We all know what a kopitiam is, right? Kopi-C, kaya toast and maybe some soft boiled eggs. Well, think again. A kopitiam (read ‘coffee shop’ if you’re still confused) over in Tiong Bahru is doing things differently: one of their tenants is whipping up phenomenal pasta dishes that come in at $5 a throw. The scoop? They’re delicious.
The UK paper the Independent on Sunday have commissioned an article on Tiong Bahru and I found myself acting as a tour and cultural guide to the lovely Julia Buckley who is writing the piece. I know Tiong Bahru so well…I love it…but where to begin? Which side of TB should I show her? The old or the new? The answer was…all of it.
Our timings were a little off and our day began at 1030am. Too late for a classic wet market breakfast, really.
Instead we met here, at Tiong Bahru Bakery
…but by half past ten it was horribly jammed with yummy mummies and buggies, so we beat a hasty retreat and, despite the rather odd time, dived straight into sampling the food at the kopitiam Italian, Ah Bong, also on Eng Hoon Street and handily in the same block as Tiong Bahru Bakery.
A bit of background: Chris, (above) who owns it, used to work for Bruno Menard. Not a bad start. He lived in Europe for nine years and during that time, travelled extensively throughout Italy. He fell in love with some simple, beautifully prepared pasta dishes that he ate at a hole-in-the-wall joint in the depths of Sicily…and the rest is history. This – Ah Bong – is his re-interpretation of the mind-blowingly good, yet inexpensive, pasta experience and, I have to say, we were both impressed.
The daily menu varies according to how many staff they have to help with preparation and cooking. We were there this Tuesday and had the choice of:
We started with the Mac & Cheese which is always a good benchmark. Next up was Pork Genovese and then (I had done my research) we sneaked in an off-menu order of Naked pasta.
The Mac & Cheese (above) was bursting with mushroom crunch and flavours and the bechamel sauce was just the right consistency. A triumph that won my heart and, on reflection as I write this, was my out and out favourite. Mac & Cheese $5; add $1 if want truffle oil.
This is the Pork Genovese which was pulled pork in a light ragu with whole, cooked cherry tomatoes and a hearty sprinkling of parmesan. It was good amount of food – we couldn’t finish it actually – and it cost just just $6. I loved the cockerel, leaf and flower motif on the plates, contemporised by the contents of the dish but still very much the traditional pattern that adorns the serving bowls in most kopitiams and coffeeshops around the country. Nice touch! Pork Genovese $6.
Julia loved the Naked Pasta (above) which I was ready to adore but wasn’t crazy about. Like everything on the menu, it’s simple and unfancy; there are only three or four ingredients: pasta, salted egg, (grated) a smidgen of olive oil and an optional sprinkling of pinenuts. You either love or hate it. I succeeding in being on the fence. Naked Pasta $6.
Here’s Joseph Ong, the sous-chef and the newest team member to join this brave, three-month-old venture, cooking in the open plan kitchen.
You can pull up a chair and chat, or opt to sit outside.
Spoiler alert: all pasta is cooked to order which means that if you choose a busy time, like lunchtime, be prepared to wait for your food. Also, it’s only open from 10am-2.30pm and is closed on Sundays. That said, I wholeheartedly recommend this place. It’s a gem!
Ah Bong sits within Two Face Kopitiam which is at Block 56, Eng Hoon Street, #01-46 T: (+65) 9650 6194
The next stop was the second floor of the iconic, well-known wet market – the place that has been synonymous with Tiong Bahru way before the area became hip. In fact, if you say “Tiong Bahru” to me, it’s the place I still instantly think of.
We indulged in some steaming hot, fluffy pau…
…before walking to Yong Saik Street, just around the corner. Its little rows of independent stores are pretty winning but I love how – between each modern shopfront – the street is still peppered with what stood here first:
…although I wonder for how much longer.
The new shops have sprung up in a matter of years, trail blazers landlords have to thank for the ‘gentrification’ of this street and their substantially increased rental yields are undoubtedly Forty Hands – who lead the way in the indy artisan coffee shop scene here in Singapore when it opened almost four years ago – as well as the bookstore of bookstores that I could spend all day in: Books Actually. Both were some of the early adopters that have helped make Tiong Bahru what it is today.
Kenny Leck who owns Books Actually (above) said it best: when he arrived on Yong Saik Street back in 2011 his rental was $3,000 a month. It is now $8,000.
I love his shop, especially the volumes Books Actually publish themselves under Math Paper Press. Titles to snap up include ‘I Ate Tiong Bahru’ and countless volumes of beautiful poetry. I bought Unmarked Treasure by Cyril Wong; hugely worth a read and very digestible.
Next up was Vanilla Bakery for a shared salted caramel choc tart (above). Had it not been pelting with rain we could have worked off the calories by hiring two of their pretty aqua pastel bikes, charged out to customers at $10 for the first hour.
Extra points though for the airy, under cover seating and their cosy, well stocked reading table.
We stuck our heads into the sensual sushi restaurant Ikyu, which I’ve never eaten at, and then popped by pop-up urban grocer Crateful which is at 1M Yong Saik Street until January next year. It was rather empty but sold lots of lovely, locally made treats including almond nut butter which I cannot get enough of (contains no sugar; a lot of nut butters seem to, sadly). It’s made by a company with the rather dubious name of Nutteree, but don’t be put off. Everything they sell is also available online.
We dodged a few drops of rain earlier on in the day but by now, about 1pm, it was raining in earnest:
We slipped and sloshed our way up the street and around the corner to a charity that I love, based on Peng Nguan Street, the Society for the Physically Disabled. It’s a great charity which, as well as providing free day care to severely disabled peopled, teaches the highly skilled craft of book binding to those who would like to learn a trade. Books are leather-bound and are generally bespoke (read about the photograph albums I commissioned from the SPD a while ago here).
They have a very small selection of samples on display within the workshop; some of which can be bought then and there but the best idea is to place an order. They will also ship overseas.
My frog-green waxed canvas covered notebook with an orange spine and my name in silver Times New Roman caps will be ready in just seven days time. It cost me just $26.
SPD is at 2 Peng Nguan Street and is open from 8.30am-5pm but closed between 11.30am-1pm. It is worth emailing Tommy Tng – Head of Operations – before turning up as this is a busy workshop with an order station – not a shop. Email: email@example.com
After all that walking, but mainly after being soaked to the skin, we called it a day and parted ways over another halved tart (this time macadamia nut topped) at yet another new café, aptly named Drips.
Julia’s article on Tong Bahru will appear in the Independent on Sunday in January or February 2015.
Ah Bong is an excellent discovery that I made through the phenomenal food blog Daniel Food Diary. Follow it now, if you don’t already.
Tiong Bahru Bakery shot via Sheryl Bella