A stretch of MacPherson Road in Singapore has several restaurants serving mostly Asian food. Catering mostly to locals, they offer a chance to taste the "real" Singapore far off the beaten tourism track. How do they compare?
I spent two nights at the ibis Styles on MacPherson in Singapore. The hotel has an informal eatery called Chat and Chow, where I had breakfast both mornings since it was included with my room.
Lunch and dinner buffets and ala carte dishes are also served at the colourful eatery.
While the hotel is located in a predominately residential neighborhood, I discovered a commercial strip a short walk down MacPherson Road.
I decided to eat my lunches and dinners at these neighborhood eateries because they were far off the beaten tourism track and the diners eating at them appeared to be entirely locals rather than tourists.
I thought this would give me the chance to experience the “real” Singapore rather than the homogenized Singapore I would expect to find at the food and beverage outlets along Clark Quay or in Marina Bay.
There were several regional Chinese restaurants and Indian restaurants as well as well as Japanese, Thai, and Himalayan eateries. There was even what appeared to be an English style pub, but I never ventured inside.
In addition, were a number of day spas, a few small grocery stores, some fruit stands, other small businesses, and a gym, which offered me a day pass for S$6. I was tempted to give it a try except my hotel had a small fitness room as well as a free-form swimming pool.
The gym did, however, offer trainers at a very affordable price, which included both Western boxing and Thai kickboxing. It WAS a temptation!
Ali Khan Restaurant
This informal eatery has covered outdoor seating with ceiling fans along the sidewalk. The sign said in big letters that it was open 23 hours, but it didn’t say which hour it was closed.
Unfortunately, I forget to ask which hour it closed – and why they bothered to close it for just one hour. Is that when they give it a good scrub?
Western food runs from beef, chicken, and lamb to fish and chips as well as beef, chicken, and lamb hamburgers.
There are also Thai dishes, but the focus is clearly on Indian food. The absence of pork and beer suggests that this is a Muslim Indian rather than a Hindi Indian restaurant.
The menu runs the gamut from prata and thosai to roti john, Indian rojak, murtakak, and tulang (soup).
If you don’t know what all of those things are, not to worry. Most of them are breads of varying types, and there are photos. Let the photos be your guide!
Some of the dishes are cooked to order, others are laid out on platters behind glass – Asian cafeteria style. So you can also just point at whatever looks promising and hope for the best.
“Live dangerously!” is my motto when I dine at a place like this.
I ordered the Mutton Bisik based on a picture on the menu that struck my fancy. I told the waiter that I liked it spicy. I also asked for it to be served with white rice since it appeared to have gravy.
I ordered a beer, but was told they didn’t serve beer so I ordered Coca-Cola instead. Then I noticed that all of the other diners were drinking milk tea and regretted that I had not done the same for a more authentic experience.
The dish I ordered was impossibly orange, and the serving was generous. Large chunks of mutton predominated.
Other ingredients included sliced green chilies, shredded Bermuda (red) onions, chunks of potato, shredded red cabbage, and scrambled egg.
I totally enjoyed it, and it did go well with white rice. I didn’t find it especially spicy – but then, I have a fairly high tolerance for spice. I DO like food with a kick!
It was only after I finished eating that I noticed the heat. There was a very pleasant aftertaste.
That's when I noticed a table heaped with fresh coconuts. I decided that fresh coconut juice would be the perfect conclusion to a yummy dinner.
All in all, a very pleasant meal. I would happily eat at this unpretentious little cafe again if I ever found myself in this part of Singapore.
Ali Khan Restaurant, 508 MacPherson Road (at Jalan Belangkas), Singapore. Telephone: 6744-0786.
Julaiha Muslim Restaurant
I returned to the strip the following day for lunch. Because I had a lengthy long-distance telephone call on the InFocus smart phone in my room (telephone calls – including long-distance calls – are free), I arrived a bit late: well past 2.30 pm.
Much to my disappointment, at least two-thirds (if not more) of the eateries dotting the street were closed – some because it was mid-afternoon, and others because it was Sunday.
I was hoping to try a different style of cooking, but ended up at Julaiha Muslim Restaurant, which – in a bid to out-do the competition – was open for 24 hours rather than just 23 hours. Talk about one-upsmanship!
The menu was similar to the menu at Ali Khan, but the cooked dishes were different. Rather than order off the menu, I decided to point.
That yielded a large piece of fried chicken, which was bright orange, some saffron rice, a vegetarian dish with fried spinach, fried cabbage, and fried – if I heard correctly – pita (as in pita bread).
Before I knew what was happening, the chef had placed my chicken on the counter and smashed it with a chopper.
OMG! The expected result came true. Some of the bones were broken in the process. If I ever eat there again, I will ask the server NOT to smash the chicken!
The chicken and rice arrived at my table with a small plate of gravy, which I assumed I was supposed to spoon on top of either the chicken, the rice, or both. I spooned it on both.
Behind another glass cabinet was an assortment of “appalam”. I assumed they were savoury, but they were sweet. I ordered the vegetable and coconut appalam.
The appalam arrived at my table with a bowl of red sauce that looked exactly like salsa. But it was not the least bit hot. It, too, was sweet. The appalam were crispy, crunchy, airy, and spongy.
The drinks menu was extensive. I ordered Iced Salaimani Tea. I had no idea what salaimani meant, but – based on what arrived at my table – I will assume it means mint because it was full of fresh mint. It was a very, very refreshing beverage.
Julaiha Muslim Restaurant, 538 MacPherson Road, Singapore. Telephone: 6743-2773.
Boon Tong Kee
Following my first meal on MacPherson, I was torn between returning to the same restaurant to try three or more dishes and doing an in-depth review of the one restaurant or trying three other restaurants and doing an overview of what was available on the street within a five-minute walk of my hotel.
I posed this question on my Facebook page, and the consensus was simple: variety is the spice of life. Only two friends suggested I return to the same place to try more dishes.
I have to be honest, after eating at the two Muslim restaurants, I had had my fill of curries, and I was ready for a change of pace.
I did not, however, want to eat just anything that I could eat anywhere else, so I studiously avoided the Japanese and Thai eateries.
I wanted something that was distinctly Singaporean, and if I had already tried Indian, it would either have to be either Malaysian or Chinese.
When I spotted a Chinese restaurant with something that appeared to be Hainanese Chicken hanging in the window, I thought, “That’s for me!!!”
Hainanese Chicken – while named after the island of Hainan, which is a part of China – was actually invented by Chinese emigrants that had settled in the Malaysian Peninsula.
The only question in my mind was, “Bones in or bones out?” There are clearly two schools of thought, and I subscribe to the latter.
When I walked inside and took a seat, I was handed a menu, but the featured dish was labeled “boiled” chicken rather than “Hainanese” chicken.
Whatever. I ordered it anyway along with chicken rice (white rice cooked in chicken stock rather than water) and fried mushrooms and broccoli.
I also ordered the local beer, Tiger, and it was served with a glass full of ice. OMG! I had no idea just how refreshing lager served over ice could be. I HIGHLY recommend it!!!
The fried broccoli with assorted mushrooms came first, and it was absolutely delicious. The mushrooms were enoki mushrooms, and they had a delightfully smoky taste.
I'm assuming that "assorted" means the chef will give you whichever mushrooms are in season.
The chicken took a while, and I’m not sure why because it simply needed to be chopped and plated. I asked for it without the bones, and the waiter said, "Fine. We'll give you the breast.".
I wasn’t sure what the difference was to Hainanese chicken so I asked the waiter. He said it was boiled. I asked, “but isn’t Hainanese chicken also boiled?”
He said the method and the spices were different. A friend on Facebook said that Hainanese chicken was poached rather than boiled.
Whatever. The chicken was succulent and tasty. It was served with spring onions and sliced cucumbers.
There were two sauces on the table: red and dark brown. I liked the dark brown sauce best. I asked what kind of sauce it was. The waiter said, "Soy sauce."
Hmmm … I thought soy sauce was rich, thin, and salty. This sauce was rich, very gooey, and sweet. Must be something local. All I can say is, "I LOVED IT!!!"
The boiled chicken can be ordered for one or two persons. An entire chicken can feed four. I appreciated the flexibility since I was dining alone.
I could order two dishes without breaking the bank. Which is NOT to say that the dish was cheap …
What’s interesting is that the chicken – while the restaurant’s signature dish – was actually one of the cheapest items on the menu.
When I got back to the hotel, the director of sales and marketing said I had chosen restaurants well. Two of the three were actually on the hotel’s Walking Guide of places to eat.
He also told me that Boon Tong Kee was highly popular with Thai tourists. Many visitors from Thailand booked rooms at the hotel when they visited Singapore specifically because they wanted to dine there.
Boon Tong Kee, 470-472 MacPherson Road, Singapore.
Chat and Chow
For my final meal while staying at ibis Styles on MacPherson, I decided to have lunch at the hotel’s cheerful café, Chat and Chow, where I also had already had breakfast both mornings of my stay.
The set menu included eight choices, which came with a choice of soup or salad and iced lemon tea.
The soup of the day was mushroom, but I opted for the garden salad, and it was an excellent choice. There were greens, cherry tomatoes, and croutons.
Most of the eight main dishes were Southeast Asian, ranging from prawn mee and bah kut the to beef rendang, tom yum hoon soup, and seafood sambal rice.
If truth be told, I wasn’t really sure what half of these dishes were!
There were also two East Asian dishes, one Chinese and one Japanese: sweet and sour fish and chicken teriyaki.
So what did I settle on? The Beef Stroganoff, which was prepared European style with sour cream rather than Chinese style, as it is usually served in Hong Kong. And it WAS delicious!
There was also broccoli and cauliflower on the side.
My brief stay at the ibis Styles on MacPherson Road in Singapore was a culinary adventure. I only wish I could have stayed longer so that I could have tried some of the other restaurants within a short walk of the hotel.
The director of marketing and communications at the hotel told me that there were several other restaurants in the neighborhood that he would like me to try.
He was particularly enthusiastic about a spot serving Fish and Chips, which he said the Sultan of Brunei liked to dine at when he was in town.
I also wish I could have been accompanied by some dining companions so that we could have sampled several dishes at each of the food and beverage outlets I visited.
Most Authentic, Most Extravagant, Best Value
Of the four outlets that I tried, the two Muslim eateries were the most fun, and I think they offered the most authentically Singaporean experience.
The ceiling fans definitely added some "local colour"!
The Chinese restaurant was the most stylish eatery and the food was extraordinarily good, but it was also by far the most expensive of the four restaurants.
The Chat and Chow offered the best value, and the meal was the most balanced. There was protein, carbohydrates, and both fresh and cooked vegetables.
I particularly liked the colourful ambiance and the frinedly staff.
My stay at the hotel was hosted as was my lunch at Chat and Chow. My meals at the three restaurants nearby were entirely self-funded.
Ibis Styles, 401 MacPherson Road (corner of Aljunied Road), Singapore. Telephone: +65 6622-6000. Check room rates and availability at ibis Styles on MacPherson/TripAdvisor.com