curry glisten in their tenderness.
Dinner is a slightly different affair, during which the food becomes a more astute, cross-cultural mashup. Crispy breaded fried chicken resembles a Hainanese chicken chop but triggers acid flashbacks to our favourite KFC moments; wanton noodles snuggle up to pan-seared salmon flavoured with daikon, balsamic vinegar, lime and soy; and who knew that char siew can taste just fine with fries? Pair any of these with the crisp Australian Two Brothers Gypsy pear cider or the Belgian Palm Steenhuffel beer (just two of the 14 craft bottles available in house), to lighten the rich dishes.
Dessert is equally stellar. The pulut hitam cake is a pudding made of black, glutinous rice and topped with a smouldering butterscotch sauce of gula melaka and a side scoop of creamy coconut ice cream. The ‘shendol’ riffed more than just Tan’s first name: a coconut pannacotta draped with a thick syrup of gula melaka revealed a perfect balance of nutty and smoky flavours with smooth and chewy textures.
If any major critique is to be made regarding the menu, it’s that Tan clearly is no fan of herbivores – all the mains are heavily meat-based. But with meat as robust and well prepared as this, vegetarian options would be a waste of menu space. Daven Wu
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