Baba Chews is one of the latest bars and eateries to grace the vibrant F&B enclave that is East Coast Road. Belonging to the Indigo Boutique Hotel, that now forms part of the new Katong Square complex it is also open to the general public.
Housed in the former Joo Chiat police station with a wide frontage facing the main road, I had driven past a fair few times and was more than a little curious to see what was hiding behind the simplistic white facade. So when Ordinary People received an invite to dinner I was all too happy to volunteer my time and tummy.
The interior is a mixture of old and new and inspired by Peranakan and colonial elements, while the food is influenced by cuisine from the Straits of Malacca.
Not on the menu but served to us to showcase their home made chilli and kaya (coconut jam) was a basket of bitter nut crackers (emping) and colourful edged prawn crackers served with a rather chilli but tasty sambal dip (Malay chilli sauce), and also a sweet bite sized blue sponge cake, coloured naturally with the bunga telang flower (blue pea flower) and topped with a salted egg kaya. As I was not overly familiar with these ingredients and flavours and due to the whimsical appearance of the cakes, I began to feel like I had just fallen down the white rabbit hole and I knew I was in for an interesting culinary ride.
Eager to explore further, I was next treated to a trio of starters, I had “Five Spice Ngoh Hiang” which was a crispy bean curd roll filled with pork and prawn served with sweet and sour sauce $12 and “Chilli Crab Cake” accompanied with chilli crab sauce and a fried mantou chip (Chinese steamed bun) $15, this was probably my favourite starter dish, though I did find the mantou chip to be on the hard side. As a bit of a purist when it comes to Cantonese dim sum (small plates of various Chinese dumplings and delicacies) I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the “Otah Siew Mai” (Otah being a Malay spiced fish paste and siew mai a Chinese steamed pork and prawn dumpling), smoother in texture than I usually like my siew mai but a nice alternative with its Malay twist.
Before the mains arrived we where served a helping of “Pong Tauhu”, a traditional Peranakan soup $10. One of many firsts for me at this meal, I found this soup to be extremely comforting with its very meaty pork meatballs and deeply savoury homemade prawn broth, I would imagine it might be to Straits of Malacca a version of the British “chicken soup for the soul”.
Starting to feel full at this point, the palate cleanser (usually served in the restaurant as dessert) of “Sour Plum Ice and Lychee Jello” was refreshing. The combination of cool shaved ice and (very) sour plum syrup had me squinting and made my lips pucker up somewhat but it did a good job in renewing my appetite. The lychee jello came in the form of bubbles which made me think of giant ikura (salmon roe).
It was a lot of extremes and sensations to take in for one drink (or is it a dessert?), but rather than find it too much I rather enjoyed it and couldn’t help but feel I had just had another “Alice moment”, as it reminded me of the “drink me” potion.
On to the mains, we had four dishes. There was “Sambal Stingray” $20, a piece of sea caught stingray char-grilled and topped with the same home-made sambal and chilli sauce we sampled at the start of the meal – a classic Singaporean favourite and cooked well. The second dish was a less successful “Chap Chye” $12, a Peranakan mixed vegetable stew which lacked depth in flavour and was too salty for me.
Third up was the “weekly special” which was “Petai Stir-fried with Sotong” (smelly beans and squid). Chef Alvin Leo came out of the kitchen to introduce himself and the dishes at this point and happily informed everyone at the table to expect strange smelling pee the next morning after eating the aptly named legume (those of you who eat asparagus would have experienced something similar). I felt my host squirm at the mention of pee at the dinner table but he needn’t have worried as it didn’t bother me one bit to learn about this amusing little fact.
I liked the new (to me) flavours of the petai and sotong but in all honesty, all three dishes paled in comparison to the “Beef Short Rib Rendang” $25. My absolute hands down favourite dish of the whole meal. I’m usually not a big fan of beef rendang as I tend to find it rather dry, however the Baba Chews version which substitutes the usual cheaper cuts of beef normally used in in this dish with a grass fed Australian beef short rib was the start of a new love affair for me. Cooked and flavoured to perfection in coconut cream and spices, the meat was juicy and melted in the mouth with a deliciousness that just left me wanting to eat this every day for the next month.
Feeling sated after my second helping of rendang – it was that good, I could only manage a little of my “Kueh Durian” dessert $12 which consisted of homemade durian mousse with shredded coconut cooked in gula melaka (palm sugar), wrapped in pandan crepes and topped with a scoop of home made gula melaka ice cream.
As is the case with me and my dim sum, I am also a bit of a purest when it comes to my durian, usually preferring it straight from the fruit. Trying not to let that cloud my judgement of the dish, I can say that I enjoyed the creaminess of the gula melaka ice cream and the soft lightly scented pandan crepe. The durian mousse and gula malaka sauce where not bad either but sadly the combination was too sweet for my personal taste and on balance I found them to be far too overpowering for the crepe and ice cream – flavours which became lost when eaten altogether.
Thank you Baba Chews for inviting Ordinary People to sample your delicious food, I tried many new things I may not have picked for myself and experienced a mini culinary journey to the straits of Melaka while I was there. I can’t wait till the next time I get a chance to step through the looking glass of culinary discovery, I wonder what else I will find… I surely hope there’s more of the Beef Short Rib Rendang.
86 East Coast Road
#01-01 Katong Square
+65 6723 2025
Mon-Sun: 6:30 am – 10:30pm
Note that prices are for full size portions and not the sample sizes that we mention in some parts of the article. Prices are correct at time of publish.
Title image credit: Anna Hui