No office towers throw shadows on The LoKal's shophouse unit in Bukit Pasoh, yet you'll struggle to find a seat among white-collared types deep into lunchtime on a weekday. In the open kitchen at the back, Tetsuya-trained Aussie chef Darren Farr and his team borrow influences from café Meccas of his home country, building flavours from raw ingredients up.
Most dishes sport familiar-to-locals ingredients, but with restaurant-level finesse and more forgiving prices. The blackboards detailing the day's specials are always worth considering before you pick from the menu. For a light lunch, go for options like The LoKal Lobster Roll ($22). Gherkin, coleslaw and lemon mayonnaise elevate curls of slipper lobster, packed in between a hotdog bun. But if it's eggs you're after, the Pimp Your Breakfast beats any morning-after brunch: you have the freedom to assemble your very own plate. And what an assortment The LoKal puts out. Cram your breakfast with eggs done three ways ($5-$6), goopy cauliflower and cheese ($6), as well as your pick of protein – we recommend the salmon ($6) and mackerel ($6),both smoked in-house over cherry and apple wood chips.
The chef-y leanings of this more-than-a-café extends into dinner, when a more serious appetiser-mains-dessert programme serves up plates of roasted kampong chicken ($26), fregola and seafood stew ($28), and Cape grim sirloin ($28).
Perhaps a signal of flagging café food standards of late, this hot Neil Road joint appoints itself a 'gastro-café' to highlight its flavour-forward leanings. And The Populus definitely lives up to its tag.
The rice and grain bowls ($18.50-$24) – they’re topped with all manner of vegetables and meats like pulled pork, teriyaki salmon and truffle-scented seared wagyu – are Instagram favourites that taste as hearty as they photograph. As is the server-recommended seafood linguine ($24), with al dente spools of bisque-coated pasta next to nubs of crabmeat and scallops. Fork out another ten bucks to add a tail of butter-poached lobster.
Given that co-owners Andrew Lek and Kang Yi Yang borrow references from Down Under, smashed avocado shows up smeared on robust multi-grain bread along with vinaigrette-slicked musses of kale, broccoli, spinach and other greens on the Superfood Platter ($20).
At times, the café’s house rules can come across as churlish: it discourages doggie bags by implementing a $2 surcharge. It's a good thing, then, that The Populus ticks all the boxes otherwise, feeding the iPhone-wielding café hopper with good food and three photo backdrops for snapping their best #foodporn shots.
Cafés like Sunday Market are where you go to witness the rising trend of such establishments in heartland dining. At this Kovan-side café, bi- and tri-generational gatherings aren't an uncommon sight, as are grandmas fearlessly chowing down on rocket leaves or chicken and waffles in concrete-cold rooms, covered in brick and sharp metal edges.
On the menu, food words like ‘apple miso coleslaw’, ‘deep fried gherkins’, ‘bonito flakes’ and ‘crab claw meat’ make us hungry for the East-meets-West fare more than the actual, un-punny dish names. The must-try here is the Ren Dang! Lasagne ($16), a hearty slice of sloppy lasagna with beef brisket, melted mozzarella, zingy cherry tomatoes and sheet pasta that bites with a chunky, fragrant rendang rempah. Tom, it's Yummy ($15), a soupy bowl of admittedly too-salty tom yum spices with prawns and squid, is a less successful fusion, and we're a little underwhelmed with the much-hyped chilli crab penne ($16), which hits the palate on a bland note.
Good thing, then, that the crisp tower of waffles, crowned with a scoop of Sunday Market’s stellar ice cream and a cone hat ($6), is one of the better versions served up on this side of Singapore.
Getting here is tricky if you don’t live in the neighbourhood. But it’s worth a try, if not for its laid-back atmosphere and floor-to-ceiling glass panels that let you steal a peek into the kitchen, then for the café’s popular ragu pasta ($17). Ribbons of homemade tagliatelle are cooked al dente then thinly coated in a minced beef and pork tomato sauce before shavings of Parmigiana on top give the dish a sharp punch. It’s easy to see why this one’s a crowd-pleaser.But because lunch only starts at 3pm (we’re not sure what time zone these guys are in), there are only chalkboard specials to order if you’re here early. You have your basic sandwiches such as Croque Monsieurs ($12) and a rosemary chicken sarnie with meat roasted in-house. But pass on the sambal fried rice – it’s too liberal with chilli and, at nine bucks, you’re better off hitting up your favourite zi char stall.
When historians decades from now catalogue the food culture of the 21st century, Symmetry will be their definitive example of a ‘hipster café’. Pop art posters, pre-loved trinkets, an indie music soundtrack, fruit-infused water, metal fixtures and lots and lots of wood hang around the space, bordered on one end by a built-as-vintage brick wall. Thankfully, there’s substance beneath all this style.
While its brunch is popular, Symmetry’s lunch and dinner menus – which deviate from the standard café fare – are its real triumphs. Its signature saikyo miso cod and mentaiko carbonara ($24) is an umami bomb on the palate, while the crab claw hazelnut basil pesto ($22) hides chunks of crabmeat. The truffle fries are on the higher end of the price spectrum at $15, but the crispy shoestrings, salted just so and piled high in a bucket, are one of the better examples on this list.
Cap off your meal with a cold-brewed coffee ($7) – dripped over nine to 12 hours – using single-origin beans from Papua New Guinea and served with a slice of orange. Or, if you come at night, Symmetry’s bar comes to life, shaking up original cocktails and pouring a well-stocked catalogue of cider, beer, sake, champagne and wine.
We know – this is a restaurant, you say. But given that Tanuki Raw’s second outlet, in the National Design Centre, shares its space with a retail store, we’ll give it a pass. And you’re all the better for it, because the seven donburi on the menu aren’t your usual budget rice bowls. They’re generous, tasty and, most of all, affordable.
The truffle yakiniku don ($18) is the absolute must-try: juicy US Black Angus short rib is served atop rice, draped in a truffle soya sauce and crowned with a gooey onsen egg. Likewise, the negitoro ($18) is rich without being jelak. Marinated minced fatty tuna is seasoned with black garlic and roasted leek before being tossed with shio kombu and laid on a bed of sushi rice. For an extra bit of crunch, the café serves this bowl with fried, pungent black garlic chips. And those subjecting themselves to the #MeatlessMondays trend can take comfort in the spicy garlic miso tofu don ($14), whose chunky cubes of bean curd reminds us of agedashi tofu. Besides rice bowls, cuisine-bending sushi rolls and sliders are also on the menu. And if you’re lucky enough to leave the office early, happy hour here is from 5 to 8pm every day: freshly shucked oysters go for $2 and cocktails start at $10.
Remember that gorgeous plate that runneth over with back bacon, tomatoes, sausages, rosti and scrambled eggs on toast from a few pages back? Well, that’s from this River Valley institution. And there’s more to that dish, too. Housemade chorizo baked beans, portobello mushrooms and sour cream laced with mint round off this extremely big breakfast. If anything, that Common Man Full Breakfast ($27) sums up this café: hearty, honest and hella hefty.
And those qualities extend well beyond the all-day breakfasts into the lunch menu (available from 11am-5.30pm). For something less meaty, we say dive right into the seared salmon salad ($26), forks at the ready. We know what you’re thinking: ‘What?! A salad?’ But bite into a creamy chunk of fish – still rare in the middle – and chase that with a wasabi vinaigrette-coated Japanese cucumber roll or a crumb of fish crackling and you’ll be humming a different tune. That the whole plate is bigger than your face helps justify its admittedly steep price.
Elsewhere on the menu, you have your wagyu burgers ($29), squid bolognese orichiette ($28) and, for the vegans, a cold soba salad with green papaya, toasted seeds and asparagus ($19).
Paper Crane is one of those cafés you might miss if you weren’t looking for it. Nestled within the premises of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, the joint can only seat a maximum of five indoors, while the rest will have to settle for tables in the corridor that, knowing our national aversion to heat and humidity, is lined with a more-than-adequate number of fans.Founded by a former magazine editor and a Canadian chef trained at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Paper Crane isn’t fussed about pigeonholing its food into a cuisine as much as serving up honest, homely fare like Southern-style deep fried chicken with fries and slaw ($15). Because the chicken thighs languish in buttermilk and spices for 24 hours, the meat stays juicy while the crust crackles and pops – no greasy aftertaste here.
The other must-tries include the Thai pan-fried seabass burger ($20) – the fish is delivered fresh every day from Ah Hua Kelong – and kimchi fries with grilled steak ($15). Pastas and salads go for an affordable $10 all day and here’s another bonus: the café doesn’t charge for GST or service.
For more cafés
We ate our way through dozens of cafés to pick out the best of the lot – whether you're looking for brunch, desserts or that perfect #foodporn shot.