Sizzling-hot Serangoon Gardens
Several new dining concepts in the estate are hipper, more polished and perhaps a harbinger of change to the neighbourhood's F&B scene
IT'S hard to miss the smell of wok-fried Hokkien prawn noodles and barbecued stingray wafting over from Chomp Chomp Food Centre when you're strolling through Serangoon Gardens. The quiet residential area is better known for its local hawker delights than posh gourmet food.
But the laidback neighbourhood, which used to house British officers during the colonial era, is beginning to show a bit more polish and sparkle in terms of its food and beverage (F&B) offerings.
A handful of new dining concepts are adding to commercialised cafes, hole-in-the-wall pubs, and hawker stalls to shake up the staid food scene.
With Andy Warhol-inspired pop-art prints, retro movie posters and colourful bulbs of light, Tom Yum Kungfu, a mookata eatery offering Thai-style barbecued steamboat meals, looks every bit like a trendy downtown restaurant.
Belying its modern and sleek decor, Ravello by Cesare Cantarella serves hearty and traditional Neapolitan cuisine. Another Italian eatery is La Grotta, a three-month-old restaurant and bar with cosy, cave-like interiors and signatures such as Osso Buco and oven-roasted spatchcock chicken with risotto, porcini mushrooms and cranberries.
The area used to be nicknamed ang sar lee, or "red roof" in Hokkien, referring to the red zinc roofs of the houses that once dotted the estate.
Taking inspiration from the heritage of Serangoon Gardens, Brian Seow has incorporated corrugated zinc metal sheets into the design of his newly launched Sync Korean Tapas Bar.
"Serangoon Gardens is starting to get more vibrant and I think it might become the next Holland Village," adds Mr Seow, who lives nearby.
The presence of the Australian International School along Lorong Chuan and Lycee Francais de Singapour around the estate have brought an influx of expatriates.
For Morgane Foucaud, co-owner of the French-style cheese store La Petite Boutique, Serangoon Gardens is like the unofficial "French ghetto".
"The French school, Lycee Francais de Singapour, is located in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 and the back entrance is just at the end of Kensington Park Road. From what I heard, there are about 6,000 French people living around this area," says Ms Foucaud on her main driving factor to set up shop in this laidback neighbourhood.
LA PETITE BOUTIQUE
4 Kensington Park Road
"This used to be a fruit shop selling durians and the walls were all orange, so you had to have a good imagination to see the potential it offered," says Ms Foucaud of the charming La Petite Boutique she set up together with Jean-Baptiste Couty to sell French cheeses.
The two French natives are not unfamiliar names in the gourmet food industry. Ms Foucaud is the former marketing communications manager at Indoguna. Mr Couty sold French cheese to private customers through his company, Fromager, and through a website called Le Petit Depot for a year before opening La Petite Boutique.
Le Petite Boutique offers a slice of cheese heaven with more than 50 varieties that are imported directly from France and are mostly AOC-certified. Heavy, melon-like Mimolettes sit next to Comtes that have been aged for 18 to 25 months.
Also on display are rare Corsican sheep milk cheese, authentic Camembert that are produced in the Camembert city of France, and the L'exquis Herve with beer-washed rind. They have also thrown in some Swiss appenzeller and gruyere, and Italian parmesan to their list of cheeses for good measure.
Embracing the role of an affineur, Ms Foucaud not only ripens the La Montagne de Bethmale on site, but she has also put her own twist on some of the cheeses. The Brie a la Truffe is made in-house, by layering creamy Brie de Meaux with mascarpone and bits of fresh truffles. The Bleu d'Auvergne in Sherry, a pock-marked blue cheese, is also aged with sweet and syrupy Spanish sherry.
Just like any good neighbourhood grocery store in Paris, La Petite Boutique goes beyond cheeses to offer fresh baguettes and pastries from Tiong Bahru Bakery, saucisson, poultry and a selection of French wines. Drop by for takeaway sandwiches and fromage blanc yoghurts, or simply to have a chat with Ms Foucaud, who is always eager to connect with her customers. "A Japanese customer came in the other day and placed all her orders in French because she wanted to practise the language," she says with a laugh.
SYNC KOREAN TAPAS BAR
12 Maju Avenue
Mr Seow and his wife Lisa Tan, owners of Sync Korean Tapas Bar, had no problems when it came to designing their eatery as they also run the interior design firm L&Rui Concept Group and are schooled in conceptualising spaces for commercial projects and restaurants. As a nod to the heritage of this quiet residential neighbourhood, they incorporated corrugated zinc sheets, reminiscent of the ang sar lee or red tin roofs common during the colonial past, and old-school letter boxes in the decor.
Riding on the current Hallyu K-pop wave, Sync Korean Tapas Bar offers a take on traditional Korean cuisine. You'll not find any ban chan here. Instead, consultant Edwin Lau (executive chef of Oca Grassa) and head chef Calista Ong (who was previously chef de partie at Bacchanalia) serve up Korean food in tapas style.
Toppoki - pillowy rice cakes - are drenched with sweet and spicy sauce that is enlivened with three types of cheeses.
"The mozzarella is for the shredded effect, cheddar adds flavour, and mascarpone gives extra creaminess," explains Ms Ong on their Mac & Cheese version of the Korean street snack. Cubes of chargrilled Angus beef jowl sitting on petals of shisho leaves are a refined interpretation of the ssam (Korean for "wrap") concept, in which meats are barbecued and typically wrapped with lettuce. Guests are encouraged to share tasting portions of food and can mix and match the dishes ($29.90 for four tapas; $49.90 for six tapas).
The East-meets-West ethos plays out throughout the menu. Typical Korean ingredients are used in unexpected ways: sticky short-grain rice and homemade kimchi are used in the dish of spicy chicken paella; ramen and rice cakes are added to the seafood bouillabaisse-like stew in the Budae Jigae; and misugaru, a mixed-grain barley commonly seen in teas, is featured in molten lava cakes.
The drinks are equally creative. Mak Gul Li, the milky Korean rice wine, is steeped with caramelised popcorn and mojitos are shaken up with soju.
RAVELLO BY CESARE CANTARELLA
14B Kensington Park Road
For the last three years, Cesare Cantarella, who was behind the original wood-fired pizzeria Al Forno, has been collaborating with the last two dairy farms in Singapore to produce local organic milk under the company CantaLatt. When his plans for expansion were stalled due to Urban Redevelopment Authority restrictions, he turned his attention back to the restaurant business. Taking over Villa di Parma, a six-year-old Italian restaurant run by a local family, Mr Cantarella opened the 40-seat Ravello last November.
"This seems like a perfect place to launch something original and traditional. But you don't have the passer-by crowd or walk-in customers like you do in the central area in town," says Mr Cantarella, who caters to expatriates and regulars living around the area instead.
The restaurant is named after Mr Cantarella's hometown, Ravello, a small village in the hilly area along the Amalfi Coast. Hence, the modern and understated interior shows off a poster of the Amalfi Coast and there's a wall illustration depicting a scene in Ravello. Similarly, the menu sticks to the Mediterranean style of Neapolitan cuisine common to that region.
Signatures include the homemade Pappardelle with Stracotto di Capretto (a nine-hour slow-braised goat-meat sauce) and black squid ink spaghetti with seafood in tomato sauce.
Mr Cantarella not only bakes his own bread, but he also occasionally gets local milk from the farms he was working with previously to make fresh mozzarella and mascarpone for his pizzas and tiramisus.
There are also Neapolitan-style pizzas where the crust is "not too thick like a mattress nor too thin like a cracker", says Mr Cantarella.
"Serangoon Gardens reminds me of a small European village. You see lots of people cycling, there are many al fresco dining areas and it is less stressful than other areas of Singapore," he adds.
THE BUSINESS TIMES