Sunday, April 19, 2009

BTO: Smart casual

Business Times - 18 Apr 2009

Smart casual

Eat with your fingers or arrange the tables as you please - these new casual concept outlets encourage diners to get comfortable. By Audrey Phoon


Greenwood Fish Market.Bistro.Bakery
38 Greenwood Avenue
Tel 6467-4950


IF YOU were one of those diners whose main gripe about eating at the Greenwood Fish Market and Bistro was that you had to first walk through the fish-market bit of the shop, take note: your nostrils will no longer be affronted by the smell of raw seafood. These days, the distinctly more pleasurable scent of newly-baked bread, sometimes chased by the aroma of crisply-frying potatoes or freshly-made crumpets, is what greets you as you enter the bistro.


Sounds like a whole new outlet? It is. The owners of the 'Greenwood fish shop', as it is commonly known, recently took up two units along the end of the same row to grow the bistro bit of the business. Of the decision to expand, chef de cuisine Alan Lee says: 'It's been an on-going nag; we had more diners than we could accommodate at the old place. We needed more seats and a fresher look, so about two or two-and-a-half months back we decided to go for it.'


The new space, which houses 90 seats (40 of which are outdoors under an awning, with 10 in an area that can be sectioned off from the rest of the bistro), opened a month ago. It sports a sort of slicked-up country look and plenty of warm red and brown tones.


A bakery counter loaded with baskets of loaves and a counter full of cakes and frosted cupcakes serves as the room's showpiece, while the walls are lined with wine bottles that allow customers to conveniently grab, pay and go. (Look out for a range of difficult-to-get wines from boutique makers - Greenwood is working with some of its regular customers to bring in bottles from such vineyards.)


Menu-wise, the focus, as before, is on seafood. Lee says he has not removed anything from the list for 'a few years', although he's constantly adding to it. The only rule with regard to the ever-expanding range of dishes, notes the chef, is that everything should not be 'too refined'.


'We want people to come here and eat like they're really enjoying themselves, with their hands even, not eat like this,' he says, picking up a fork and knife and pretending to eat with affected daintiness. 'If I ask you if you're enjoying your food, and you're eating like that, I won't believe you!'


What he's added to the menu over the last month include gourmet hamburgers ('very simple, just good meat from our neighbours Swiss Butchery hand-formed into patties with our home-baked bread') and crab cakes stuffed with blue swimmer crab and Japanese rice. Meanwhile, a list of 'small bites' is in the works, because the new bistro is open all day and 'if people are coming in the whole day for coffee and tea, they should have access to this type of food also', explains Lee.


The new bakery section, led by a baker formerly from Raffles Hotel, is particularly worth swinging by for. About four to five types of bread from a repertoire of 12 is available daily, including specialities such as the Aloha, a dark-brown loaf containing coffee, chocolate and caraway seeds that is strangely savoury but good; and the cream panettone, a dense, rich loaf similar to the traditional Italian creation but made with cream that Lee wraps in baking paper and ties with twine.


'Rustic is what I'd call our breads,' he says. 'The uglier the better too - somehow they're more delicious that way. It's the same with fish. John Dory, monkfish ... they're all nice to eat with a good texture, but really ugly!'


To top it all off and add to the comfort factor, the bistro has introduced a free valet parking service for its customers as parking was previously a problem in the area. 'It's just an additional service to make the deal sweeter for customers,' concludes Lee.


Kith Cafe
7 Rodyk Street
#01-33 Watermark @ Robertson Quay
Tel 6341-9407


IT WAS only nine weeks ago that friends Jane Hia and Ahmad Hidayat mooted the idea of setting up a cafe together as they were both 'at a crossroads' then. But once the former Da Paolo events manager and Jones the Grocer operations manager had made their decision, everything came together at lightning speed. As Ms Hia describes it: 'Then, bam bam bam!'


The original idea was to have a 'money-changer sort of space' in the CBD where they would set up a takeaway coffee counter selling the beverage that Mr Hidayat is so passionate about, she explains. 'But it wasn't easy getting a space; the rent was really high and operating hours were short. And then we found this.'


'This' is a tiny unit on the ground floor of the Watermark condominium at Robertson Quay, across the river from Timberlux Centre. It's untraversed territory for most - to get to it if you're driving, it's easiest to park around the Gallery Hotel area, then walk through eM By The River and cross the road to Watermark.


Named Kith Cafe for the casual, friendly atmosphere the owners aim to create, the shop opened just a week ago and can seat 20 at most. Still, 'it's bigger than what we expected, bigger than what a coffee counter would need so we had to adjust our original idea', explains Ms Hia. Luckily, she cooks well enough to complement her partner's 'damn good coffee', and so they were in business.


It's all fuss-free fare here though, as the owners 'are keeping it simple and not trying to do too many things'. That means no hot kitchen, just good coffees along with a selection of breads, pastries, ice creams and some daily specials that change 'according to what we feel like doing that day', says Ms Hia.


Even so, everything is more than decent, with the bread and pastries - orange sponge, muffins, strawberry shortcake and the likes - freshly made daily by a friend of Ms Hia's who was formerly a baker at Da Paolo ('we have to pick up the goods from her every morning at 6am because we open at 7!' grumble the owners good-naturedly).


The ice cream, of which 12 flavours are available daily, is from a reputable local maker. And the daily specials - which Ms Hia whips up at home before she comes to work - include goodies like a shepherd's pie ($5) with a yummy Asian-inspired ginger and soy meat filling under a blanket of fresh-mashed potatoes and a cheesy crust.


There are also home-made spreads to go with the breads such as strawberry jam, lemon cream cheese and avocado, and plans are in the pipeline to introduce sandwiches to the menu very soon, along with Kith's signature blend of beans (that are specially sourced and locally roasted for freshness) 'because we've already had quite a number of requests'.


'We're quite picky about what we serve - if I get, say, muffins from one of those wholesalers, it will taste the same as everywhere else,' explains the lively cook, who is quite vehemently against 'going commercial'. 'Our food doesn't look that nice but it has quite a home-made taste which customers have said they love.'


When it comes to the design of their business, both owners are fans of that same 'unpolished look'. That's why Kith Cafe features a blackboard for a menu running along one of its walls, and funky, raw modular furniture custom-made from planks of wood stacked on top of one another to form benches, barstools and tables. It's a bit like sitting and eating on giant Jenga sets or, to repeat Ms Hia's instructions to the carpenter, 'like kueh lapis'.


Diners are free to move the furniture around and join pieces together to suit their needs. 'Groups come in and they get bigger and bigger and they move things and figure out how to fit things together by themselves, and that's how it should be,' says Ms Hia, who is an industrial designer by training.


Evidently, like its furniture, Kith's concept is a good fit too. The cafe has already found a following - mostly Caucasian and Japanese expatriates who live in the area. 'They love that we have whole breads because since Simply Bread moved out of The Quayside they've been at a loss,' says Ms Hia, grinning impishly.


'It's all about guessing what a place needs and I guess we got it quite right since everyone seems quite happy with what we have,' she finishes.

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