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2 local cafes with nostalgic grub you’ll love

Dig into sedap nasi lemak and cake made by singer-turned-chef Jessica Soo at her new cafe; and a wicked otah sandwich at restaurateur Loh Lik Peng’s casual joint at the National Gallery

1. Sunset Railway Cafe
1. Sunset Railway Cafe
02 Feb 2016

1. Sunset Railway Cafe

Fab four: (From left) Wee Khim, Jessica, Jasmine and Keong

#01-02 CLEMENTI ARCADE, 41 SUNSET WAY, S579071. TEL: 6463-0069. Open daily except Mon. Tues-Sat 7.30am-7.30pm; Sun 9am-6pm. Last orders 30 mins before closing. www.instagram.com/sunsetrailway_cafe

Hurrah for this new café with a menu free of the usual eggs benedict or waffles. It serves Peranakan dishes in a comfortable air-conditioned spot within a landed housing estate. Even at nine in the morning on our visit, the eatery is crowded with well-heeled housewives tucking into mee rebus and kaya butter toast. The lovely fragrance of coffee lingers in the air. The staff — neatly dressed in black and denim — scurries about efficiently. We immediately feel at home.

THE OWNERS: The cafe is opened by local singer-songwriter Jessica Soo, her husband and celeb photographer Wee Khim, as well as her business partners Tan Eng Keong and his wife Jasmine Low. They jointly invested $90,000 to set up shop. For the past 12 years, the friends have also been running an “underground private diner” called Where the Sidewalk Ends in a rented black and white bungalow in Newton. “The name came about ’cos our diner was a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city,” Keong explains. It’s where Jessica, who trained in artisanal bread-baking at a French culinary school in Kuala Lumpur, cooks up a medley of Western and Asian food for her guests (the public can technically eat at the diner, but it’s so exclusive you can only get a spot there via word-of-mouth). After the meal, diners sometimes get to listen to Jessica sing and Keong play the guitar. Consider Sunset Railway Cafe a more accessible way of savouring Jessica’s excellent culinary chops.

Wee Khim tells us, “My wife has always wanted to open a bakery, but there’s been an explosion of bakery cafes in recent years, so we decided to open a cafe with local food and some bakes.” The Peranakan recipes here are mostly from Jessica’s Indonesian-Peranakan mother.  

Sunset Railway Cafe: The Look
Sunset Railway Cafe: The Look
02 Feb 2016

Sunset Railway Cafe: The Look

Like somebody’s tastefully-decorated living room. The cafe is named after the defunct Jurong Line railway nearby, which explains the huge mural of the railway (shot by Wee Khim, of course) sprawled across a wall.

Keep your eyes peeled for celeb pals of the couple, such as Zoe Tay and Jeanette Aw. If their entertainment license is approved, Jessica and Keong may soon perform in the evenings.

Sunset Railway Cafe: What we tried
Sunset Railway Cafe: What we tried
02 Feb 2016

Sunset Railway Cafe: What we tried

(L - R)

Sugee Cake $4.80 a slice
Jessica calls it a “normal bundt cake recipe with semolina flour and butter”, though the secret weapons here are an arsenal of vanilla beans, coarsely chopped almonds and a piquant lemon drizzle. The melange of flavours and textures makes this unforgettable. Call in advance to ‘chope’ this super popular cake. There's also Pulut Tekan & Kaya ($4) kueh, chewy glutinous rice laced with the vivid blue of butterfly pea flowers. You can add as much as you like of the delicate egg-less housemade kaya with a texture somewhere between cream and a wobbly custard, which is served separately.

Nasi Lemak $6
Instead of the usual jasmine rice, the more expensive basmati rice is used here. This adds al dente bite to the rich, coconutty grains. Also lovely is the fork-tender rendang-marinated chicken. A nasi lemak dish’s anchovies and peanuts can make or break it, and here it elevates the dish with a satisfyingly savoury crunch.

Mee Siam $6
There’s no in-house kitchen in the cafe, so Jessica pre-cooks the dishes daily at a central kitchen before heating the food up upon order. It doesn't affect the taste, though. This gravy is piquant and boasts sambal chilli that’s fiery and umami. Shiok.

Another must-order here is the robust Kopi ($2.10 for regular size). Indonesian beans are brewed the old-school way with silk stockings by the shy cafe ‘barista’ Daniel Loy, 61, who’s been working at his family-owned coffeeshop for the past 50 years.

BOTTOM LINE: Decadent yet affordable Peranakan-style local fare cooked with love. We would return to this out-of-the-way cafe for the sugee cake and nasi lemak alone. 

2. Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria
2. Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria
02 Feb 2016

2. Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria

Cool kids: (Far left) Alwyn Chong, MD for selected Asian markets for Luxasia; (second from left & far right) Yah-Leng Yu & Arthur Chin, founders of design agency Foreign Policy Design Group; (second from right) Loh Lik Peng, hotelier & restaurateur.

#01-05 NATIONAL GALLERY, ST ANDREW’S RD, S178957. TEL: 6385-6683. Open daily 11am-7pm, last orders at 6.30pm. www.galleryand.co

It’s hard not to feel worried for your wallet when you’re looking for something to eat at the National Gallery. Chef Julien Royer’s stellar-but-pricey Odette sets you back at least $300 a meal for two, and &Sons owner Beppe DeVito’s swanky restaurant Aura is decked out in expensive shades of copper. Before you squat outside the museum with an Old Chang Kee, drop by the casual but cool Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria. It’s set up with a conscious purpose: to provide museum-goers with yum nosh at affordable prices. Most of the items on the menu here ring in below $20. Which would help you a lot after you’re spent, financially and physically, at the hip museum shop Gallery & Co next door, which the owners also run.

THE OWNERS: “We felt that there was a gap to be filled in Singapore for a world-class retail and F&B concept that combines art and design,” says Lik Peng. Yah-Leng and Arthur are frequent collaborators with Peng on his restaurant branding, while Alwyn, who distributes cosmetics and fragrances, takes care of Gallery & Co’s retail front. The food is prepared by a head chef who was formerly sous chef at mod European Restaurant Ember, which is part of Lik Peng’s group of restaurants. Home-grown bakery Plain Vanilla supplies the cafe with its bakes including cupcakes, while Papa Palheta provides the coffee.

Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria: The Look
Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria: The Look
02 Feb 2016

Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria: The Look

The roomy, modern self-service space is designed by the Foreign Policy duo, with tiled floors inspired by kopitiams. Try to grab one of the cosy tables by the French windows, good for small groups. There’s a veranda beyond which will transform into a 50-seat bar next month, serving $10 beers, $12-a-glass wine and bar bites like Har Jeong Chicken with Basil ($9 for seven pieces). Food is served on chic enamel plates with Instagram-worthy paper mats, also designed by Foreign Policy.

Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria: What we tried
Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria: What we tried
02 Feb 2016

Gallery Cafe & Cafeteria: What we tried

(L - R)

Green Curry Seafood Pasta $16
Linguine luxuriating in a pool of flavourful green curry, topped with delicate chunks of sea bass, octopus, mussels and a prawn. A decent Western take on Thai cuisine.

Otah Stack Sandwich $8.90
A thick slab of mackerel otah embraced by the tasty, chewy lovechild of a baguette and ciabatta, slathered generously with whipped mayonnaise. The otah is spicy and pillowy, though there is bite in the form of mackerel chunks. Its richness is cut with housemade pickles and cucumbers. The cafeteria manager declines to reveal their otah supplier.

BOTTOM LINE: This is not just a random F&B pit stop in a museum. You get decent quality, prettily-plated grub for your buck. Just be prepared to fight the hordes.

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