Regional food takes the hipster route
A NEW wave of hipster South-east Asian eateries is balancing authentic recipes with an edgy twist.
555 Villa Thai
30, Cosford Road
Opens 5pm to 1am (Sun-Thu); 5pm to 2am (Fri-Sat)
There's a winning formula to running a live music venue in Singapore but Hood Bar & Cafe is breaking the mould with its fresh concept, 555 Villa Thai.
A joint venture with Thai eatery Tom Yum Kungfu, it is even farther east than Changi Prison and serves Thai street food such as mookata alongside fusion bar grub.
There is even a 3D graffiti installation which serves as a photo-op, and an amphibious boat which doubles as both ornament and barbecue station.
The partners also happen to be trained designers and kept costs low ($500,000 for the 37,000 sq ft space) by conceptualising and executing most of the decor themselves.
This large space also allows them to turn the lot into an events venue. Said co-owner Joseph Zhang: "We're planning to have weekend flea markets and creative workshops for families."
The mookata (from $55 for two) makes for a great family dinner while there are also dishes such as salt-baked tilapia ($19) with Thai herbs from their own garden.
Hipsters will not be left out with fancy bites such as kang kong fritters served with a spicy coconut dip ($13). More options such as wagyu sliders and Thai-inspired Iberico pork steaks are on the way.
All items and sauces are made from scratch and seafood is fresh from on-site tanks.
The live bands play solely acoustic sets, with a mix of English, Mandarin and Thai music.
If you prefer to sing, the indoor area boasts an open karaoke bar and dart stations.
Fat Saigon Boy
14, Ann Siang Road
Opens Mon to Sat, 11am to 2.30pm, 6pm to 10pm
With his stout build and straight-shooting comments, Fat Saigon Boy's Cang Lai, 39, brings Momofuku's David Chang to mind.
Like chef Chang and his ramen, the Vietnamese-Australian is better known for his duck pho, though the menu offers even more inventive spins on his native dishes.
Chef Lai spent 20 years in European kitchens and a fine-dining Japanese restaurant. But he returned to his ethnic roots five years ago due to prevailing trends.
"The love of Vietnamese food in Australia is so huge because it's fresh, healthy and not fatty," said the owner of Vietnamese takeout kiosk VPR and noodle bar Me Pho in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
He chose Singapore for his first overseas venture because "it's half a Western society, half Asian".
Offerings include mains such as rice served with barbecue pork ribs and chilli nut sauce ($15++), tapas such as soft-shell crab sliders on fried mantou with green chilli chutney, and da lat ribs with harissa ($10++).
To go with it, there is Vietnamese sangria - flavours include mango lemongrass or apple yuzu ($10++ per glass).
33 Mackenzie Road
Opens Mon to Sat, 10.30am to 10.30pm
You might think there is only one way of serving foie gras but Fu Qian Li - who runs casual Thai eatery Nung Len - would beg to differ.
The 27-year-old has no issue marrying French methods and Thai flavours to come up with dishes such as foie gras with tamarind and coconut.
After all, she previously studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and is personally such a big fan of Thai food that she travels to Bangkok every other month just to cafe-hop.
"I just really like their food scene and how they can have a very modern-looking cafe that serves both traditional Thai and some Western food so I decided to bring it into Singapore," said chef Fu, a Singaporean who now runs Nung Len with a Thai business partner.
Her cafe houses a life-sized tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) and sits facing Mackenzie Road so the sound of passing cars and loud, upbeat Thai music make you feel almost like you are in the middle of Bangkok.
The menu still features mostly traditional Thai dishes such as a Kway Tiew Tom Yum Boran (traditional tom yum noodles, $14), and Khapow Moo Sab (Thai holy basil minced pork rice, $12), alongside simple fusion items such as a trio of homemade burgers ($18) - spicy holy basil, green curry and panang curry.
As sauces are a big part of French cuisine, even the dressing she drizzles on top of her fried chicken wings is made in her kitchen.
80, Telok Ayer Street
Opens Mon to Sat, 11am to 10pm
When Leah Sirijindapan first started cooking at six years old, she already knew she wanted to be a chef when she grew up.
It helped that her family's kitchen in Thailand was well-equipped and that she attended a hospitality school to study the culinary arts.
Armed with years of personal experimentation in the kitchen plus six years of work experience in her home country, the 30-year-old is one of a new breed of young Thai chefs who are more technically skilled than the average home cook.
"Chefs in Thailand get paid really little because the food is cheap and people don't respect chefs there," said Ms Sirijindapan.
She moved to Singapore about four years ago to set up her own business, starting with a small cafe named Loaves Me Cafe and, recently, a casual eatery at Telok Ayer named Cha Thai. "I want people to know what real Thai food tastes like - that it's so much better than what you currently have in the market," she said.
At Cha Thai, she specialises in the staples such as a pad thai with prawns ($22) and tom yum seafood soup ($28).
There are also less common items such a lemongrass prawn salad ($28) and curry crab ($28) - all using locally farmed seafood.
According to chef Sirijindapan, every dish is made from scratch and she uses modern gadgets such as a sugar detector to measure sweetness, acidity and saltiness so the food will taste the same no matter who is behind the wok.
THE BUSINESS TIMES