Local favourites with a twist
WOK & Barrel, the eatery in Duxton Hill which closed down last year, is back in a different guise as Ujong @ Raffles. It took over Empire Cafe's premises at Raffles Hotel 11/2 months ago.
While chef Shen Tan does not own the new restaurant - it is under Caerus Holding, which also runs Japanese-Italian restaurant Nuvo and Lady M patisserie - she has designed the menu in pretty much the same way as Wok & Barrel's.
Old favourites such as Nasi Lemak and Ba Chor Mee Pasta are back, but she has also come up with some new dishes in the same vein of Singapore fare with a twist.
I like many of her old dishes. The Nasi Lemak ($16.90 to $19.90, depending on the meat) comes with good sambal, and I always top it off with the delicious beef rendang.
The Ba Chor Mee Pasta ($25.90) is still as good, too, with a killer chilli paste tossed with tagliatelle and topped with generous chunks of tasty five-spice pork to justify the price. At lunch last week, the only things which did not work in the dish were the deep-fried lardons, which were not crispy.
But the new dishes generally do not quite match up. For most of them, there are components which work and others which don't.
Take the Prawn Roe Flavoured Noodles (Har Zi Meen, $17.90), for example. The sauce, a mix of kicap manis, onion and garlic, is tasty. And the topping of crispy chicken - you can also choose pork - is pretty decent. But the noodles are a letdown, with hardly any flavour of prawn roe, and they are not smooth at all. The portion of noodles is too small, too, considering the price.
The Hae Bee Hiam Mentaiko Capellini ($25.90) comes with a lot more pasta. The hae bee hiam (chilli-fried dried shrimp) is delicious, packing in enough sweetness and spiciness to delight a chilli fan.
But the sauce is really heavy, as the creamy mentaiko (marinated cod roe) is weighed down even more with prawn-infused butter and lard.
I wouldn't want to eat the entire dish but, shared with a friend and sampled in small bites, it did grow on me.
Singapore's Chicken Rice Onigiri ($19.90) also needs some tweaking. The rice, shaped like Japanese rice balls, is fragrant and flavourful. But the chicken, slow-cooked confit style till soft, is not an improvement on the poached chicken normally served at hawker stalls. Chicken cooked too long loses its juices and flavour. So, unless you want a stew or soup, this is not the best cooking method for it.
For dessert, I played it safe and ordered two I had tried from the Wok & Barrel days.
The Puloh Hitam Pudding With Gula Melaka Butterscotch Served With Coconut Ice Cream ($15.90) is still good. It's like a sticky pudding and the flavour of pulut hitam (black glutinous rice) comes through as an afternote. It's comforting and appealing, with its combination of two familiar desserts which I like.
But my favourite remains the Shendol Delights ($15.90), a coconut panna cotta topped with chendol strips. The recipe has been changed slightly, though. Instead of having gula melaka syrup drizzled over the panna cotta, it now appears as a thin gelatin layer on top. But it still tastes wonderful, with the aromatic palm sugar enveloping the tongue as the gelatin melts in the mouth.
Ujong - which means "end" in Malay - not only occupies Empire Cafe's old premises, but has also kept everything intact, including its furniture.
But it feels very different. At night, the yellow light from old-fashioned lamps casts a dismal gloom. When business is slow, the place actually feels depressing.
So Ujong not only needs to rethink some of its recipes, but should also brighten up the mood if it wants to get the place buzzing again.
The Sunday Times' SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
UJONG @ RAFFLES
328 North Bridge Road, Raffles Hotel Arcade, 01-10
Open: 8am to 10pm (Monday to Friday), 10am to 10pm (Saturday, Sunday and public holiday)
Shendol Delights ($15.90)
You get all the flavours of chendol packed into a smooth panna cotta. And it's really good chendol, too.