Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Wok and Barrel Duxton Hill Singapore - street fare lost in translation


Address: 13 Duxton Hill
Tel: +65 6220 0595
Nearest MRT station: Outram Park

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below S$40 pp
Service charge: N/A
Taste: ***
Service: ****
Ambience: ***
There's this mental barrier about going to a fancy restaurant for the humble dishes that can be had for a pittance at hawker centre. Well, not exactly a pittance with the inflation these days (coming from London, I actually felt Singapore is getting too expensive for me).

Picture this, would you fancy paying S$20 for a bowl of bar chor mee (minced pork noodles)? At the equivalent of £10, it even topped the price of the same dish at London's Bugis Street Brasserie. It might very well be minced secreto Iberico and handmade noodles but it is still bar chor mee.

We made it a point to check out some interesting eats whenever we return to Singapore. Not the Michelin starred ones as I think the premium that one would have to pay for them (easily S$400 per head or £200) in Singapore is really over the top. Instead, we would look out for some resturants by homegrown chefs. Last time round, it was Candlenut Kitchen. For this trip, we were at Wok & Barrel.

The name Wok & Barrel conjures up the image of a warm kichen, clanging of pots and woks, with pipping hot dishes on the counter ready to be served. The restaurant at the end of a terrace row along Duxton Hill is anything but. Clean cut, with chill out sofa area up front, a counter top with bottles of beer for the lone diner, and an almost white interior with free wifi access to boot, Wok & Barrel effused chicness.

Apparently, enough people love it to the extent that it is fully reserved for a weekday evening. Fortunately, we made our reservation before leaving London (we have learnt our lesson after The Slanted Door. Our dinner mates (there were two of them) were less enthusiastic about dining at Wok & Barrel. Can't blame them really, I would have baulked at the prices if I could have the dishes at a fraction of the prices at my office's canteen or the local hawker centres. But the fact is that I couldn't and they were about to deprive me of that.

While we just couldn't bring ourselves to order the S$20 bar chor mee, we did ask for more interesting dishes like wagyu beef rendang and bak kwa ribs. One revelation after tasting the wagyu beef rendang (S$18) is that highly marbled beef cuts is wasted on a rendang dish. Substituting wagyu beef with either beef cheeks or shin, which costs a fraction compared to wagyu beef, would do the job just the same if not better. For some reason, the wagyu's texture just couldn't cut through the curry paste.

Bak kwa ribs (S$32) was up next. Roasted with five spice powder and honey among other condiments, it did remind me of the salty sweet jerky, traditional delicacy popular in Singapore and Malaysia especially during Chinese New Year. That said, any lovers of bak kwa would tell you that it is the amount of fat in the jerky that matters. In that respect, Wok & Barrel's bak kwa ribs had little. If there was, it certainly wasn't sealed in. This dish is strictly for the health conscious. For lovers of bak kwa, you might be better off spending S$32 on the actual snack at Chinatown instead.

We couldn't resist the otak otak (S$6.90). Unlike the normal mix mesh that one can still get from peddlers on the bottom of some HDB flats, Wok & Barrel used a whole John Dory fillet. While I appreciated the distinct coconut aroma, I thought the rempah paste smeared on the otak could be less creamy.

Five spice pork's (S$9.90) portion was small to say the least. That was our first (and probably only) impression of the dish. Served in a bowl probably better used for the likes of chilli paste, the dish wasn't the most appetizing looking. You'd probably need one each to properly savour the taste.

Even with a portion of nasi lemak (S$1.90) each, we were still far from filled. Chicken wings (S$8), grilled brinjal and chilli (S$5.90) soon follow. To be honest, the nasi lemak was rather good. It wasn't oily and was evenly cooked, suitably infused with coconut oil. Two chilli pastes were laid on seperate slices of cucumber - one salty and the other sweet. That was the first time I have come across nasi lemak featuring the two distinct chilli pastes in a single serving. I was beginning to think whether we would be better off if we had each ordered a nasi lemak, chicken wings and chilli brinjal each.

The highlight of the day was the puloh hitam cake (S$8.90). Topped with Melaka butterscotch and served coconut ice-cream, it wasn't overly sweet and the smooth coconut ice-cream was rather soothing to the palate. "It's the only dish I like," one of my dinner mate muttered. While I wouldn't be that harsh, it was definitely one of the better pulau hitam that I have come across.

"How can I let you leave Singapore without having tasted our signature dish?" a jolly staff exclaimed with a wide grin as he placed a complementary plate chendol on the table. Earlier, we did mention in passing that we were back for a couple of days and terribly missed the local delights when asked whether it was our first time at Wok & Barrel.

"Shendol delight" (S$6.90), named after the Wok & Barrel's banker turned chef Shen Tan, is her intepretation of chendol, a popular traditional dessert in this part of the world. Incidentally, I tasted my first chendol as a kid at a roadside stall in Muar (a town in Johor, Malaysia). I recalled being a bit apprehensive when I saw the green slimy worm like jelly bits swimming in coarsely grounded ice. My uncle, who bought me the dessert, ordered it topped with extra condensed milk. I fell in love with chendol immediately.

Instead of ice and condensed milk, the same green jelly worms in Wok & Barrel's 'shendol' rested on a coconut panna cotta with gula Melaka syrup dribbled over it. As with its pulau hitam, it was served with a scoop of coconut ice-cream. I thought that the jelly was a tad salty and the coconut was over the top but it did bring back some fond memories of me chewing on the chendol jelly along the dusty side street in Muar.

Frankly, I'm not sure whether I would be returning to Wok & Barrel. To me, there should be a certain grit attached to these dishes I grew up with and having them so dressed up just didn't do it for me. With Maxwell Market (a popular hawker centre) a short stroll away, I find it hard to believe that Wok & Barrel would pull many hardcore fans of the street fare it served from the hawker centres. However, if you would like a taste of Singapore without the hassle and sweltering heat, Wok & Barrel is probably it.

This is a collection of food posts from a recent visit to Singapore. Also look out for Malaysian Food Street, Ayam Penyat Ria and Hock Lam Street Beef Kuay Teow.

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