Taking its name from the 18th century term for coffeehouses in London – noisy, men-only affairs which cost a penny to enter and where coffee was served up along with the latest news and gossip – this new East Coast coffee joint (two blocks away from I12 Katong mall) is owned by 35-year-old F&B greenhorn Mustafah Kamal (who goes by Mouss and previously worked in the energy sector) and offers a 21st century update to the formula (both men and women are welcomed).
The space is a charming mashup of the rustic and the eclectic: a non-descript shopfront set further back allows space for a bike stand by the door and a cute take-out counter, but the interior channels industrial chic, with bare designer lightbulbs, cosy booth seats, a bar counter made from recycled railroad ties and a communal table (a la indie joints like The Plain in Tanjong Pagar and Carpenter & Cook in Bukit Timah). Much of the wood-heavy furniture is sourced from Basman Johari, an elderly local restorer who owns the Changi Junk Store at 125 Joo Chiat Road.
True to the origins of its name, Penny University is aiming to be as inviting and dynamic as possible. A pop-up by Joo Chiat-based cookie bakery My Lovebites has just ended, but there are plans for more: a mini-market space for local farmers to showcase their produce, for instance, and a permanent art installation area for a couple of artist friends.
The enticing glass display – usually bursting with pies and pastries from local startup Windowsill Pies – was almost stripped bare when we arrived after lunch. You’ll need to get there early to snag one of the popular homemade red velvet nutella cupcakes ($4); we settled instead for a slice of s’mores pie ($6.50), topped with marshmallows and graham crackers, and a crumbly cranberry scone ($2.50) to satisfy our sweet cravings. There’s also a simple one-page menu with a few all-day breakfast items like honey-infused Greek yoghurt ($6), sourdough toast with Earl Grey & fig jam ($4.50) and cheese toasties ($4.50-$6), or chicken, turkey or smoked salmon sandwiches ($8).
Mouss received some ‘informal training’ at London’s famed Flat White and Prufock Coffee (he’s friends with the owners); he’s clearly serious about his brews. A no-frills wooden menu above the shiny FB 80 (it’s the Ferrari of espresso machines) lists only classic espresso, with blends from local stalwarts such as Oriole Coffee Roasters’ seasonal Raven (Brazil/India) and Nylon’s El Primero (Brazil/Nicaragua) customised according to the amount of milk you want (zero to seven ounces, $3.50- $5.50). Caffeine junkies can go for the iced muddy espresso ($5.50) – a sort of reverse latte where cold milk is added before the espresso shot.
It’s obviously not an actual university, but this shophouse space fills the niche for a much-needed decent coffee joint around Joo Chiat. With its friendly indie vibe and solid cuppa, we hope it’s on its way to becoming a coffee institution in the East. Just get there early for the cupcakes. Lee Min Kok