In Little India, Putri Zanina goes cafe-hopping to experience the island state’s dynamic gourmet coffee scene
RECENTLY, I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Singapore Serangoon in one of Singapore’s cultural enclaves, Little India. Housed in a tall, sleek building, this hotel bearing the internationally acclaimed Hilton brand stands over the exotic area with its ornate temples and well-preserved 19th-century shophouses.
The old and the new exude a charming contrast here, adding to the attractions of staying at the hotel.
While I was tempted to take a swig of sweet, spicy and frothy Masala tea in one of the many Indian restaurants here, my hosts who represented the Hilton Garden Inn, had another idea in mind.
They wanted to take us through the maze of lanes that branch out from the long Serangoon Road to discover some of Singapore’s hidden gems. These are the independently run little hipster cafes that whip up great specialty coffees and desserts. So off we went on a cafe-hopping tour, courtesy of Hilton Garden Inn.
Like back home in the Klang Valley, hipster cafes have mushroomed since the last five years or so in Singapore. It’s the trend now; follow the hipster crowd if you want to know the latest in today’s lifestyle. The coffee culture, outside the cultural mainstream of old coffee shops or kopitiams, has made waves in recent times with hipster cafes shaking up crafted drinks that you don’t mind paying for through your nose.
Forget the international coffee chains for a moment. Instead step into indie cafes run by local people in the vicinity of the neighbourhoods. It’s nice to walk into a cafe and know that the next cheesecake you buy could be the best you’ve ever eaten, other than the predictable chain cafe cheesecake you’ve had umpteen times before.
Stepping into Old Hen Coffee Bar (www.oldhencoffee.com) at 88, Rangoon Road, I felt at home instantly when I saw potted plants hanging from the ceiling; the decor of the cosy space included dried twigs, coconut husks and cascading plants.
The excitement pulsated at the coffee bar which stood against one side of the wall. The cafe founder Ivan Lim, sporting a dark blue apron over crisp white T-shirt and blue jeans, stepped out from behind the counter to greet us. With smiling eyes and chirpy disposition that instantly brought to mind the picture of the perfect “roaster hipster”, Lim laughed with a cackle when I asked him the story behind the name Old Hen.
“Hahaha, there’s no story to it really. We wanted a name that catches on, is easy to remember. And from the start, I wanted an animal in the name and an adjective that would be part of the cafe concept — not too serious, casual and fun for everyone. My brothers and I brainstormed and came up with this name,” he chuckled.
The “we” that he refers to are his twin brother Terry and another brother, Mason. Driven by a dream to become entrepreneurs and a business to call their own, they explored different options and decided to do something with coffee, which the brothers enjoy a lot.
“We decided to join the specialty coffee scene three years ago but to make it more accessible, not too expensive in a neighbourhood environment that’s a bit more casual with customer interaction,” he shared, adding that he wanted the cafe’s ambience to be a little more communal, too.
“We have more communal tables here out of about 20 tables in all,” he said, as he pointed to long wood-top tables with six to seven stools each.
Old Hen’s bestsellers are its cold brew coffees, concocted by the brothers themselves. They offer five choices: Creamy White Brew Coffee, Smooth Black Brew Coffee, Matcha Milk, Velvet Brown Valrhona Dark Cocoa and Mocha Coffee and Cocoa, all in their signature glass bottles.
Just one gulp of each, and “hmmm, oooohs and ahhhh” emanated from our long table. And when my order of Matcha Affogato came, the first spoonful had me unashamedly clucking with joy. The small bowl of koicha (strong and thick matcha tea), vanilla bean ice-cream and speculoos crumb (a kind of gingerly snap) went round the table for everyone else to taste only to return to me to for the last delicious slurp.
I left the cafe feeling as contented as a mother hen, minus the “old” please, haha!
Next stop, Non Entree Desserts (Facebook @nonentreedesserts), at 204, Rangoon Road. The idea was to walk in and experience the place like any other customer, minus the interview with the owners. Packed and noisy, it offers desserts and more desserts. It was a visual feast with the cafe sporting an Urban Garden theme at the time of our visit.
The theme changes every few months with an all-new array of desserts, mainly classic European desserts with a modern twist, pastries and artisanal Gelato ice cream.
Creative and whimsical, the desserts blew me away — they were just too good-looking to eat. The caramelised fruit, including apple and pear, had different fillings, such as vanilla creme fraiche mousse and almond sponge.
The garden theme star was the Ike or pond, reminiscent of a tropical water garden with Goma gelato coated in soya flour, sesame brittle, Umeshu koi, Matcha Mochi pebble, hand-roasted Sencha with aged Sake Consomme, and other delicate items.
The Rubber Ducky looked very much like the play thing in a child’s bath tub. Vivid yellow and sitting atop a lemongrass “cloud”, the ducky sorbet was a creme fraiche pudding with fresh mango puree and sago pearls. Fun to see and more fun to eat.
And having us drooling for more was the Chocolate Avalanche with the absolutely lip-smacking Valrhona dark chocolate lave. It oozed out and gushed into a chocolate soil enriched with crunchy almond nougatine and orange-infused vanilla gelato. Hmm, need I say more.
As the sky darkened and bright neon lights hit the streets of this part of Singapore, we headed for a tiny lane sandwiched in between rows of shophouses in the city’s old quarter in the Kampung Glam neighbourhood. Haji Lane is the place to be for some cool, chill-out nights at its many cafes and bars. This wasn’t part of the cafe hopping tour but a visit here gave us a peek into the city’s nightlife.
We trotted upstairs of a two-storey shophouse to the Bar Stories, a cocktail retreat that snuggles between indie clothing and trinket stores at Haji Lane. It has a small bar counter in a recessed space, surrounded by Scandinavian mid-century vintage furniture.
Helming the creation of drinks at the Bar Stories is mixologist David Koh. In the tight and noisy space, he leant close to me and said he had invented a non-alcoholic cocktail or rather mocktail for me. Nodding in appreciation, I said aye to his concoction of yuzu (citrus juice), hibiscus, lemongrass, lychee and sour plum, which met my liking for something sourish.
The drink came in a wooden garden-like platter and my glass had tonic water foam. The alcoholic version for the others had beer foam and gin.
The bar doesn’t have a cocktail menu. If you are feeling crappy, just let them know and they’d whip up something to knock your socks off. And so the night sizzled in Singapore with flow of drinks, fluid talk and laughter till way past midnight.