Singapore may be small, but we are inundated with choice when it comes to eating out. Sometimes, this can lead to the first-world problem of CHOICE(!) ANXIETY(!!) If, like us, this leads you to becoming a sad creature of habit who keeps eating at the same old places, check out our bite-sized JUNK food reviews for what you should be eating next (or not!).
There are some things that we may find hard in life.
Trying to lose weight, trying to find meaning in what we do, trying to have some savings at the end of the month – these are hard. But to be fair, if you do put your back into it, you may be able to surmount them… on the odd occasion, on the odd month, before failing and tumbling back into a pit of self-loathing.
So then, what type of thing is truly impossible and insurmountable? We have one. Growing up in a Perakanan family and telling your mother that you are going out to have a Peranakan meal. You are always going to lose, no matter how you angle it.
Scorn does not even start to describe the energy that will be sent your way. And if it’s a Violet Oon restaurant we’re talking about, then there may be actual disowning involved- No self-respecting Peranakan mother thinks Violet understands Peranakan food- even if the accuracy of that is largely up for debate. All Peranakan mothers think they are the best in the game you see.
Which is why Indocafe – The White House, was a bit of an eye opener… Suddenly, the cards can feel stacked in your favour, not against you.
But first, one has to get this conversation out of the way.
“Indocafe? Is that not the office of some instant coffee company?”
“It’s a restaurant?”
“Are you sure? Yeah, I know it, it’s next to that Song of India place on Scotts Road…”
“Indocafe… is a restaurant?”
So back to the eye-opener.
The restaurant itself was unexpectedly elegant, with white cloth napkins and an interior that opted for dialed-back elegance instead of the “Peranakan museum” aesthetic so favoured by most of these places.
We ordered the Signature Kueh Pie Tee, the Ngoh Hiang, Organic Ayam Buah Keluak, Hee Peow Tng, Ikan Masak Merah and Chap Chye. All familiar dishes you can compare against your own mental imprint of what they should taste like.
And what did we find?
Familiar flavours, knowingly tweaked with refinement, and an ability by the chef to pick out and focus on things that gave each dish a spring in its step. The Ngoh Hiang was meaty and not minced; heavy on the five spice, yet not overwhelming. The Kueh Pie Tee was the first we ever had that had a dry (!), fine filling, it’s flavour softened with the sweetness of crab – not the watery, flavourless turnip mess that you get everywhere else.
The Ayam Buah Keluak and Chap Chye both continued the focused, confident, not over-seasoned vibe. The ayam was finally, not overwhelmed by tamarind and you can taste more of the nut, while the chap chye was comfortingly familiar yet amped up with a subtly stronger tau cheo flavour.
You get the idea. So what did we take away from all of this?
With its current chef (from Penang), Indocafe does not only offer something that is a distinct variation on the theme of Peranakan food locally, but also something compelling. The food here sits in that magic zone between hearty, yet refined.
Take what you know of Peranakan food – your Peramakans, your Blue Ginger, your Violet Oons, etc etc – and Indocafe manages to remap that with their take on dishes that look familiar, but suddenly have the power to reset your last memory of said dish, and in the process, make them seem like things you’ve not eaten before.
Take the Babi Pongteh we had, for example. We’ve had this dish countless times, but Indocafe’s take was braised to the point of a delicious rich stickiness, and when we had some, it managed to cause us to draw a slight blank – how is this dish usually prepared again?
Downsides? This can add up to an expensive meal with runaway ordering, so chill on that front. And with food this refined, maybe you should save the pigging out to more hearty, “point, point” Peranakan food outlets anyway – so order less, and eat slower.
If this was all elaborate treachery – some type of Perana-con of nonsense food – then you could write off this review as being wildly subjective. Thankfully, we had a guest from Penang, who was happily tucking into the food and saying how much the flavours brought her back home with their differing emphasis; and while this may not add outright credence to our observations, two positive opinions can be better than one, lah.
And as for the issue of your mother’s scorn, this time round, this place can fight. Bring her here.
4 wings, pushing 5!