Dinner @ The Hill Club

There are few places that appeal to the British imagination as much as those that offer a combination of imposing architectural gravitas, antiquated (and invariably stuffy) customs, a strong (almost overbearing) sense of the past, and the social exclusivity of a private members club. Such places may be a bit like a public school for adults, but they are also one that most have only dreamt of being part of. Situated within Nuwara Eliya – still affectionately (and non-ironically) referred to as “Little England” – The Hill Club is one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent quenchers of such a distinctly British thirst.

The Club is located along the pine-lined Grand Hotel Road. It’s flanked on one side by The Grand Hotel, on another by Queen’s Cottage (official country residence of el Presidente, Mahinda Rajapakse), and on another by the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club. And if that wasn’t enough, it is set away from the road, amongst its scrupulously maintained private gardens. To say the setting is picturesque is an understatement.

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The Hill Club

Established as a club for British males in 1876, The Hill Club has evolved into one of the country’s most exclusive memberships. It is primarily patronised by a Colombo-based Sri Lankan elite, but a steady trickle of tourist traffic helps to make up the numbers. Visitors can acquire a temporary membership at a cost of LKR 100 per day (about SGD 1.00 – fair), for which they can use the Club’s facilities. This extends to the dining and reading rooms, bars, and tennis courts. Accommodation is also available for those who want the fully immersive experience. We settled for dinner.

Greeting us at the entrance was no less than the Club dog. That’s right, the Club dog. We named him William. Proud and well-trained, he grumbled not about the cold, nor about us entering his turf unannounced. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when I tickled his tummy and called him a dachshund. Now that’s not the sort of restraint you see on a day-by-day basis. Impressive.

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The guarded entrance

And here he is in close-up. A picture of stoicism.

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William

The Club famously offers a five course set dinner for USD 24.00, but there is also an a la carte menu that includes a small selection of vegetarian dishes. The dress code is notoriously strict, and a source of great hilarity amongst temporary members. Blokes must wear a jacket and tie and, as most visitors to Lanka neglect to bring such formal accoutrements with them, there is a wardrobe of “extras” that visiting menfolk can borrow (FOC). The Club tie was, I admit, rather tasteful, but the jacket was a horrendously oversized and generally quite ridiculous tweed affair (although the best of a bad bunch, I might add).

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Logo, tableware, branding, nice

The dining room itself is magnificently grand. Really, I couldn’t help but be impressed by such good taste and fidelity to old-school British style. At one end of the dining room are sofas and an open log fire – a perfect setting to escape the cold of the hills, and to chow down on some delightfully dubious grub. The music deserves a special mention – what started with the gentle tinkling of classical piano morphed seamlessly into a time-warped medley of 90s pop. I was, unfortunately, too busy being on my best behaviour to take heed of Boyzone’s pleas for me to love them for a reason, and for that reason to be love. Indeed, combined with the large table of velour-clad mainland Chinese tourists sitting adjacent to us, the music only added to the Club’s misplaced and irreverent charm. Goes without saying that I felt right at home.

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Due of toast parisienne

As a starter, we had the duo of toast parisienne (LKR 500), which basically consisted of creamy mushrooms on toast, accompanied by a side salad. The sauce was promised to be some sort of creamy white wine affair, and was a good – if canned – imitation that was strongly accented with cheese and salt. Or maybe just salt. That said, taste was very much a secondary consideration as the biggest excitement was provided by the boomerang-shaped piece of toast (charred along one edge) sticking out of the plate. Now if that’s not a sign of culinary flair, I’m not quite sure what is.

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Tomato au gratin

One of the mains we tried was the tomato au gratin (LKR 625), which was supposed to be diced veggies stuffed inside two hollowed out tomatoes, and then smothered with hollandaise and parmesan. All this atop a “herb buttered spaghetti”. The stuffed tomatoes were rather wan (evident in spite of the lighting), and the contents (diced courgette, carrot, onion, olive, and parsley) were very watery. The strongest punch came from the garlic-infused tomato sauce that lay under the toms. Eating this with a knife and fork was an exercise in slobbery, sauce-flying-everywhere humiliation, believe me.

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Vegetable lasagne

The other main was the vegetable lasagne (LKR 625), which was fairly self-explanatory, and came with assorted roasted vegetables. The lasagne was drowning under an avalanche of parmesan, the taste of which overpowered just about everything else. The inside was more watery than creamy, although the flavours of celery and courgette should be applauded for putting up a valiant fight against the parmesan. Bravo!

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Zabaglione di port

For desert, we shared a zabaglione di port (LKR 575), which is basically a sort of hot egg custard flavoured with port. It certainly had the light frothiness of egg custard, but with every bite I couldn’t help but think that I was eating butterscotch Angel Delight. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. If port was actually used (I have my doubts), it added a slightly fermented taste to the dish. Next time I will stick to port alone.

All in all, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the magic of The Hill Club. It’s a lot like the Churchill Room in Singapore’s Tanglin Club, but with worse food and a much, much more convivial and enchanting atmosphere. A trip to Nuwara Eliya wouldn’t be the same without a visit. It’s ace.

The Hill Club
29 Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
+(94) 0522 222 653
hillclub@sltnet.lk
Website
Open daily

See also:
Lonely Planet’s review

Restoran Visalatchi’s Food & Catering @ Jalan Scott

Exiting KL Sentral station and turning left along Jalan Tun Samnbanthan will take you away from the hubbub of Brickfields and towards the warm bosom of Restoran Visalatchi’s. Specialising in the Chettinad cuisine of southern India, it operates a canteen-style service that revolves around banana leaf rice and curry. The tables are long and communal, the acoustics underlaid by the gentle warble of Tamil, and the servers (of which there are dozens) swarm around, dolloping bits of this and that on your leaf. All you have to cope with is the difficult job of sitting and eating.

Restoran Visalatchi’s

It is in this respect that a trip to Restoran Visalatchi’s is a lot like going home. I say this not in suggestion of any culinary similitude (quite the opposite in fact), but because of the maternalistic desire to feed, feed, and feed again. Perhaps it was because I was alone, or a lone white face amongst my dining compadres, but the matronly manageress insisted on heaping my banana leaf with ladle upon ladle of rice and curry. Feelings of hunger soon morphed into that of pleasure which, after the third scoop (of everything), degenerated into the fuzzy bloatedness of a stomach ready to burst. It was only after holding up my hands in defeat that she smiled, and allowed me to pay.

Banana leaf rice set: serving 1

As mentioned, I ate a vegetarian version of the banana leaf rice set (MYR 8.50 for everything in the picture, plus (forced) seconds, and thirds…). The dhal blanketing the rice was beautifully aromatic, and turned out to be one of the best parts of the whole meal. Also delicious was the shredded cabbage and coconut, which contained a sprinkling of fennel seeds that exploded with bittersweet piquantness when chewed. The aloo channa curry was thickly spiced but a little overdone, whilst the deep fried gobi pakora had a pleasing crunch but the flavours were quite muted.

Interestingly, I learnt after leaving Restoran Visalatchi’s (stumbling, clutching my stomach in a state of gastronomic insobriety) that when eating banana leaf rice, it is good etiquette to fold the leaf towards you (along the midrib) to show your appreciation of the meal. Perhaps if I had quickly done this after serving number 2, I could have saved my digestive system a lot of work. Next time.

Forgive the folding (or lack thereof)

If home-style eating is what you’re after in Kuala Lumpur, then Restoran Visalatchi’s is where it can be found. Despite the enforced gluttony, I found the whole experience to be tremendously enjoyable and personable. Indeed, eating banana leaf rice is always something of an exotic novelty for those of us who grew up in more temperate climes, and my stomach and I eagerly await our next fill.

Just don’t forget to fold the leaf.

Restoran Visalatchi’s Food & Catering
18 Jalan Scott, off Jalan Sambathan, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur
+60 3 2274 4755
vishalatchicatering@gmail.com
Open 07:30-22:45 daily

See also:
Venoth’s Culinary Adventures review
Bangsar Babe’s review

Restoran Santa @ Jalan Tun H.S. Lee

For those of you who, like me, are always waiting for Christmas to arrive, I think I may just have a remedy for our impatience. It comes not in the form of gifts or mulled wine or mince pies, but in the rather brilliantly named Restoran Santa in Kuala Lumpur. The name, incidentally, is that of the owner’s father. But the festive parallel rings true, as Restoran Santa has been delivering a bellyful of joy for around about a quart of a century now. In layman’s terms, that equates to 25 marvellous years.

Restoran Santa Chapati House

The key ingredient to Restoran Santa’s success is its single-minded focus on doing one thing right. That one thing is chapati, the unleavened flatbread that is a humble staple to many in this world. It has none of the puffed-up pomposity of naan or the slick oiliness of prata, just disc upon disc of whole wheat goodness. And Restoran Santa knows exactly how to flaunt its crowd-puller (and pleaser), as stacks of chaps’ adorn the front of the counter, greeting everyone that has the good sense to walk in. Inside it’s busy and functional and a little bit dirty, which is exactly how it should be.

Two chapati, two vegetarian curries, and dhal

During my visit to Restoran Santa, I devoured two chapatis, channa masala, a mixed vegetable curry, and some dhal (MYR 4.00). It would appear that having just two chapatis is rather restrained, as orders are often 4-6 per mouth (the largest, apparently, was MYR 500.00 worth of the round stuff…!). The chapatis themselves were the largest and thickest that I have ever eaten and, as expected, managed to get the smokey-sweet balance just about right. I say “about” as one or two bites were borderline floury; a matter of size trumping taste, perhaps? Let’s not go there.

Size was, in all seriousness, a recurrent theme. Both the chickpeas used for the channa masala and the lentils used for the dhal were bloated (and rather impressive) in size. Yet whilst this translated into a deliciously rich savoury flavour for the dhal (which was well-supported by a strong tomato and turmeric base), the channa turned out to be a little insipid. The pride of the plate was, however, the mixed vegetable curry, which provided a culinary aria of nicely balanced flavours. In particular, the natural starchiness of the potato offset the spiciness of the chilli beautifully. Hats off to Santa’s son – or the cooks that work for him – for this most sophisticated of curries.

Lovely plate

All in all, Restoran Santa is one of those places that deserves an award for keeping the Malaysian appetite for chapati sated for so long. Its food is plentiful, and bursts with good and honest value. That said, anywhere that turns the charms of the chapati into a popular and longstanding business is worth a second visit in my book.

Restoran Santa
11 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Bukit Ceylon, Kuala Lumpur
+60 19 269 9771
Open 06:30-18:30 Monday-Friday; 06:30-15:00 Saturday; CLOSED Sunday

See also:
Venoth’s Culinary Adventures review
Bored KL Guy’s review
Time Out KL’s review

Simple Life Healthy Vegetarian Restaurant @ Lot 10

Rare it is to find a chain of vegeries (vegetarian-eateries, of course), let alone one that occupies prime locations in a city centre. The Loving Hut comes close, but it still prefers the relative safety of suburbia. Simple Life stands alone for its sheer willingness to stare risk in the face, and occupy expensive retail spaces in Bukit Bintang, KLCC, Mid Valley City, Bangsar, and further afield as well. The total number of outlets stands at 12, all of which are located in and around Kuala Lumpur. It’s a flourishing business; one that is well-conceptualised, well-marketed, and well-executed.

Business savviness aside, what I like most about Simple Life is its fidelity to authentic vegetarian flavours. Heavy sauces and elaborate mock meats are downplayed, whilst the focus is more on the natural and unrefined tastiness of plants. It reminded me a lot of home-style cooking; clean and simple flavours, and an emphasis on the ingredients more than the oil, sugar, and salt used when cooking them.

Simple Life in Lot 10

The Bukit Bintang branch of Simple Life is located on the second floor of the Lot 10 shopping centre. It’s unmissable, mainly because it occupies not one, but two spaces – a kedai and most of the second floor landing area. Another sign of just how successful – and popular – this brand is. The menu (which can be found on the website) spans a range of Chinese and Western a la carte dishes and some set meals. It also offers nasi lemak; a much sought-after, vegetarian version of the calorific Malaysian staple. Indeed, the menu is so large and enticing that we ended up going twice in two days. How’s that for a recommendation!

Multi-grain rice nasi lemak

The multi-grain rice nasi lemak (MYR 14.90) was what attracted us to Simple Life in the first place. As the name suggests, this dish used multi-grain rice instead of its more traditional, coconut-infused counterpart. A sensible way of cutting calories and boosting the health quotient. The delicious coconuttiness of n. lemak was not, however, lost, as coconut permeated the pumpkin and tempeh curry and, when mixed with the rice, turned out to be a clever and satisfying substitute. The pickled vegetables were sour and crunchy, and the soup was an interesting combination of red bean and lotus root. What surprised me most, however, was the belachan. Whilst I usually find this stuff repulsive (too smelly and overpowering), this one had a strong lemongrass (instead of shrimp) base that added a fragrant sweetness to the chilli. A million miles better than the real thing.

Charcoal sandwich with egg

The charcoal sandwich with egg (MYR 13.90) seemed like a bit of a gimmick, but an effective one at that. The benefits of using charcoal as an ingredient are more to do with presentational uniqueness (black bread, anyone?) than nutrition or flavour. But who am I to complain, as this is the exact reason why I chose this dish. A bit like a club sandwich for vegetarians, the mock ham had a nice saltiness that made it taste a lot like the real deal, and the use of mock pork floss and sesame seeds gave each bite a satisfying crunch and savoury aftertaste. The best part, however, was the enoki tempura, which I thought was as original as it was delicious.

Beancurd stick with basil leaves

On our second visit, we tried the beancurd stick with basil leaves (MYR 18.90), which is one of the set meals on the menu. Whilst the name is both strange and misleading (a “beancurd stick”…?!), this was essentially a Thai-style vegetable curry with a sweet basil sauce. Included in the curry were babycorn, carrot (cut into rather exciting lightning bolts), ginger, snow peas, and shimeji mushrooms. The beancurd itself looked more like a shrivelled pancreas than it did a stick. Not that it mattered, for it provided a nice, if unnecessary supplement to the veggies. A satisfying, but overpriced dish.

Basil leaves pancake

The basil leaves pancake (MYR 14.90) caught my attention from the outset. A unique idea that sounded (and looked) good on paper, mainly because its description was so ambiguous. A pancake? Would it be potato, dough, or radish-based? What does the basil do to the flavour? Why is it so expensive? Is it any good? Unfortunately one bite was all it took to pass judgement; it was rubbery, flavourless, and overpriced. The addition of chopped onion or potato into the batter would have added some much-needed granularity, whilst the use of basil as a garnish or sauce would have added flavour. The lemongrass belachan and the elegant plate were the best things about this dish.

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Simple Life is a thriving place that deserves a visit when in KL. A lot of thought goes into the menu and dishes, both of which are innovative and well-executed. What I like most is that fact that it embraces vegetarianism head-on by focussing on the natural flavours of vegetables rather than more synthetic supplements. If nothing else, it’s proof that vegeries can be as successful, and prolific, as their meatery counterparts!

Simple Life Healthy Vegetarian Restaurant
S12 & S31, 2nd floor, Lot 10 Shopping Centre, 50 Jalan Sultan Ismail, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
03 2110 5201
Website
Facebook
Open 11:00-22:00 Tuesday-Sunday; CLOSED Monday

See also:
Everyday Food I Love’s review
Chinese Pink Addict’s review

Tous les Jours @ Jalan Telawi 3

I had never heard of Tous les Jours (“Every Day” en anglais) before visiting Kuala Lumpur, but was amazed to learn how prolific this South Korean chain of French-style bakeries is. Beyond South Korea, it also operates in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States. Phew! Something tells me that it won’t be long before Singapore becomes another feather in T les J’s well-plumed cap. The sooner the better, if you’re asking.

Tous les Jours in Bangsar

If I think about this as objectively as possible (which isn’t saying much), then there are probably two things about T les J that resonate strongly with me. The first is its signature colour – that shade of moss green is as close to my favourite colour as you can probably get. It’s refined and classy and sensible. A (little) bit like me. The second is the selection of baked stuff that it flogs – also rather sensible. Indeed, it’s positively European(-esque) in its choice of flavour combos and fondant-viennoiserie pairings. Touches like these are comforting; they make me feel like i’m in safe hands.

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One word: sensible

The Bangsar outlet of T les J occupies a large corner plot with a baguette-stuffed bicycle outside. I’m assured the baguettes were fake, but they looked pretty damn real to me. Inside is a veritable gingerbread house of doughy treats, all of which appealed to the eye. Most appealing (and appeasing, I might add), however, was the large centre-table that consisted of croissants, almond croissants, pains au chocolat, pains aux raisins, and Danish pastries. That’s right: the sensible stuff. The wildcards (namely doughnuts and the like) were relegated to the outer displays, where they belong. As I said, safe hands.

Pain au Chocolat

The Pain au Chocolat (MYR 3.90) was pleasingly large, assuredly dense, and had a handsomely bronzed outer shell. A bit like me in another 10 years or so, perhaps. The chocolate filling retained its moisture nicely, but the overall pain lacked the distinctly buttery flavour that makes a good pain au c. so addictive. That said, a glance at the inner workings of this thing revealed umpteen layers of dough, which, in the world of viennoiseries, is nothing but good. It would undoubtedly have been nicer fresh, or even just warmed up. But then again, it was a busy day, and I went at a busy time.

Hazelnut Danish

The Hazelnut Danish (MYR 4.50) sat underneath a delightful coffee-flavoured fondant; an excellent example of a sensible flavour combo. Nothing fancy or innovative, just time-tested quality. A pleasing size, but a little dry and cold. The lack of heat caused the flavours to be muted, although that did little to stop my imagination running wild with the thought of just how good it could have been.

Cream Soboro

The Cream Soboro (MYR 3.80) can be classified as a “wildcard”, but there’s nothing wrong with that (have I just contradicted myself?). To be fair, I plonked this on my tray more in the spirit of respectful patronage than anything else (given that soboro buns are, after all, quintessentially Korean). Complete with a cream and custard filling (good start) and a bo lo bao-esque crumbly top (go on…), this thing looked great on paper. But again, same story. It was dry and the flavours were lurking somewhere not very noticeable. Heat + baked stuff = flavour-full. Take note.

Overall, Tous les Jours is a pleasingly good Asian-imitation-French bakery. Its fidelity to baking traditions is what sets it apart from some of the other Asian baking franchises. When it comes to Singapore, my arms (and wallet) will be open.

Tous les Jours @ Bangsar
39-41 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur
+603 2201 3526
Website
Facebook
Open 07:00-00:00 Sunday-Thursday; 07:00-01:00 Friday-Saturday

See also:
Eat Drink KL’s review
Food & Frame’s review

Mikey’s Original New York Pizza @ Jalan Telawi 2

For those of you (like me) who’s geographical knowledge of Kuala Lumpur doesn’t extend much further than Bukit Bintang and environs, then chances are you won’t have strayed into the badlands of Bangsar. I lie, for the lands of Bangsar aren’t bad at all, in fact they’re really rather pleasant. It’s like KL’s version of Holland Village – suburban, expatty, lots of terrace houses and trendy cafe’s and inflated prices; that sort of stuff. Much of the action is centred around the network of roads that share the Jalan Telawi moniker followed by a number. I counted up to JT 6, but i’m quite sure there are more lurking somewhere. Getting there (by public transport) is a rather grim affair, as it involves a long and lonely trudge along the busy/smelly/noisy (take your pick) road that connects Bangsar station to JT-ville, the infamous Jalan Maarof. My advice? Take a cab.

Bangsar

Enough waffling, my reason for heading to the badlands of B. was to try and hunt down a rather brilliantly named vegetarian/vegan restaurant called Woods Macrobiotics that claimed to be on Jalan Telawi 2 (number 25, in fact). It wasn’t there. Moved. Gone. Finito.

Nevermind, for in its place (or maybe next door, I forget) was this rather spiffy looking resto called Mikey’s Original New York Pizza. It certainly looked the part – black and white checkerboard flooring, faded photos and NYC number plates on the walls, pizza’s on the tables, you get the idea. And so, just like that, Woods was forgotten and Mikey’s embraced as if it was date arranged by destiny. Fickle, no?

Mikey’s Original New York Pizza

Mikey’s specialises in pizza, waffle fries, and a couple of other big and sloppy American-style dishes. Vegetarian options are generally limited to three pizza choices (margherita and the two below) and fries. But who cares; pizza is not something to be ummed and ahhed over. If it looks good, get it in your gulliver. It’s not rocket science. This stuff looked good, and the prospect of carb-laden stodge was exactly what was needed.

Wild Mushroom Pizza

The Wild Mushroom Pizza (MYR 12.88 per slice) hosted a triumvirate of shiitake, oyster, and portobello mushrooms. According to the menu, they claimed to be sauteed in butter, garlic, and olive oil. Could have fooled me, for the taste was bland and lacked the savouriness of mushrooms, or of anything sauteed for that matter. The flavours were lost somewhere between the pan and the pizza, causing this to be a rather desultory affair. Even the shredded basil struggled to make an impact. I think bigger chunks of mushroom would have helped. Massively.

Pizza Bianco

Thankfully, Mikey’s “signature” cheese pizza – the Pizza Bianco (MYR 10.88 per slice) - not only cost 2 ringgit less, but tasted twice as good as well. Hosting a dairified mess of mozzarella, ricotta, cheddar, and goats cheese, this thing packed a salty, and rather satisfying punch. Although the cheeses themselves were nothing special (far from it – the white blob in the photo positively frothed with goatiness… Or maybe just the can from which it originated), they seemed to have rallied together during the baking process and delivered a bolt of satisfaction with every chomp of the molars. The snob in me wanted to reject it, but the slob overruled and passed the final, positive judgement.

Staten Island Waffle Fries

To accompany all this baked dough and cheesy goo, we sensibly ordered some Staten Island Waffle Fries (MYR 10.88). There are umpteen different types of waffle fries to choose from, with the Staten Island version being the most vegetarian-friendly of the lot. I say “the most”, although we still needed to tinker with the sauces a little. The brown gravy was omitted (and was not replaced – pah!), meaning we were left with blue cheese, smoked chilli mayo, and Heinz ketchup. As you can see, the quantities were positively Lilliputian (no, that’s not because the waffles were so big…). That said, the smoked chilli mayo was rather interesting and delivered as promised – smokey notes gave way to a sweet spiciness which worked rather well.

Overall, I got the impression that Mikey’s is probably the prototypical Bangsarian eatery. It’s independent, trendy, (relatively) expensive, expat-friendly, and popular. It also runs a delivery service (that’s got nothing to do with the Bangsar prototype, just thought I should drop it in somewhere). For us, it was a life-saver. And judging by the number of expats wolfing down plates of the sliced stuff, our sentiments are shared.

Mikey’s Original New York Pizza
17 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur
+603 2202 0080
info@mikeyspizza.com.my
Website
Facebook
Open 11:30-23:00 Sunday-Thursday; 11:30-01:00 Friday-Saturday

See also:
Eat Drink KL’s review
Bangsar Babe’s review
Time Out KL’s entry

Yes Natural Vegetarian Restaurant @ Lorong 27 Geylang

Truth be told, my visit to Yes Natural was driven more by convenience than planning. For Yes Natural is located a short amble from (the artist eatery formerly know as) My Loving Heart, which, to my dismay, appears to have closed down (but soon to be re-opened, apparently). I actually clocked Yes Natural whilst walking along Sims Avenue, from the bus stop to MLH. Its sickly blue signage (which spans no less than three frontages – retailer, bakery, and resto – possibly one of the most sprawling vegetarian enterprises in Singapore? Ever?!) serves as a beacon of sorts. Don’t ask why, but for some reason it just screamed “vegetarian”. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a vegedar was wrong, clearly.

Yes Natural Vegetarian Restaurant

The Yes Natural empire spans businesses and locations (Geylang, Tiong Bahru, Clementi), although the Geylang branch is very much the nerve centre of the whole operation. As can be fathomed from the rallying war cry of a name (Yes!!), this conglomerate is big on healthy, do-goody-type stuff. Organic, vegan, eco-friendliness, additive (and MSG)-free; you name it, they push it.

The restaurant itself is a cross between a den of vegetarianism and a childcare centre. The atmosphere is quiet and homely, but the brightly-coloured lotus and other iconographic Buddhist murals on the walls make it seem a little puerile. The service is brisk but friendly, and the menu is large and largely Chinese. It’s typical of many quasi-religious vegetarian eateries on our hallowed Singaporean shores.

Pocket Salad

We started by sharing the Pocket Salad (SGD 6.00), which, conveniently, comes as a pair. This was essentially a pita pocket stuffed (I mean, stuffed – the one on the left was literally bursting at the seams) with salad (mostly alfalfa sprouts, but also some pea shoots and sliced tomato) and mock ham, and drizzled with a lemon mayonnaise dressing. It delivered exactly what it promised, but I couldn’t help but think that I could have made a better version myself. In particular, the flavours of the dressing could have been ramped up to provide a more decisive punch in support of the crunchy kick of the salad.

Vegan Honey Pork Slice

Next came the Vegan Honey Pork Slice (SGD 12.00), along with two bowls of dry brown rice. Whilst I do not crave the taste of meat in any way whatsoever (honest), there are certain meat-glaze flavour combinations that will always tug at my tastestrings. Honeyed pork is one of them. The sweet tackiness of honey is the perfect bedfellow of pork – a meat so prone to dryness that I have always felt that its well-known derivative – pork scratchings – refers to more than just pig rind alone.

Thanks in large part to the batter, this vegan replica dish nailed the crunchy-sticky tradeoff. It was smothered with honey glaze, which itself was extravagantly peppered with sesame seeds (a rare treat that I try and replicate whenever I eat yong tau foo – I have been known to shake that shaker for minutes on end). The sweet-nutty flavours and crunchy textures pandered perfectly to my palate. De-lish.

Bean Curd with Sauce (Ma Po Tofu)

Finally came the Bean Curd with Sauce (a.k.a. Ma Po Tofu – SGD 10.00), the sauce of which was much needed to cut through the dryness of the brown rice. Ma Po Tofu always strikes me as being a bit cheeky. The name itself translates loosely as “pockmarked grandma’s beancurd” (what’s that I see flying out the window? Nothing, just filial piety…), whilst the flavours usually hinge around chilli, and how much the chef thinks he can get away with using. I like it a lot, not least because it’s about as protein-packed and tasty as vegetarian food gets.

This dish included the mandatory tofu, some chewy (and ultimately superfluous) mock meats, and assorted sliced mushrooms. The shiitake mushrooms stood out for the precision with which they were sliced (to me they resembled fish skin), and characteristically pungent taste. The sauce was spicy and yet rather thin. The flavours were a little one-dimensional, erring too much on the side of spice than a more interesting blend of mushroom, ginger, black pepper, and/or fermented black beans. Better when served in – or from – a claypot I think.

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Fin.

Overall, I can foresee that a second visit to Yes Natural is definitely on the cards. The food is, on the whole, well-prepared, tasty, and healthy. It’s a place best visited with friends, as the menu is clearly skewed towards dishes to be shared. And if for nothing else, eating here is a good way to cleanse the soul before partaking in some of the more hedonistic attractions that Geylang has to offer.

I refer to durian, of course.

Yes Natural Vegetarian Restaurant
57 Lorong 27 Geylang
6741 1580
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Open 11:00-14:30 & 17:00-21:00 daily

See also:
Hungry Ang Mo’s review
Mr & Mrs Vegan’s review

Gayatri Restaurant @ Race Course Road

Race Course Road is home to some of the behemoths of Indian eating in Singapore. I’m not just talking brands, but real estate as well. Muthu’s Curry, Banana Leaf Apolo, Sakunthala’s, Komala Vilas and, of course, Gayatri all boast humongous outlets that are all rather similar in their neon-fuelled glossiness (and grease-streaked windows). These are the flagships of Singapore’s Indian culinary empires, and they compete not just on size and taste, but on garishness and gimmickry as well.

Gayatri was full of gimmickry, but none of it behaved as it should. An auto-sliding door that partitioned off a private eating space released a flood of noise whenever triggered (which was often); tablets were pre-loaded with the menu, but the ordering function didn’t work (neither did the “call for service” console); a wall of neatly displayed wine bottles was offset by hawker-style containers of forks and spoons and bottled water atop each table; both restaurant and kitchen overflowed with service staff, necessarily so given the shortcomings of its technological infrastructure. I think you get the picture. It was flashy and tacky and inefficient; but strangely enjoyable at the same time.

Whilst Gayatri may be known for its fish head curry, it retains a good balance of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes that span the gamut of north and south Indian cuisines. Whilst the curries appeared to be quite well priced, it is clear that the starch, drinks, and desserts are where the margin is made. I shouldn’t complain, as we were given a free basket of papadums, despite them being listed in the menu as costing SGD 1.20. Wahey!

Gayatri Restaurant
122 Race Course Road
6291 1011
info@gayatrirestaurant.com
Website
Open daily

VEGETARIAN SET MEAL (SGD 6.00)

The vegetarian set meal comes with white rice, two vegetable curries (pumpkin and bitter gourd), raita, rasam, a coriander-style rasam, and a sour yoghurt-like drink. My favourites were the rasam (more so because i’m not usually a fan – this one seemed slightly thicker than usual, and had a smooth, peppery taste), the bitter gourd curry (which had enough richness and character to be served as standalone dish), and the raita (which was refreshing and crunchy). The attention paid to the flavours of each dish was noticeable; one of the best vegetarian set meals I have had in a long time.

Verdict: 7.8/10

PANEER BUTTER MASALA (SGD 7.50)

The photo doesn’t do this dish justice. The flavours of the curry were quite unique; in particular, it had a rich, almost caramel-like sweetness to it that was as surprising as it was enjoyable. Unfortunately the paneer let the dish down – it was far too soft, and resembled tofu more than it did a dairy product. Also comes in a larger size for SGD 13.00.

Verdict: 7.4/10

PLAIN NAAN (SGD 2.75 per piece)

Expensive and uninspired, the naan was the most disappointing part of the meal. It looked and tasted like it had been heated up in an oven, and the presentation, as you can see, was devoid of panache. I would give this thing a 5.0, if only it wasn’t quartered. Why?!!

Verdict: 4.0/10

RAVA MASALA DOSA (SGD 4.00)

My favourite dish, although probably the least visually appealing. The rava was incredibly tasty, thanks to the generous inclusion of chopped onion, green chilli, and (whole) black peppercorns into the (nicely charred) batter. The masala filling was plentiful, and the three chutneys punched well above their weight in terms of flavour and freshness. It was served with a side dish of rasam, which had an inferior (and more sour) taste to that of the set meal.

Verdict: 7.9/10

Gayatri @ Race Course Road is one of those places where I like the food more than I like the restaurant itself. I wish they would stop trying to impress the customer with gimmickry, and focus on doing what they do best: providing good food at a good price. A tasty but slightly nonsensical experience overall.

Atmosphere: 6.0/10
Service: 5.6/10
Taste: 6.8/10
Value: 7.4/10

See also: 
A Tiger in the Kitchen’s review
Econoclasm’s review

L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry @ Middle Road

L.E. Cafe is a class act, no doubt about it. It has been around for longer than Singapore, and over the years has established itself as one of the island’s foremost bakeries. The Middle Road outlet is L.E. HQ (there are two other branches on the nearby Cambridge and Veerasamy Roads), and strikes a nice balance of being homely yet professional. From nearly every surface hangs some sort of certificate, award, press cutting, photo, celebrity-endorsement or, more instructively, menu. The staff are patient, and always happy to remind me that I can’t just waltz in and flash my cash, but need to pre-order. Yes, it’s that kind of place!

A few things can be bought off-the-shelf (rock cakes and old-fashioned butter cupcakes; almond, hazelnut, sugee, cashew nut, pistachio and raisin cookies; pineapple tarts and the occasional moon pie – see L.E.’s website for more info on products), but for the really good stuff you have to order in advance. The trademark bean curd tarts fall within this latter category, and are something I have been eyeing for a while now. Of course, being a stickler for spontaneity I am incapable of pre-ordering anything. I was, therefore, grateful to get my hands on one of the boxes from the day’s second batch. Perhaps the fact that it was Lunar Eclipse day can explain such unprecedented good luck?

Everything has to be bought in bulk, so there’s no messing around with a tart here or a cookie there – commitment is required. Stop complaining, this is a good thing. The bean curd tarts were beautifully packaged in a large and robust cardboard box with the L.E. logo printed on top. Perfect if you’re buying them as a gift, or for any other occasion that requires at least a modicum of presentational panache. As I said, this place is a class act.

L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry
264 Middle Road
6337 2417
enquiries@lecafe.com.sg
Website
Open 10:30-19:00 Monday-Saturday; 10:30-16:00 Sunday

ORIGINAL BEAN CURD TARTS (SGD 9.00 for a box of 8 tarts)

These things are raved about by just about everybody who knows how to put words on the Internet. Seriously, the praise is borderline euphoric. Hungry Ang Mo is possibly the most muted of the bunch, calling them “lovely”. Budget Pantry goes a little further, calling them “absolutely delicious”; the biggest serving of flattery comes from Fabian Poon who says that “the first bite bring[s] the meltdown of fresh bean curd coalescing with the buttery crumbly crust inside the mouth… one can almost instantaneously reach an epiphany”. Steady on Fabian, it’s only a tart!

Such a convergence of opinion never fails to bring out the cynic in me. In this case, I think people get wrapped up in praising the idea and lose focus on the taste. The tart is an interesting idea. As an alternative to the Portuguese egg tart, L.E. Cafe apparently pioneered the idea of substituting egg custard with bean curd, and puff pastry with shortcrust pastry. Nice, in theory.

But in practice, I don’t think the combination is quite the synergy that people think it is. The key problem lies in finding a common ground between the casing and the filling. The bean curd filling has to be kept cold, but any type of pastry is at its tastiest when served warm. The bean curd filling is light and smooth, the shortcrust pastry is brittle and dense. The taste of the filling is that of subtle soyness (i.e. not particularly sweet, but not particularly flavoursome either), whilst the pastry has a slight butteriness to it. The fact that these tarts are unable to reconcile these differences is, in my view, their Achilles heel.

Let me be more specific. The tarts are served cold, meaning the taste of the pastry is heavily compromised. They are difficult to eat because biting into them causes the pastry to almost snap apart, rather than fold in on itself like puff pastry (I found that the best way of eating them was with a spoon – filling first, casing after). The flavours are too muted: the bean curd does not have enough distinctiveness to carry the tart by itself, whilst the rich butteriness of the pastry is almost nullified by refrigeration. As a result, these things are difficult to eat, and bland and watery to taste. Egg tarts work because the egg custard filling and the pastry casing complement each other so well. Bean curd and pastry are both delicious, but not when eaten together.

Verdict: 6.4/10

For the third time, L.E. Cafe is a class act. Of that, I am sure. I do, however, also think that one of its signature products – the bean curd tart – is better as an idea than as a product. I would buy these again, simply because the packaging is tasteful, the idea is interesting, and they are very good value for money. The taste, however, not is quite as revolutionary as most claim it to be. 

Atmosphere: 8.5/10
Service: 8.7/10
Taste: 6.4/10
Value: 8.9/10

See also:
Hungry Ang Mo’s review
Budget Pantry’s review
Crunchy Bottoms’ review

Guan Gourmet House @ River Valley Road

Guan Gourmet House is an oasis of good value amidst a desert of overpriced, expat-centric bars and restaurants. With UE Square and Clarke Quay on one side, Mohamed Sultan Road on the other, and the condominiums of River Valley everywhere else, it stands tall as one of the few affordable eating options in the area. Facing the busy-yet-desolate River Valley Road, GGH is not a particularly pleasant place to sit and have a meal. But it’s great for when the post-boozing munchies strike, as they are so prone to do.

Offering a huge number of Hong Kong-style dishes, GGH also has a small and dedicated selection of 3-4 vegetarian noodle options. Not fantastic, but better than most. I was particularly impressed when the server asked if egg could be included in the order; a small detail that reveals a big willingness to understand the dietary preferences of the customer. Good.

Guan Gourmet House
225 River Valley Road
6333 6003
Open 10:30-00:30 daily

VEGETARIAN HOR FUN (SGD 5.00)

The sensible colour palette got me thinking that this would be a solid performer in the taste stakes. Indeed, the first bite had a nice sourness from the lime juice drizzled on top, but that was about as exciting as it got. Most of the vegetables – bean sprouts, baby corn, Chinese cabbage, shredded carrot – had a pleasant crunch to them, but the flavours were muted. Likewise, the kway teow noodles were soft and springy, but lacklustre in terms of taste. Omitting the meat seemed to translate into omitting the need for a flavour substitute – soy sauce, lime, wok hei, anything. Somewhat fittingly, the meal was brought to an abrupt close with the discovery of a short – and unseasoned – grey hair. Nice.

Verdict: 5.4/10

Guan Gourmet House is a place you’re probably more likely to visit out of necessity than choice. The portions are substantial and well-priced for the location. Perfect for soaking up alcohol, but not much to enjoy when sober. 

Atmosphere: 5.4/10
Service: 7.6/10
Taste: 5.9/10
Value: 7.2/10