Hawker food goes gourmet: 3 affordable stalls to try

We check out three new gourmet hawker stalls that come with ready claims to fame, including Felicia Chin’s seafood-in-a-bucket concept.  

1. Wholly Crab
1. Wholly Crab
03 Jun 2015

1. Wholly Crab

STALL 17, SATAY BY THE BAY, 18 MARINA GARDENS DR, S018953. TEL: 9186-6228.
Open daily Mon-Thur & Sun 2pm-10pm; Fri & Sat 2pm-11pm. Last orders 30 min before closing. Wholly Crab Facebook

Cajun-style seafood served in plastic bags and buckets, which diners dig into with their bare hands, isn’t a fresh idea. However, instead of serving this trendy treat in typical hipster surrounds, Felicia Chin has chosen a stall at Satay By The Bay to launch Wholly Crab, a cheeky pun on ‘holy crap’. Her aim? To make this cuisine more accessible with “affordable prices in a no-frills setting”. Of course, this open-air food court is not exactly your heartland kopitiam, and diners can stroll over to Marina Barrage or Gardens By The Bay after dinner.

The 30-year-old actress, who also co-owns eight-month-old cafe The Mama Shop, envisioned a casual diner “that suits [her] personality” offering Asian-inspired oceanic eats. We think she means that she’s low-maintenance. “I feel proud of our local flavours,” adds Felicia. So instead of boiling seafood and tossing them into sauces, Louisiana-style, Wholly Crab goes the Asian route and stir-fries them instead with your choice of five house-made sauces like laksa. The food is presented in cheery colourful metal buckets which you unload onto your table to whack. Prices range from $18 for 500g of Chilean mussels to $28 for a 600g Sri Lankan crab. (In comparison, a similar sized Sri Lankan crab at Crab In Da Bag costs $55 and a 1kg Dungeness crab costs $90 at The Boiler Louisiana Seafood & Beer.) Each order comes with your pick of a side dish like Sweet Potato Fries or Thai Mango Salad, the latter unfortunately sold out on our visit.

Feli roped in a friend-cum-F&B consultant (a “celebrity chef” whom she declines to name) to conceptualise Wholly Crab. She pops by about four times a week to help out at the stall. Business has been good, she says. “Seventy percent of my customers tell me they came after seeing photos of Wholly Crab on their friend’s Facebook or Instagram accounts,” adds the social media-savvy star, who has 76,000 Insta-followers at @iamfeliciachin. Three-week-old Wholly Crab is already attracting franchise enquiries. Feli says she’s open to expansion, though “acting will always be my No. 1”.

1. Wholly Crab: The Food
1. Wholly Crab: The Food
03 Jun 2015

1. Wholly Crab: The Food

Love Bucket $60; feeds 2-3 pax
The contents of this large pink bucket: a medium-sized crab with meaty pincers, eight crunchy prawns and 250g each of mussels and clams. Unfortunately, several of the clams are, um, clammed up. Everything is stir-fried with chunks of potato, sweet corn and chicken sausage (they’re getting halal-certified) in our choice of Kung Pow sauce. It’s more sweet-savoury than spicy despite the whole dried chillies, though you can request to kick up the heat a notch.

1. Wholly Crab: The Food
1. Wholly Crab: The Food
03 Jun 2015

1. Wholly Crab: The Food

Laksa Mussels $18
We prefer the rich, coconutty Laksa sauce to the Kung Pow, which goes well with the fleshy mussels. Also yum is the pleasantly sweet Marmite sauce with prawns. Skip the so-so Spicy Tomato. The Creamy Cheese made with mozzarella is reminiscent of the white sauce used in pastas, and it works decently with our clams.

1. Wholly Crab: The Food
1. Wholly Crab: The Food
03 Jun 2015

1. Wholly Crab: The Food

Nori Tempura Soft Shell Crab $12
A scrumptious Japanese-style appetiser which Felicia put on the menu because she loves soft shell crabs. Two generously sized ones are lightly battered, drizzled with a creamy mayo-based sauce and topped with bonito and seaweed flakes for an umami mix of flavours.

BOTTOM LINE: A tasty Asian riff on Cajun seafood boil that won’t burn a hole in your pocket. If only they also sold bread or mantou to soak up all the lovely sauces.
 

2. By The Fire
2. By The Fire
03 Jun 2015

2. By The Fire

ALIBABAR HAWKER BAR, 125 EAST COAST RD, S428810. TEL: 9185-4824.
Open daily weekdays noon-3pm & 6pm-10.30pm; weekends noon-11pm. Last orders 30 mins before closing. www.facebook.com/bythefiresg

Maybe it boasts fab fengshui. Several tenants at Alibabar Hawker Bar, including Astons and Saveur, had their humble beginnings here, but have since expanded into popular chain outfits.

Its latest tenant may be a newbie, but it does come with some pedigree. By The Fire is by chef Immanuel Tee, 28, of the well-loved Immanuel French Kitchen hawker stall at Bukit Merah’s Salute coffeeshop. Immanuel originally planned to start a second French Kitchen branch here. However, his biz partner Alexander Chong, 29, (a former colleague from the now-defunct Guy Savoy and Keystone restaurants) “wanted to offer more playful dishes, so I decided to shelve my expansion plans and collaborate on this new concept instead,” explains Immanuel.

The three-week-old stall is helmed by Alexander while Immanuel splits his time between both stalls. Alexander loathes to call their food ‘fusion’, preferring to describe it as “Asian ingredients with classic European cooking techniques”. The highlight of their mod Western cuisine: a smoky finish over a Japanese binchotan charcoal grill tucked at the back of the nondescript stall, a truly gourmet sight in this hip kopitiam. “We thought it would be nice to cook this way as charcoal grills aren’t common in coffeeshops these days,” says Alexander. “Moreover, binchotan charcoal gives food better char and flavour than a gas grill,” adds Immanuel.
 

2. By The Fire: The Food
2. By The Fire: The Food
03 Jun 2015

2. By The Fire: The Food

Scotch Egg $6.90
Our favourite part of this lovely appetiser is its oozy ramen-style egg yolk hidden within a coat of crusty breaded minced pork. The accompanying zesty coleslaw of crunchy purple cabbage is delish.

2. By The Fire: The Food
2. By The Fire: The Food
03 Jun 2015

2. By The Fire: The Food

BBQ Pork Ribs $14.90
Succulent ribs, confit in duck fat, is glazed with a lip-smacking house-made barbecue sauce that includes oyster sauce and Chinese wine. Served with creamy American-style Mac and Cheese, this value-for-money dish will feed a hungry man or two peckish girls. We wish it also came with some of that purple ’slaw to cut through all that salty meat.

2. By The Fire: The Food
2. By The Fire: The Food
03 Jun 2015

2. By The Fire: The Food

Grilled Pork Jowl $15.40
Pork cheek is first confit in duck fat till super tender, a nod to the chefs’ French cooking roots. It’s then brushed with a mildly spicy Japanese curry paste and finished on the grill for a smoky whiff. We adore its pairing with an Asian-inspired pumpkin and potato salad, jazzed up with chilli oil, sesame oil, spring onions, and bacon bits. Our favourite dish here, though it’s a tad too salty.

BOTTOM LINE: Innovative, almost restaurant-standard (though heavily salted) cuisine given the binchotan charcoal treatment. Prices are fairly reasonable, too.

3. Jack Ripper
3. Jack Ripper
03 Jun 2015

3. Jack Ripper

#01-40 SALUTE COFFEESHOP, 119 BUKIT MERAH LANE, S151119. TEL: 9665-0785
Open daily except Mon. Tues-Sun noon-3pm; 5.30pm-10pm. Last orders 9.45pm. www.facebook.com/jacktheripperburger

Salute, the Western food-centric coffeeshop in Bukit Merah just got even more ang moh with this burger joint. Taking over the stall from fellow burger biz De Burg (which has since relocated to Kallang), Jack Ripper serves up something more atas than your run-of-the-mill kopitiam Western stall burgers. Its menu of seven burger choices was created by — oddly enough — upmarket French restaurant Absinthe’s executive chef, Nicolas Reynard, who serves as consultant here. The stall is a collaboration between the chef and the coffeeshop owners. A Frenchman flipping American-style burgers? We’re sceptical, though Chef Nicolas tells us he came onboard ’cos “I like burgers and I want to try something new.” He personally cooks here on Sundays, when he has a day off from Absinthe.

On our weekday visit, the sparse and clean kitchen is helmed by a young affable Filipino cook called Jason, who shares that he “used to be a line cook in Canada” before moving to Singapore. “Sorry, the burgers will take some time as I’m doing this alone,” Jason says earnestly, adding that the self-service stall is hiring more staff. Our three orders arrive in about 15 minutes. As for the um, unappetising moniker, it was Chef Nicolas’ idea to name the stall after the serial killer. “I chose it ’cos it’s unusual and I like it, but some people think it’s weird!” he laughs. What’s weirder: the burgers here have female names like Fay and Catherine — named after Jack’s victims. Yikes.
 

3. Jack Ripper: The Food
3. Jack Ripper: The Food
03 Jun 2015

3. Jack Ripper: The Food

Fairy Fay $18
The most basic beef burger on the menu is $12. But we opt for this baby as its thick 150g Aussie wagyu chuck patty is stuffed with a slice of Kraft cheese. It’s topped with more cheese (artisanal cheddar this time), and veggies. Sadly the patty is overcooked and rather dry, though the flavour of the beef is rich and savoury. And the cheese stuffed within didn’t ooze out like it should have. However, we love the expertly-grilled sesame brioche buns baked by local French bakery B.A.O — buttery and crisp on the outside, softly chewy inside. Also good: the accompanying rosemary-sprinkled shoestring fries.

3. Jack Ripper: The Food
3. Jack Ripper: The Food
03 Jun 2015

3. Jack Ripper: The Food

Catherine $14
For folks who don’t eat beef, this is the only non-bovine option on the menu. A minced teriyaki chicken patty is loaded with fresh romaine lettuce, red onions and slathered with lemony mayonnaise. “This tastes very old-school,” our colleague remarks. Pity about the severely dry chook (again!), which is even more parched than the beef patty.

BOTTOM LINE: Our only, er, beef with this otherwise promising stall is its overcooked patties, perhaps due to teething problems like the lack of manpower. We’d definitely come back if the patties are improved. Meanwhile, we will be checking out the stall on Sundays when chef Nicolas is in the house.

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