Make American Grub Great Again

Take good old American fare, add ‘immigrant’ flourishes and you have a party in the mouth. We check out the fusion smoked meats at Meatsmith’s three-month Indian-inspired barbecue pop-up at Cocotte, and the soulful American-ish, Middle Eastern-kissed cooking at the new Crackerjack.

1. Crackerjack


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IN A NUTSHELL: “I walked in before lunch and the bartender took one look at me and could tell I was hungover, so he poured me a craft beer,” said our booze fiend friend when we told her we were heading to three-week-old Crackerjack. “That’s service,” she concluded with a satisfied smile. Yup, at Crackerjack — by the people behind famous cocktail bar 28 Hongkong Street and Proof & Company Spirits — guests can come in any time of day and order a stiff drink, plus breakfast, lunch or dinner. Alysia Chan, the former executive sous chef at Meatsmith and executive sous chef at Cocotte, heads the kitchen here. Each section at this all-day bar and eatery is helmed by a veritable SWAT team of industry wizards. Peter Chua and Zachary de Git head the bar (Chua was at 28 Hongkong Street; de Git was head bartender at Tippling Club); Bronwen Serna, who was named United States Barista Champion in 2004 and placed sixth in 2014, leads the coffee programme.

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WHAT’S COOKING: Chef Chan declines to pigeonhole the kind of food served here to one particular type of cuisine, but instead describes it as “ingredients-driven and influenced by the traditions and techniques from a range of cuisines.” When pressed, she says: “It’s comfort food that’s healthy rather than heavy.” To us, much of it feels like modern American fare, with touches of Middle Eastern. And there’s a wholesome made-from-scratch sense that permeates the menu here. Chef’s grain and veggie-centric food is a departure from the meat-heavy dishes at her former work places. She and her team make their own yoghurt, granola and marmalade at breakfast, alongside sinfully heartier options like grits with smoked gouda, poached eggs and chicken scratchings. Lunch is served in neat trays and comprise rather healthy mains like a Steak Salad. At dinner, food is served family-style so guests can order mains, sides and bread to share.

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THE LOOK: With communal schoolhouse tables made from reclaimed blonde teak and a bar accented with gilded honeycomb-shaped shelves, the shop house space looks like a hip, upscale tuckshop. There’s a shuffleboard table imported from Los Angeles that everyone is welcome to, even though none of us present today had ever heard of the game. 


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Bourbon Mashbill Grits, $14, from the breakfast menu (8 DAYS PICK!)

If you’ve always wondered what grits are, that southern American fave, try this. A comfortingly rich angmoh porridge made with a combination of cornmeal, rye and barley, seasoned with smoked gouda cheese, and topped with a soft egg and chicken scratchings (fried bits of chicken skin). The scratchings are a nice touch, offering a refreshingly different hit of salty flavour compared to fried bacon.

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Roasted Cauliflower Steak, $20, from the dinner menu

We love how dishes like this are making vegetarian food exciting. The thick, perfectly tender cauliflower ‘steak’ is swathed in a tasty spiced yoghurt marinade and set on a bed of equally yummy couscous. Suffused with warm Moroccan flavours, there are almonds and pomegranate jewels, chopped dried apricots and pickled zucchini, all of which give this creation just the right level of sweetness and acidity.

Mojo Brandt Bavette Steak Salad Lunch Plate, $25 (see main pic)

A healthy lunch option with simple flavours that veer on the edge of bland. Still, it’s a satisfying meal with the lean bavette (the flap, which lies right below the flank) steak cooked to a lovely dusky pink and the couscous brightened with a mound of jicama (bangkuang, used in popiah filling) slaw and a green salad. It’s pretty much a grain bowl on a plate.

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Breakfast Of Champions, $6

Serna infuses her milk with cereal like Fruity Pebbles, Cocoa Pebbles and Cap’n Crunch, and then mixes it up with a shot of espresso. The result is a delicious, wholesome-tasting beverage that’s better than any fancy flavoured coffee with a mouthful of a name.

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Mr Mojoko’s Psycho Tropics Sour, $18

A mix of tamarind, agave nectar, pineapple juice and tequila feature in de Git’s riff on the margarita. The sour tamarind hit our palates first, followed by the tequila’s heat, before the freshness of the pineapple juice kicks in. We like.

BOTTOM LINE: Crackerjack, according to the Oxford dictionary, means “exceptionally good”. Luckily the food, coffee and cocktails here are mostly worthy of that conceited moniker. Look out for the hidden bar within the premises that will open soon. $$-$$$

2. Meatsmith At Cocotte

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IN A NUTSHELL: While French bistro Cocotte finds itself a new executive chef following the departure of Anthony Yeoh last month, head chef of American barbecue joint Meatsmith, Andrew Baldus, is keeping the team busy with a three-month pop-up stint in Cocotte’s kitchen. Meatsmith At Cocotte, which will run till 31 April, sees the Kansas City kid purveying a menu of Indian-inflected smoked meats and cocktails.

WHAT’S COOKING: “We are sticking to the Indian theme since we are in Little India, but it’s not meant to be Indian food,” Baldus is quick to point out. “The food will have some reminiscent (Indian) flavours, but will also stay true to our smokehouse theme.” Meats like lamb shoulder, chicken, pork and beef ribs are cooked in the smoker at Meatsmith and delivered to Cocotte twice daily. With them, Baldus turns out a list of playful, inventive creations like Vindaloo with Smoked Lamb, Butter Chicken Wings and Madras Pork Ribs. All  very different from what’s served at the flagship branch. The cocktail menu also gets the Indian treatment with concoctions like a Biryani Old Fashioned. 


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Crab & Uni Biryani, $25

This little bowl of deliciousness harbours sweet crab meat (first steamed then cold-smoked), small tongues of fresh sea urchin, puffed rice, coriander and mint leaves, dollops of saffron aioli and a sprinkle of pico de gayo (a salsa made with onions, tomato and jalapeno). On top of that are a pair of smoked soft-boiled quail eggs. Mix it all together and it turns into a wonderful mess of earthy, warm, spicy flavours juxtaposed agreeably against the cold seafood. Kinda like chaat (Indian snack of crispy wheat puffs smothered in yoghurt and tamarind sauce), but with more western flavours.

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Kingfish Collar, Coconut Sambal & Eggplant, $18 (8 DAYS PICK!)

The coconut sambal here is more of a serundeng (the dry-fried spiced coconut that usually goes on top of lontong) than a sambal, but oh, who cares? First smoked and then charred directly on hot coals to break down its tough skin, the unctuous kingfish is full of smoky flavours and pairs beautifully with the equally smoky charred eggplant. That coconut sambal, a recipe given to Baldus by chef Rishi Naleendra of Cheek By Jowl under parent company Unlisted Collection, ties it all together with its lemongrass-tinged umami goodness.

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Na’an & Bombay Butter, $4 (8 DAYS PICK!)

Made with yoghurt, yeast and flour, this naan is light, supple and beautifully charred on a charcoal grill. The kitchen slathers it with butter seasoned with pickled green chilli and garam masala, then showers its surface with a blizzard of chopped chives, dill and coriander. Divine and even better than the traditional stuff.

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Vindaloo For 2, $38

Not our favourite dish here, but there’s no faulting those fabulous slivers of juicy smoked lamb shoulder. The vindaloo-inspired sauce lacks complexity while the green salad is so tart it practically overwhelms all the other flavours on the plate.

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Biryani Old Fashioned, $18

Think a classic Old Fashioned cocktail (whisky, angostura bitters, club soda) sweetened with syrup spiked with biryani spices like cardamom and clove. The syrup is so gently infused, however, that our Biryani Old Fashion tastes like, well, an Old Fashioned. Good thing they had a generous hand with the whisky.

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Banana Roti Sundae, $8

Banana ice cream, caramel sauce and strips of prata unceremoniously arranged in a bowl — what this dessert lacks in looks, it makes up for with great taste. The smooth house-made banana ice cream and deep caramel sauce with a hint of burnt sugar go gloriously together. And those strips of prata are nicely crisp and tender. 

BOTTOM LINE: Most of the spice-tinged, smoky dishes here are fun, inspired and very tasty — perfect dude food. The same cannot be said of the blah cocktails though. But we think this mod Indian rendition of Meatsmith has potential to be a permanent spin-off restaurant. $$-$$$

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