With Chinese New Year nearly upon us, many restaurants will be offering special Lunar New Year menus featuring seasonal dishes usually eaten at this time of the year. One of these restaurants will be Tamarind Hill, owned by the luxury hospitality chain Samadhi Retreats. To get to it, you’ll have to drive (or take a long walk) deep inside Labrador Nature Reserve, where the forest will part to uncover a bungalow that looks like it was built in the colonial era for the residence of a British official. That’s not far off from the mark; it started as Labrador Villa, the residence of George John Mansfield, a British shipping magnate. But in 2018, it’s now a fine dining restaurant specialising in Thai and Shan cuisine.
A little gem called the Pasta Boutique, now in Bedok!
It took a while for me and my friends to find the PASTA Boutique in Bedok. When we got off our Uber, we found ourselves facing three food centres next to each other. We finally found it tucked in a corner next to the entrance of a washroom: a brightly lit stall with two men in dark blue T-shirts, bent over their counters, frying food on a sizzling pan and plating it on wooden serving boards.
The two men are Mark and Eddie, proprietors of The PASTA Boutique. Mark joined the F&B industry in 2013 to get some working experience in the trade before embarking on his dream: starting his own F&B establishment. While working at the Wharf Oyster Bar and Seafood, he met his future business partner, Eddie, whom he convinced to join him in his new venture. Eddie does most of the cooking, Mark told me, although he is learning as well.
Striking out on one’s own in F&B is always a gamble, and I was intrigued that these two men would decide to go from working in restaurants to running a food stall in a coffeeshop. However, humble beginnings for western food establishments is nothing new in the Singapore food scene: Aston’s current pantheon of restaurants all began when Aston Soon started his East Coast coffeeshop stall to offer quality western food to the masses at an affordable price. The PASTA Boutique’s mission is an almost word-for-word echo: in Mark’s words, to bring better quality pasta to the neighbourhood at kopitiam prices.
I approached Mark at his stall, introducing myself. He showed me a menu with about fifteen choices over three pages. Stunned by the wide selection, I just told him to give us the dishes that best represented his stall. He warned me that we might have to wait a fair bit before getting our food, since it was the busy dinnertime period. He handed me a number on a stand, and I went back to the table where my friends were at. I cracked open a cold one with the boys to pass the time. A beer maid attempted to sell us another bottle of our lager despite our continual refutations. I tried my best not to inhale as cigarette smoke wafted over from the smoking section.
Mark walked past us, carrying pasta and a dish of chicken chop to a neighbouring table with three elderly Chinese people. Once they were served, they started to dig in enthusiastically. They looked like they lived in the area, and had simply come down for a dinner at the local kopitiam. When Mark and Eddie started their stall, business wasn’t so good as the older heartland folk from the Bedok neighbourhood usually opted for something else other than Western food. Instead, the PASTA Boutique got most of their traffic from millennial gastronomes who intentionally travelled to Bedok to try it. Word-of-mouth spread and more customers came for their food. Eventually, the neighbourhood folk warmed up to their cuisine too.
Fifteen minutes after we first arrived, Mark finally came to our table bearing food. That wait had been shorter than expected. And just like that, we had a panoply of dishes to sample: Chicken Chop with Herbs and Spices ($8.80), Seabass with Salsa Verde ($12.80), Creamy Bacon and Mushroom Pasta ($9.50), and Chili Crab pasta ($10.50). Linguine was used in our pastas, but you can choose spaghetti or fettuccine if you prefer.
The Meats: Deliciously Crispy, with Tasty Sides
I bit into the grilled chicken, while my friends tried the pasta first. The charred, crispy skin was a real delight, and the meat remembered to be juicy. There was also savoury brown gravy in a little bowl. I wasn’t sure if it was for the mashed potato or the chicken, so I tried it with both. It turned out to be a fantastic accompaniment with either.
The seabass was covered with a browned, crispy skin that had been smothered with a green layer of herb pesto. In my friend’s words, the fish was ‘mint and refreshing’. The white flesh was still soft, but had acquired a nice smoky taste from the panfrying.
Both the non-pasta dishes – the seabass with spicy salsa verde and the grilled chicken with herbs and spices – came with sides of mashed potato and ratatouille (which looked like sautéed vegetables). Notably, PASTA Boutique’s mashed potatoes were clearly homemade and prepared indulgently: thickly solid and buttery, with an uneven heterogeneity from the use of a handheld masher. The vegetables in the ratatouille had also been sautéed long enough to release the natural sweetness found in tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. I devoured them without hesitation.
The Pastas: Reliable and Well-Prepared
We had been promised good pasta, and on that, the PASTA Boutique delivered. Before I move on to discuss the sauces, I need to emphasize that their pasta noodles for both dishes were cooked to exactly the right texture; al dente, as the Italians say. Very few kopitiam Western food stalls know how to make pasta properly, and on this regard, the PASTA Boutique already stands out.
PASTA Boutique’s Creamy Bacon & Mushroom pasta does not disappoint. The noodles had been run through the sauce such that each strand was adequately coated, leaving no oily residue at the bottom of the plate – often a sign of badly made cream sauce. The flavour of the sauce was also not overwhelming; lemak, but not gelat. Succulent brown mushrooms and bacon round up the ensemble soundly.
Is this the future for Kopitiam Western Food?
Thank you The Pasta Boutique for the invitation.
Sunlight was waning as I wandered along Bussorah street, having some trouble finding this week’s restaurant visit. As the day turned to evening, Kampong Glam was waking up; people begain filling up the Turkish, Lebanese, and other Middle Eastern restaurants. I myself was looking for the Flying Monkey, a recently opened restaurant and bar serving pan-Indian cuisine and spice-inspired cocktails. I finally discovered it under an awning, as there was no evident signage on the façade of the building. Only when coming closer did I see its neon name blazing on the back wall of the restaurant.
The mind of a chef differs from the mind of one who merely dines. A diner can appreciate good taste when they encounter it. So can a chef, but intriguing flavours also instigate the gears of a chef’s mind to begin whirring. They wonder: how can I replicate this delicious meal in the kitchen? My mother, who has been cooking for my family since I was a baby, is such a person. She has recently become interested in making her own bread, and even tried her hand at making pizzas. So when I received an invitation to join a pizza-making party to learn how to make pizza from the fine chefs at Jamie’s Italian, I knew who my plus one should be. Continue reading “Fun is the Word at Jamie’s Italian Pizza and Prosecco Party!”