WORDS BY KEN GARGETT
I used to think Singapore was Asia for beginners, but these days it’s an incredibly exciting city.
I try and get to an extraordinary wine tasting a friend holds in Helsinki every year. As it is such a long trip, I usually also allocate some time to go off and visit some wineries/vineyards in across Europe – this trip is work, after all. The ritual, if you like, is the Emirates at 2.30am from Brizzy, which gets me into Singapore around 8am. Then I have the day in Singapore, with the flight to Helsinki leaving at 11.30pm that evening. It gives me a great chance to rush around Singapore and do a heap of things.
For once, I’d really planned the stopover – a near perfect way to spend a day in Singapore. All going well – and it did not – my plan was:
- A taxi from the airport in to the Golden Mile Hawker Centre for a breakfast of bone broth;
- A trip to a couple of the very best coffee houses;
- Lunch was to be one of the year’s highlights – the best fish head curry in Asia;
- Followed by catching up with some friends for a drink and a cigar at the Olde Cuban, one of the world’s best cigar and whisky bars;
- Finally, on the way back to the airport, a stop at what I am assured is a cracking speakeasy, ‘Operation Dagger’.
The gods must have been in fits when they saw the plan. What a train wreck. Talk about blind optimism meets cruel reality.
Firstly, I ask the information desk at Singapore’s Changi Airport where the cabs are. ‘One floor down, sir’, the attendant says. It’s not. It is, in fact, two floors down. No matter, I quickly find the cab rank, but I should have taken the mishap as a warning – a red flag alerting me to go back to the lounge and sleep for the day. At this stage, I work out that my mobile provider has done something to cut me off from using my phone overseas. Now, I’m seriously grumpy and it means endless chaos.
I hopped in with Jason, my cabbie. He was a hoot. He starts by saying, “You look very wealthy.” I tell him that I must be good at fooling people. He smiles and says, “That’s what we say about people who are a bit chubby.” I point out that he’s already blown his tip. I ask him about the haze covering the city and get a 10 minute impassioned oratory on the evils of Indonesia.
As Jason drops me off at the Golden Mile, he promises me that there is no chance of rain today. Jason lied.
I have details of the little hawker stall where the best bone broth in all of Asia is supposedly made, and I make a beeline straight for it. I’m stunned, however that at 8.30am so few are open of the stalls are open. Hardly any, in fact.
Eventually, I find the stand. The shutters are down, padlocks in place and there is no sign of life. There are, however, half a dozen large bags of bones leaning against the stall – whether for use or used, I’m not sure. I ask the gentleman at the neighbouring stall will they’ll be open. He assures me never. It’s all over for the bone broth stall, but he is open. No thanks. I decide that, battle lost, I’ll come here as a last stop tonight. Meanwhile, I spot a small place with a great looking laksa. “Sorry, we are closed,” they tell me. I guess the dozen or so people all tucking in at the surrounding tables must be relatives…
It is now after 9am and the humidity is melting flesh. I hop into another cab and I’m off to the other side of the city for a coffee house called Nylon Coffee. What I cannot follow is why, at peak hour, the place is deserted. The streets are almost car free. Has war been declared? What is going on?
A public holiday. As they say in the classics, ‘Well, bugger me’. It means that half of everything I have planned is down the drain. Now I understand why the bone broth stall was shut. I am sweating on this fish head curry… Please let them be open.
It takes ages to find Nylon. I’m outside a drab public housing block, miles, in every way, from your typical trendy coffee crowd. I search for ages. Finally, there is a crowd outside a small room at the far end of a slightly dodgy-looking lane.
I order. They suggest I wait outside in the oppressive heat and humidity. I try it, but feel like the Wicked Witch of the West in a rainstorm. I find a small stool in the corner inside. Finally, the coffee arrives and it’s more than worth it. This is as good as coffee gets. These people are serious connoisseurs. They roast on site and only use what they buy personally from the plantations. This is more like it.
Time for the next place. My research on Google Maps suggests it is a few minutes’ walk. I ask directions and am laughed at. A lot. It seems Google has also lied to me.
I go out and find an 8-lane freeway and wait for a cab. I need to be headed the other way though, so I bolt across the multi-lane traffic. Finally, I get a cab and it immediately U-turns across traffic and goes off the way I was originally facing. I confess, my famous sense of direction has failed me yet again.
Next stop is Sarnies on Telok Ayer Street. This is my favourite street in all Asia. You could eat here for a year. I’m pleased to find Sarnies is open. I order some whizzbang special fancy beans and a black coffee. The place is chockers. The only seat is next to three poms, and they are an absolute hoot. A couple and their friend. Within minutes, we know everyone’s life stories, I’ve recorded messages for single girl to her father about what champagnes he should buy for her wedding, should it ever happen, and the two pommy women have dumped on the Wallabies before I returned serve with the cricket – we call it a draw and move on. For me, Nylon has it for the quality of the coffee, but Sarnies has it for atmosphere.
Suddenly, I remember that Ocean Fish Head Curry, where I had one of my greatest meals last visit, is 40 yards down the road. Closed. Not happy, Jan.
I wander off to a nearby Hawkers Centre. About a third of the places are open, but there is nothing there that would tempt me. I felt like I was in the food court at Shoppingtown.
I decide to forego all this and go direct to the Olde Cuban. It is really hard to find, so my plan is that I will locate it and then grab something to eat nearby. Another cab needed, and another Google lie. I spend an hour searching up and down the street, knowing it is within metres, but I cannot find it and no one has a clue. The rain starts bucketing down. I’m hungry, tired and grumpy. Some woman from one of the dozens of Chinese places, we are in Chinatown after all, says I look like I need beer. She is not wrong.
The staff are, to be fair, very helpful and pleasant. They let me log in to their Wi-Fi, which helps as, being sans phone, I had no contact with the friends I was meeting. I am hungry so order beef and chillies. They tell me it will be too spicy for me. Normally, I’d argue, as I love spicy food, but I am too stuffed. They are going to get me beef something, plus I order the cold marinated ducks’ tongues. Something different.
In fairness to the poultry, I would order the tongues again. Not because it was delicious, but because I simply refuse to believe that they cannot be made to taste better than this. If that was the case, humans wouldn’t have given up on them centuries ago. It was entirely grease and gristle. But, admittedly, it was foie gras compared to the beef. Absolutely god-awful.
The main problem was that in the greens mixed with the beef, whatever they were, there was a sprig with about sixty szechuan peppercorns hidden. Now, peppercorns don’t hit you immediately. They build. There is no warning, just a gradual increase in vileness. They’re fine in an appropriate quantity, less fine as a truckload.
The horror dawns slowly. I am munching away when my mouth starts to go numb. It’s a weird numbness, though, as it also seems like someone has cemented my mouth into a tarmac and then poured boiling, rancid oil over everything. At one stage, I am certain I will need to go to hospital. I pour beer over it but nothing. Did I mention that the beer I, “looked like I needed” came tepid? Why, when you live in a muggy furnace, would you not serve beer cold? It is at least twenty minutes before I can feel anything other than pain and the vilest taste. Several days later, I can still taste it. This is, bar none, the worst meal of my life. And the cherry on top? It was really expensive. Clearly, they have realised that they have to gouge every customer, as they won’t be getting a second chance.
I have told my friends that if Olde Cuban is open, I’ll be in it. If not, I’ll be waiting near the door. I get there and by some miracle the sign says ‘open’. Finally, is the tide turning? The sign lied.
So, I have another beer at a table near the door and wait. After an hour, I see people going in, but not coming back out. Turns out it is open. In I go and order a simply magic Laphroaig 10-Year-Old. One friend turns up – another turns out to have a cat-related family emergency. We think of swapping to a rum bar but a call by my mate to check if it is open reveals it is closed. Of course it is.
We have some champers – we met through a champagne competition many years earlier – and a yack. This place has the best whisky list on the planet, or very close. Hundreds of them. Dozens of Japanese whiskies, many extremely rare and old bottlings, the full range of Pappy van W’s… It is $4,500 for a bottle of the 23-Year-Old. Prices for some rare aged bottles exceed $70,000.
I spot an old rum, however, and am keen to try it. It’s $75 a glass, but with the day I have had, I deserve it. It’s a pre-Castro Valdespino from the early 60s, and the bottle is in perfect condition.
“Sorry sir, but the bottle is not opened. You can only buy the full bottle.”
“But you offer it by the glass?”
“Yes, but it is not opened, so you must buy the bottle.”
Think about the logic of this for a moment. When is the bottle ever going to be open so we can buy a glass? Never. It’s not possible.
I decide that the day has been so toxic that I am not even going to try the speakeasy. Next time. I head back to the airport, catch up with a mate on the same trip and eventually we get on the plane for a delightful 11 hours. I manage to get some sleep – some fitful, blurry, endlessly disrupted sleep.
So, possibly not the most useful guide to ways to enjoy Singapore then. Ah well, there’s always next time.