1. Ho Jiak Curry Don
#02-01 Fuji Xerox Tower, 80 Anson Rd. S079907. Tel: 9298-2896. Open Mon-Fri 11am-2.30pm; 6pm-9.30pm. Last orders at 9pm. www.facebook.com/hojiaksg
Two hip young-uns have taken over a space on the second floor of the sleepy Fuji Xerox Towers. In a quiet office-studded floor, this little bar and eatery with the Hokkien name (“ho jiak” means delicious) is a rather strange and charming sight with its vintage-industrial trappings of cement flooring, baking tins turned into lamp shades, and a wall of craft beer bottles. The handsome 32-seater is owned and run by brothers Jeremiah and Nehemiah Chong, 28 and 25 respectively. It serves up a simple menu of Japanese curry rice bowls, craft beers, and Japanese whiskies, targeted mainly at the CBD crowd who flock here for lunch and the occasional post-work dinner.
Nehemiah, who straddles the business with his final year at NUS, where he’s studying computer engineering, is the brains behind the food. “I spent a year in Silicon Valley on an internship last year, and that’s when I began to do a lot of cooking. One day, I had a curry craving, and ended up making Japanese curry. It was so simple and comforting.” Upon his return, he and his brother, who also owns a music school, decided to jump into the food business, with Nehemiah devising the recipes and cooking in the kitchen (he’s since handed operations over to a kitchen crew).
ON THE MENU: There are only five dishes: fusion Japanese curry rice bowls topped with different meats ranging from oven-baked chicken to thinly sliced pork cooked shabu-shabu style. There’s a heftier menu of Japanese whiskies and craft beers. The frosty Old Empire IPA ($12), a smooth, malty beer made in the UK, pairs especially well with the rich, meaty curry.
Pork Shoulder Shabu, $8.90
Thinly sliced, chewy pork shoulder riddled with bits of fat is marinated in soy sauce, sesame and a touch of sugar, then swished in a dashi broth before being draped over a bowl of curry rice. The curry here has no gourmet pretensions — it’s made from an imported Japanese curry cube, and is tasty if generic: sweet, with a very mild heat. The medium-grain Japanese rice grown in California is pleasantly firm. Not bad, we prefer this to the bland Beef Knuckle Shabu version.
Cold Tofu with Roasted Sesame Dressing, $7.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Simple but good. Cubed silken tofu is topped with a sweet sesame dressing and showered with toasted seaweed and sesame seeds. The soft, pillowy tofu goes well with the curry rice, as does its creamy sweetness.
Oven-Roasted Chicken Leg, $7.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Chicken thigh that’s been marinated with garlic, soy sauce, and lots of pepper is given a quick bake in the oven until it’s nicely charred on the outside, yet still tender and juicy within. We wish all the meats here were done this way instead of shabu-shabu-style, because the caramelised, smoky flesh goes much better with the curry.
BOTTOM LINE: Hearty if rather simple curry rice bowls served in hipster environs. We imagine this is what a Chinese mum may whip up at home if asked to try her hand at cooking Japanese curry. $
2. Wok Hey (8 DAYS PICK!)
200 Victoria St Bugis Junction B1-K3, S188021. Open daily 11.30am-10pm. Last orders at 9.30pm. www.facebook.com/wokheysg
At Bugis Junction’s always-crowded food basement, a line of curious onlookers watch a cook vigorously stir-fry rice and noodles in a wok behind a glass barrier, while others walk away with cute little American-Chinese style takeout boxes. This three-month-old takeaway stand, with its cheery yellow signage overlooking a small open kitchen of stir-fry cooks, is the brainchild of 34-year-old Jake Chia and his friend, Changyong Huang, 33, both of whom were previously regulars with the Air Force before striking out into F&B. Their stand is named “Wok Hey” as a way to modernise local stir-fry (it alludes to wok hei, or wok’s breath).
“Both of us really love Chinese food,” Jake says, “but realised there aren’t any convenient places to get this sort of comfort food except at zi char stalls where the food is greasy and not very customisable, so we thought: why not in a shopping mall?” It’s already proving popular with the Bugis crowd: the average waiting time here at peak hour is about 10 minutes because everything is made to order. At crunch time, there are up to three cooks tossing away on woks, safely heated by induction cookers, so you get a little show as you wait for your tapow.
ON THE MENU: There are four carb options available, including Egg Fried Rice. You can have it “kosong” or, for an extra 80 cents, add grilled chicken, braised beef, or shrimp. For another $1, add more premium toppings ranging from vegetables like broccoli to a sous vide egg. It’s then all thrown together in a wok and stir-fried. Think a cross between one of those trendy grain bowl joints and your neighbourhood zi char stall.
Egg Fried Rice, from $5 (8 DAYS PICK!)
We have ours pimped up with Seasoned Prawn ($0.80) and Tobiko ($1). It’s super comforting with eggy bits tucked within light, fluffy beads of short-grain rice from Niigata. It’s not oily at all, and ironically, also doesn’t have any “wok hei,” which Jake claims is typical of lighter styles of fried rice. We don’t miss the smoky lack of wok’s breath much since this is tasty enough and reminds us of the fried rice from Din Tai Fung, except with frozen (if still flavourful) shrimp, and salty bursts of flying fish roe. It’s just a touch under-seasoned, though this is somewhat mitigated with the seriously spicy chilli served on the side, made from pounding dried chili with garlic.
Shanghai Fried Rice, from $6 (SKIP THIS!)
The Shanghai in its name refers to a darker style of fried rice that Jake says is more predominant in the Chinese mainland. Rice is tossed in a sauce of light and dark soy, tomato puree, and ketchup for a swarthier, sweeter dish. Ours come adorned with tender preserved Chicken Chinese Sausage ($1), and Broccoli ($1). It’s got faint hints of a claypot rice dish, but sadly without the smoky, crusty char. And it’s also a little too sweet and in need of more salt.
Fresh Udon, from $6
Like the ramen (below), these fatter noodles are nicely chewy, but they’re sweeter as they’re cooked with dark soy sauce. Very hearty topped with a runny yolked Sous Vide Egg ($1), slices of Grilled Chicken ($0.80), and tender Nai Bai ($1). The chicken is particularly good; the tender and juicy thigh meat is glazed with soy sauce and honey before it’s grilled.
Fresh Ramen, from $6 (8 DAYS PICK!)
The noodles are sourced from a Japanese-run noodle supplier, and are delivered fresh daily. They’ve got a nice bounce and chewy texture, and are fried with some light soy sauce, onions, and cabbage for a pleasantly simple yaki-soba. We chose ours to be fried with Seasoned Prawn ($0.80) and Thai Asparagus ($1), but the highlight for us is the super comforting and at last, wok hei-kissed noodles.
BOTTOM LINE: Freshly-made carb bombs that aren’t as greasy as your usual kopitiam stir-fry. A fun new place for affordable, simple, yet satisfying mod zi char. $
3. Tengawa Hokkaido White Curry
#02-16 Millenia Walk, 9 Raffles Blvd, S039596. Tel: 6265-1314. Open daily 11.30am-10pm. Last orders at 9.30pm. www.facebook.com/tengawawhitecurry
Joining Millenia Walk’s enclave of Japanese restaurants on Nihon Street is this two-month-old Japanese Curry House. Don’t be fooled by its generic wood-themed restaurant decor, this is not your run-of-the-mill curry rice joint: the curry at this 38-seater is a mysterious, milky white instead of the usual orange-brown, apparently a specialty of Hokkaido. China-born restaurateur Zhong Wanshan, 47, and her Singaporean husband are behind Tengawa. Both of them had studied and lived in Japan for several years before meeting in China. They also own a Japanese restaurant in Yunnan. White curry is a novelty in Singapore, but it’s a dish that Wanshan’s husband became obsessed with after tasting it in Hokkaido. The couple got a Japanese chef here as a consultant to help recreate the recipe and devise the simple menu of katsu curry rice bowls.
ON THE MENU: At the moment, there are only three dishes on offer. Choose from Ebi Fry, Japanese Style Hamburg, and Chicken Katsu, and it’ll arrive served atop a mound of pearly Hokkaido rice and a little pool of the signature white curry. Each dish comes with free-flow miso soup, rice, and a tasty, wobbly chawanmushi that’s laced with truffle oil. We’re glad the rice is free-flow: it’s pearlescent, sweet, chewy, and holds up well against the curry. Sadly, you probably won’t be calling for more rice since they’re a little stingy with the curry.
Chicken Katsu, $15.80 (8 DAYS PICK!)
The curry is made by cooking Hokkaido milk and cream with an imported Hokkaido spice mix. There’re hints of cumin, cinnamon, aniseed, and a gentle heat which is more peppery than fiery. Frankly, we don't find the curry especially unusual. It’s less starchy than regular Japanese curry, and hence a little lighter and runnier, with a pleasant buttery flavour and slight sweetness. Its creamy texture is offset by crispy katsu toppings, made with fresh panko bread crumbs, and fried to order. It’s shatteringly crunchy, remaining so even after sitting in the curry for a while. This is made with lean but fabulously juicy chicken breast with a deliciously firm bite. But skip the mushy, bland prawn version (Ebi Fry) of this dish.
Japanese Style Hamburg, $15.80 (SKIP THIS!)
The only non-katsu item here. This features a pan-fried pork hamburg steak, instead of the usual beef patty, perched on the rice and curry. We’re a little mystified by this: it’s bland, gummy, under-seasoned, and dry.
BOTTOM LINE: The white curry here is a milder, creamier version of regular Japanese curry. Tasty, but nothing to rush down for. We’re more intrigued by the rice and the perfectly crunchy chicken katsu here. $