Time to get away from HK for a few days. The trip starts off right when Cathay upgrades me for the flight to Singapore, so my in-flight meal is actually edible. More Champagne, please.
On arrival, I buy a stored value 'e-z link' card at the airport MRT (US=subway, UK=tube) station, and I'm set for transport. About S$2 later I'm at Orchard Road MRT, and it's a short, hot walk to my hotel, the Goodwood Park. This is an old, low-rise hotel in the middle of town, and although still considered quite high-class, it hasn't been restored to the point where it's a theme park (see: Raffles). On the other hand, it's not exactly 5-star any more, and things don't always work. But it has a personality, and I like it. On line you can get rooms for about US$120/night, but my travel agent found one even cheaper. However, my room is the absolute worst, smallest, most remote room in the house. That's what I get for getting a cheap room.
It's mid-afternoon, and time for a quick walk up the street to Newton Hawker Centre. What's a hawker centre? When Singapore cleaned up their unlicensed street food stalls years ago, they did something very smart (as opposed to Hong Kong, which just shut them down). They set up semi-outdoor malls where groups of food hawkers could practice their trade with a degree of supervision. They are all over Singapore, and each centre has a variety of hawkers, each selling their specialty. The way it works is that you get a table, note the number on the table, then order from whatever stalls you want. They bring the cooked food to your table, and you pay when it arrives. Some stalls are marked 'self service', meaning you wait for your food and carry it back yourself. There will also be a few stalls selling drinks, and they usually come around the tables to get your order.
Hawker food is cheap. Dishes are usually S$3 for a one-person size, and $4 or $5 for bigger portions. I'm feeling like an oyster omelette to start, and although there are several oyster omelette vendors open (Newton St is more of a late night market, so many stalls are still closed) I find the busiest one, based on his the stack of empty egg trays. My rule at hawker markets is if you don't know the best food at that particular market, go for the busiest stall that specializes in making just one thing.
Singapore oyster omelettes are made from eggs and a batter, stirred and fried until crispy. The oysters are added at the end and are just barely cooked. It's more like a cross between scrambled eggs and a pancake than an omelette. The garnish is chopped cilantro, and there's a little dipping bowl of the house chilli sauce on the side. Ask for a second bowl of the chilli. One is never enough. This stall's omelette - I think the stall name was 'Kwee Heng' - wasn't bad, but was too greasy for my taste. I noticed they were frying with a product called Fatty Oil. Nice.
Back to hotel, grab a clean shirt (you're going to sweat a lot if you're following me around Singapore), and it's soon time to hook up with my good friend Mr B. and his family. Once all 3 generations are assembled, it's off to No Signboard for crabs. Their original shop had no signboard, hence the name. They now have several outlets and everyone tediously says they're not as good as they used to be, blah blah blah, but if you're from Hong Kong they're good enough. We're at the No Signboard on Mattar Road, on the edge of the Geylang red light district. Seating is outside in a parking lot at plastic tables. Nothing fancy (although they do have an air-con 'VIP' room, phone ahead and be prepared to pay more if you want to sit there), you're here for crab. There are 6 of us, and we try 3 different classic crab preparations: black pepper (excellent), white pepper (good) and chilli (too soupy). Plus some fried tiny octopus, chicken, some veg and tofu dishes... it's too much food, we can't even finish the crab. Total with a couple of beer for S$130.
Mr B feels like a night out, so we regroup at 11:45 and head to classy Bar None, under the Marriott. Mr B used to be a bar manager in Singapore so we immediately run into people he knows, and as a result I am forced to consume Chivas with a very happy man, his wife and a transvestite who turns out to be the part-time lead vocalist for the excellent house band.
The night is young, so we then head to an obscure raunchy bar called something like 'Moonrock' to try to see what is reportedly Singapore's best rock band, Ministry of Rock. But after driving in circles for half an hour we can't find the bar. Everyone we ask, even taxi drivers, say "Tras Street? Oh, it's very close to here" but that doesn't help us. By the time we find it, it's closed. So we head to Orchard Towers, an office complex by day, and, to use the local expression, "4 floors of whores" by night. The clubs in there are open very late. We're looking for a bar called Zombie, which has live rock music. After we determine it's temporarily called Zodiac due to a 'licensing issue', we head in for the last set from the band, and then head for Ipanema, a blatant hooker bar that also has a rock band. It is rather difficult to explain to the friendly, and in some case quite very direct, multiethnic girls young-enough-to-be-my-daughter floating round this place that I'm here just for the music and some beer, but eventually I learn the trick - zero eye contact, and don't react when someone gropes you. The band, called something like "Shag-Gies", is excellent. They finish about 3:30am and I head back to the hotel. Alone, of course. What were you thinking?
Happy, screaming children fill the hotel pool at 7:30am. My room is right beside the pool. I stumble down to the hotel coffee shop, get some coffee and toast (included in the room rate, usual 4-star Asian hotel breakfast buffet stuff in a noisy and not very well managed room) and promptly go back to bed.
At noon I wake up for real, and head to Ng Ah Sio, 208 Rangoon Rd, for bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. They close at 2pm, or whenever they run out, so come early. Closed Monday. This is the most famous bak kut teh restaurant in Singapore, and again, some say "it's not as good as it used to be, blah blah blah" but the fact is that it's great. Bak kut teh is the perfect thing to consume after the night before. Then it's about a 15 minute hot walk from there to Mustafa Centre, a crowded 24 hour department store in Little India, about 2 blocks from the Farrar Park MRT station. The reason to come here is on the 2nd floor, where they have a supermarket with one of the world's best selections of ingredients for Indian cooking. I'm here looking for Aeroplane Brand lime pickle, which they unfortunately don't have (does anyone know where on Earth to get it? PM me if you do). I then wander through the lanes of Little India, at one point finding a group of sidewalk dildo vendors (huh?) in a lane next to street selling mostly piston rings. Even by Asian retailing standards, this is weird.
Back to hotel for a shirt, and then to Maxwell hawker centre (on Maxwell Road, about 1/2 way between Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar MRT stations) for chicken rice. You want the legendary Tian Tian at stall #10, accept no substitutes. Chicken rice is ubiquitous in Asia, it's on every hotel room service menu after the club sandwich and before the burger. But at its best - and Tian Tian is its very best - it's sublime. Open 11am - 8pm, closed Monday.
Suppertime already? Mr B and family and I head to Lavender Street hawker centre (on Lavender Street, duh) for some serious benchmarking of the classic hawker dishes. We get mee Siam, Hokkien fried mee, a deconstructed rojak, bbq stingray (actually skate wing) and more... but the char kway teow lacks laap cheung, the essential dried sausage. The surprise hit is from the stall called Albert St Prawn and Pork Mee. Mr B orders the combined prawn and pork version, and it's great. And we had a failure in my 'always go for the busiest place' theory: the long line ups at Kok Kee Wan Ton lead to some mediocre and overpriced (S$4 - who are they kidding?) noodles. Singapore wan ton is very different than Cantonese style won ton, and this is one category where HK kicks Sing's ass.
I'm not a dessert guy, but Mr B introduces me to a couple of local standards: soursop ice jelly, which is as titled, and mango ice kachang. An 'ice kachang' dessert is a mound of shaved ice with flavoured syrups, and in this case, mango puree on top. Both are great for beating the heat and go down well. Hawker centre desserts are S$1.50 - $2.50.
This night I go to the Hard Rock to catch their house band, and after they finish I head over to Zombie for the band's last set there. Zombie has semi-professional pole dancers between sets on Friday nights. Pole dancing seems to be a big thing in several bars in Singapore these days. I'm back at the hotel by 4am.
The screaming kids hit the pool at 8am, and the day begins as before: coffee, toast, back to sleep until lunch time.
Lunch is at Ah Kow Mushroom Mince Pork Mee. Thanks to some lousy directions, I get a 45 minute walk in the noonday sun looking for a place that's less than 5 minutes from an MRT station. I'll make it easy for you, because you do want to find this place. Take the MRT to Chinatown station, and take the exit to Chinatown Point. You'll be on the corner of Cross St and New Bridge Rd. Walk down Cross St past the Delifrance, and turn left down the walkway between Chinatown Point and the next building, which I think is Block 531 of Hong Lim complex, a group of government flats. Behind that building is Block 531A, and it has a hawker centre on the 2nd floor. That's one floor above the ground level, for any Americans reading this. Ah Kow is at #02-43. When you see #xx-xx in a Singapore address, the first 2 numbers are the floor and the second 2 or 3 numbers are the stall or apartment, so #02-43 is 2nd floor, stall 43.
They only make one thing, bak chor mee (mince meat noodles), and they make it 2 ways, either as wet noodles with a bowl of stock on the side, which they seem to call 'with chilli' even though it isn't; or else as soup with everything in one bowl. I suggest to get it the former way. If you get it as soup, the noodles continue to cook in the soup and aren't the right texture by the time you get to the bottom. Plus you have to select what type of noodles you want. They have five types on display, and I like the kway teow style flat white rice noodles. Then the master assembles your bowl, from stock, mince pork, homemade (made by his wife at the table in front of the stall) wan ton, mushrooms, greens and a little fish skin garnish. Help yourself to the tasty chilli sauce, or fresh chillies if you're brave. I like an extra shot of vinegar in mine as well.
It's sooooo good. I really want a second bowl, despite the fact that I'm dripping sweat from a) my 45 minute walk, b) the fact that I had just consumed a hot bowl of noodles in a non-aircon environment and c) the fact that I had spiked the bowl with a huge amount of the yummy house chilli sauce. But further food adventures beckon.
After a stop at the hotel for a dry shirt, it's time to find a better oyster omelette. The best in Singapore is supposed to be Ah Chuan's in Block 22 Toa Payoh, so I optimistically assume that if I go to the Toa Payoh MRT station I'll easily be able to walk there. Wrong. Toa Payoh station is in a large shopping mall in a huge government housing estate with over a hundred apartment buildings, and there are several bus lines running through the maze. I get directions to an estate map from a young lady. As I am confusedly looking at the map, a uniformed schoolgirl comes by and asks me to participate in a survey about plastic bag usage in Singapore. The fact that I've been in town less than 72 hours doesn't discourage her. I offer to participate if she can get me on the right bus. But after completing the survey, it turns out I've been conned - she has no idea about the buses.
But she gets me to the station Bus Control Room, where 2 people swing into action - they seem bored and I may be the most exciting thing that's happened all day - and they get me on to the right bus. A few stops later and I'm near Toa Payoh's hawker centre. I locate Block 22, #01-25, and order my omelette. While waiting for it to be done - the stall has a serious backlog, even though the rest of the market is quite empty - two Malay women also waiting at my table ask me where I'm from and why I'm here. I guess I do stand out a little, as I haven't seen another westerner since coming to Toa Payoh. I explain that I'm from Hong Kong and I'm on a quest for the best oyster omelette in Singapore, among other things. They think this is a little weird, but say that I've definitely found it. They also insist that I try some of the other things they've picked up at the market, including a kind of fruit I've never seen before, and some Malay dishes that I can't remember the name of.
The omelette arrives, and it puts the Newton omelette to shame. This one is crispier, less greasy, and has very fresh-tasting Korean oysters, and a great chilli sauce on the side. Toa Payoh is a long way to go for a S$3 oyster omelette, but if you want the best in town, here it is.
Now that I know where Block 22 is, I am able to walk back to the MRT with no trouble. Another stop at the hotel and it's time to think about supper. Man does not live by hawker food alone, and I feed the need for a good burger. This is not as easy as it seems. My sources advise that the best burger in Singapore is at Blooies Roadhouse, which also has a rock band Fri/Sat night. Sounds ideal, but Blooies has 2 locations, and nobody has ever heard of either of them. Both some distance out of downtown, and not near any MRT. I start on a bus toward the location at Science Park 2 but get stuck in traffic, so I bail and grab a taxi, whose driver gently rips me off (Singapore taxi drivers are apparently exempt from the government orders to not cheat tourists) but deposits me in the right place 5 minutes before the kitchen closes. I order a bacon cheeseburger and a beer and settle out on the patio overlooking the silent, empty and dark 'science park' (= industrial estate without industry but with nice landscaping) with the few other diners, while the rock band pounds away to the empty house inside. This is a bizarre location for a restaurant. http://www.blooies.com for locations and hours.
The burger is indeed superb and is worth the taxi ride. I think they've got ground onion in the mince, and I'm going to have to try that trick myself. The 170g patty is thick and juicy, despite being more than medium done. I finish and join a Harley-riding expat at another table for some deep and meaningful discussion and quite a bit more beer, before heading out into the darkness to locate a taxi. It's now after midnight, so the taxi driver is going to be happy - fares go up 50% after midnight, and I'm in the middle of nowhere.
I still want to see if I can catch the Ministry of Rock band, so I get the taxi to drop me as close as possible to that Moonrock club. As usual, the taxi driver has only a vague idea where Tras St is, so I end up wandering around Tanjong Pagar sweating in the early morning hours. In any other city on Earth this would be asking to be mugged, but this is Singapore. Eventually I spot a group of very well-groomed boys who all appear to be stoned as ducks. Remembering that Singapore's hottest gay club is also on Tras St (since you asked, it's the place with the blue lanterns out front, and no sign) I follow them and sure enough, end up locating Moonrock or whatever it's called. But after all that, the doorman tells me that the band is off this weekend. Damn.
Yet another taxi, and another gentle taxi rip-off tour of Singapore at 2am, and I'm back at Zombie for a couple of chill-out Tigers. It's my 3rd night here, and I have apparently bonded sufficiently with the staff so that my beer is open and in my usual spot before I even make it to the bar. The band's last set is all-request, and the small crowd is asking for Zep, Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, AC/DC, Police, Santana, Cream... it's all good. The air smells like clove cigarettes, the same girls are on the bar doing their semi-amateur pole dancing, the bartenders are practicing their flair moves, BJ the shaved-head bouncer comes over and introduces himself. This is my kind of bar.
On the stumble back to the hotel, I end up following a dweeby-looking westerner arm in arm with a gorgeous, um, ladyboy. How to tell? The Adam's apple trick doesn't work any more, they do that as part of the operation. Look for a) too good-looking, b) too tall, c) feet too big and d) wrists too wide. They turn in at the Hyatt. I wonder if the john ever knows.
Next time I'm asking for a room that doesn't face the bloody swimming pool.
I do the usual hotel breakfast/sleep again/lunch thing, and today it's going to be the famous Katong laksa for lunch. As with most hawker food, you can now get this all over Singapore. But the original came from a stall on Marine Parade in the '40s, which relocated to East Coast Road in the '50s. There are now a strip of shops from #43 to #57 East Coast Road all claiming to be 'the original Katong laksa'. Just to confuse everything, the first shop (formerly called Marine Parade Laksa, now called Janggut Laksa) was at #49, then at #43 and is now at #57. When they moved, others moved into their old locations and now claim to be the 'original'.
I don't know any of this, so when I arrive at the right area (bus #14 from Orchard Rd, ask the driver to let you off just after Katong Centre, before you get to the old 'Red House' bakery) I ignore the touts and do some investigating. I track down the one at #57 (just by the pedestrian overpass) and get a bowl. It's good, but not Earth-shatteringly good. The main difference is apparently that they use fresh coconut milk, and that does make the gravy very tasty without the stodginess you get from cheap laksa. Plus they cut the bee hoon noodles short so that you don't need chopsticks. And the laksa leaf is fresh cut. I was offered the option of cockles, and I accepted, but didn't get any. Chatting with a local guy at my table discloses that all the shops on this corner have fairly similar laksa, but he feels Janggut has a slight edge.
That evening Mr B and family have their housewarming party, so I travel to their place. It's located in one of the new towns on the outer edges of Singapore, where hundreds of government apartments, each unit equipped with its own bomb shelter, loom in the squeaky-clean silence. I feel like I'm in the Matrix. Mr B manages restaurants for a living, so he's smart enough to leave the cooking to the pros, and has the gig catered. The food is buffet style, and it's excellent - a classic mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes that make up the Singapore's main food cultures. The beef rendang is especially yummy.
After watching Arsenal beat some loser team that nobody cares about, I head back into town. It's around midnight and time for a small emergency backup hamburger before commencing drinking, so I hit Burger King. This may sound boring, but we don't have BK in Hong Kong, and they're better than McD's. However, I'm at a halal BK, 2 minutes before closing. That means that it takes quite a while for them to put the burger together because they've already started cleaning up, and that they don't have onions, and that the bacon is 'turkey bacon'. Yuck. I get what I deserve.
Next stop Zombies. There's a cover today but my new buddy the bouncer comes over so it's all good. They're also out of Tiger, so I end up drinking the display bottles on ice. This is not recommended with any beer that doesn't come in a brown bottle, by the way. Beer is sensitive to light, so beer in clear or green bottles does not last long outside the case, and display bottles would get very skunky in short order. You have been warned.
My relationship here has solidified to the point that even though they know it's my last night in town, I get comped. Nice. I'll be back. A bartender coming off shift from another bar stops by and gets talked into giving a flair demonstration, and he's astonishing. Just another night in the big city. I'm back at the hotel by 2am.
I have to get an early start today, so the kids in the pool are an effective alarm clock. Usual coffee and toast for breakfast. I would like to hit Tian Tian for a farewell chicken rice but they're closed Monday. But Ah Kow is open, so I head there again for a quick bowl of mince pork noodles before Mr and Mrs B pick me up to take me to the airport.
We're going to get some Muslim food for lunch, and end up at 56A Zion Rd, across the street from the Zion Rd Riverside Market hawker centre. There's a stall here called M. Noor Mohamed Muslim Indian Food, and we order biriyanis. I get one with chicken and mutton. The mutton is tough as rubber, but tasty. Nothing wrong with the chicken. The amount of rice provided would feed several people. The best part of the meal was when the old guy at the stall got us our cutlery, by picking it up from the 'clean' end, he found a spoon that wasn't up to his standards and wasn't able to be cleaned by rubbing with his fingers. So he put that one back in the clean bin and got another one out, again by picking it up from the clean end. I don't think the M. Noor Mohaned Muslim Indian Food stall is going to win the 2005 Singapore hygiene awards. Soon, Mr B's friend arrives and informs us we're at the wrong restaurant. The good one is apparently Mayang Sari at 54 Zion Road. Oh well. We console ourselves with dessert at the hawker centre across the street - soursop ice for me.
Amazingly, Cathay upgrades me again for the flight back. I almost forget how much I don't like Cathay, especially after the damage I do to the bottle of Johnnie Gold on board. Plus I score a bottle of Antinori's reliable 2001 Peppoli Chianti at the airport duty free at a (by HK standards) decent price. The flight was catered out of Bangkok and the food on board is not that great, but I'm not hungry and settle in to watch 'Sin City' on the TV and start to psych myself up to returning to work tomorrow.
Singapore rocks. I need another visit, soon.
Thanks to makansutra (www.makansutra.com) and aprilmei for recs, and a very big thanks to Mr B and family for their hospitality. Sing $ was about 1.66 to the US$.
Edit: removed some of the raunchier bits.
Edited by HKDave, 17 August 2005 - 01:56 AM.