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From lemak to laut
#03-10 Shaw Centre
1 Scotts Road
Tel: 6235 3218
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sun: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 9pm.
17 Stanley Street
Tel: 8878 8018
Open for dinner only Mon to Sat: 5pm to 10.30pm
HUNGER may be the best sauce, but in the case of a certain new nasi lemak shop in town, controversy is the new umami. Lemak Boys has barely opened for business, but it’s already drawing a line of hungry aficionados attracted to the ‘Peranakan’ nasi lemak that’s in the centre of a mini online storm over who really invented the coconut rice dish. It all started with an innocuous article that accidentally labelled it as such because the ‘boys’ happen to be three chefs from the Nonya eatery Blue Indigo Kitchen next door, which was downsized to make way for the new concept. More lemak than Peranakan, it was alternately accused of cultural appropriation of Malay cuisine, disavowed by other true-blue bibiks, and dismissed by pragmatic Singaporeans who said, “Who cares so long as it tastes good” and proceeded to complain about the price instead.
Thanks to its accidental notoriety, Lemak Boys can barely cope with the onslaught of food sleuths who want to decipher if the now ‘Peranakan-inspired’ nasi lemak is really worth the hype and the S$12.50 price tag. The queue outside adds to the lunchtime human traffic that clogs up the third floor of Shaw Centre, where several mid-range eateries – including the popular tempura joint Tenjin – from the Les Amis Group form a veritable food corridor. There’s also the new Lino Pizza and Pasta Bar – no controversy but good gorgonzola pizza and gutsy oxtail rigatoni.
But back to the nasi lemak, which perhaps has the likes of Coconut Club to thank for breaking the price barrier of this hawker staple. While there’s a premium version, the basic S$12.50 is fine on its own, with an addictive, not-too-sweet punchy sambal on light, coconut milk-infused rice that could be a bit richer and more fragrant.
But the sambal already seals the deal, along with the rest of the accompaniments that include peanuts and crunchy ikan bilis – truly light and crisp unlike the hard gum-piercing fried toothpicks we’re used to – fluffy otah, vegetable omelette and fried chicken. The otah is outsourced but perfectly good, and the chicken gets a good rubdown with lemongrass and toasted spices for a salty but juicy crisp-skinned bite.
If you spring for the premium set (S$18.50) you get deep-fried battered prawns that you can eat shell and all, topped by a chilli onion relish that fights with but loses to the original chilli sambal. But a side of rich, creamy coconutty sayur lodeh is the bomb, enveloping tender braised vegetables in its fragrant dried shrimpinfused gravy.
Sitting quietly on the sidelines amid the fuss but certainly no pushover is the laksa, which has never heard of the words ‘cholesterol’ or ‘cut corners’ and packs in a laundry list of ingredients in a gravy that puts the lemak in Lemak Boys. Again, the regular set of S$12.50 is good enough with three prawns, fish cake, tofu puffs and half a hardboiled egg. The premium S$18.50 gets you a firm, extra large prawn and a couple of clams instead of cockles.
For a no frills, canteen-like outfit, the food at Lemak Boys is restaurantlevel, with a slew of ala carte and rice sets that include a popular turmeric fish curry which we didn’t have room to sample, an Indian spice-scented chicken rendang and tender squid tossed in soy sauce and coconut milk.
For dessert, there’s a so-so daily hot dessert like green bean soup, or a must-have slurp-worthy chendol pudding in a jar that’s a wobbly panna cotta layered with gula melaka syrup and red beans. So even if curiosity leads you to Lemak Boys, it’s the food that will make you stay.
WHILE Lemak Boys is all about nofrills but solid Asian fare that sends you straight to your comfort zone, Laut opts for a thoughtful, experimental approach with equal attention to aesthetics. Malay for ‘sea’, Laut is meat-free, unless you consider frogs’ legs to be aqua chicken.
It’s primarily a bar which takes its food seriously. It has a locavore component too, picking from nearby seas and farms where possible. The cocktails are pretty but have a purpose – fruity, not too sweet and tailored to match the food. You sit in a sparse, artfully lit space inspired by a fishing village, complete with wicker bar stools and hanging bamboo traps to fit the lifestyle of minimalist squid.
An understated but well-thought out style runs through the concise menu. Oyster eggs (S$11) are poached and cubed local oysters re-arranged in their shells that have been filled with steamed egg custard that surprises with a chilli oil finish. The pearls of tapioca starch are a cliche but a nice touch.
Deep fried soft shell crab (S$18)takes its cue from its black pepper cousins, with thick spice paste streaked across the crunchy critters. They’re good enough on their own, but even better dipped into a sweetspicy aioli inspired by chilli crab sauce.
Such playful riffs on local fare are restrained yet full of character, like the squid gado gado (S$25) where a whole squid is perfectly cooked to hit the sweet spot between undercooked and rubbery. But it’s the peanut sauce that makes it a winner with its harmony of sweet and savoury, and the textural pleasure of itty bitty cubes of lontong, tempeh and bean sprouts. And of course airy-light keropok for garnish.
Otah on toast (S$18) will make you look down forever on your tea time otah bun, as the house made spiced fish paste with plenty of flaked fish is assembled on lightly grilled sandwich bread held together by strips of banana leaves. It’s the addition of perky pickled vegetables that give it the extra boost.
Finally, Prawn Rajah (S$29) doesn’t look or smell like something you would enjoy, as this oddball interpretation of thunder tea rice takes a dish that’s already an acquired taste up another notch on the weird ladder.
Mixed herbs give risotto-like rice a grassy hue, as the earth-and-hay whiff of century eggs goes into the mix. On top of that, stink beans take a romp through the whole thing. But take a bite and apprehension turns into an odd satisfaction as this creamy, mild, funky yet tasty concoction wins you over. The party poopers are the prawns which might have taken the wrong boat from the kelong and arrived stressed and hopelessly mushy.
For a sweet end, clam-shaped sweet potato fritters filled with insufficient banana (S$11) are fun and delicious with a familiar resilient chew. A little less endearing is a circular slab of black glutinous rice ice cream (S$11) drizzled with coconut cream and garnished with croutons that misses the mark.
As a bar, Laut punches above its weight in the cooking department and like a good seafarer, knows how to reel diners in hook, line and -–almost – sinker.
Lemak Boys 7
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review’s publication.