Our once-stagnant coffeshop scene has really perked up of late – witness the effusive accolades lavished on 40 Hands, The Plain and Papa Palheta. But Keith Loh remains unchallenged as coffee’s benign overlord, combining a world-class barista’s expertise, sharp business acumen and a showman’s charisma. As if he’d not already flaunted such credentials at Oriole’s 313 Somerset flagship, his CBD offshoot’s untrammelled sophistication redefines what this niche market can offer.
It even looks delicious. Sculpted into Republic Plaza’s ground floor, Espresso and Brew Bar’s chocolate, gold and olive-green colours bathe the L-shaped room in an inviting glow. Small by the mothership’s standards, its modest square-footage nurtures a friendly feel – seating capacity is just 40 – and 1970s wallpaper on low ceilings, coupled with super-smart lighting, radiates extra ambient warmth. Dainty second-hand trinkets, and washes of jazz and chamber-pop à la Andrew Bird piped through an unobtrusive speaker, accentuate that unforced retro-homeliness.
The tools of Loh’s trade surround you, gleaming silver and gilt. A chunky La Marzocco machine bestrides the service area, oozing the effortless flair of top Italian craftsmen; a state-of-the-art ‘über-boiler’ by Marco guarantees optimum drink temperatures, while handsome connoisseur toys from Ditting and Akira decorate the borders. Whether you sup in swish russet booths laced with golden trim, perch with co-diners on a long central table or recline in leather armchairs, service is eagerly attentive even on a meeting-packed Monday lunch hour. Oriole’s bespoke Yellow Bird blends, topped by the Gethumbwini sizzler sourced from Kenya, are wowing espresso fans; among creamier brews, the signature Piccolo Latte takes some beating.
Chef Nabil Tan’s bespoke menu offers the steady stream of suits an expansive selection of roast beef sandwiches: our New Orleans with Cajun spice was undercut by a chewy, dry and outsized baguette, but The Egyptian’s incongruous ingredients – feta, hazelnut dukkah, molasses and tortilla – blended into a sumptuous whole. Pasta dishes are whipped up on-site, and between-meals muffins are a steal at around $3.50, even if some, like the peanut butter and jelly creation, feel a tad cloying.
Holistic experience is the key to Oriole’s desirability, and Loh has every box ticked: he co-ordinates coffee-appreciation workshops, a Daily Brew for worker bees in a rush and even a merchandise counter. For the complete experience without TCC’s ludicrous price tag, wake up and smell this temple to the science, and pure pleasure, of artisan coffee. Jonathan Evans