Sunday, 20 May 2012

Two Good to be True

You would never have expected a place like this to harbor a food gem. Back in the 70s and 80s, the Far East Plaza on Scotts Road was one of Singapore’s ‘IT’ spots – glam, hip and happening. Remember the so-called “Far East Kids”?

Today, the center of gravity has shifted to nearby Orchard Road, and the place is pretty forlorn. It’s also suffering an ‘identity crisis’: while the basement still caters to the young and fashionable, the other floors seem devoted to the crass tourist crowds. And the 5th level is given over to mostly mediocre food outlets. But there is one that stands out.

Yusuf & Arni’s Cafe has apparently been around since 2000, but I came to know of it only six years ago through a friend. What caught his eyes, and mine, was the Sotong Hitam – inky black and luscious. When tasted, it more than lived up to its looks…and has kept us coming back ever since!

Sotong Hitam (literally ‘Black Squid’ in Malay) is actually quite simple to prepare, needing a couple of ingredients -- onion, chilli, assam, belachan -- and of course ‘sotong’ or squid. Since the squid will be cooked in its own ink, the ingredients need to be fresh, and the cooking well controlled, or the meat might turn out tough and chewy.

In the version served at Yusuf & Arni’s, the sourness of assam is used to deftly balance the sweetness of the black ink, resulting in a gravy that’s smooth and thick and drips with the distinctive flavor of the ink.

Arni, who rules the kitchen, and Yusuf who tends to the café’s tiny dining area, believe in keeping with tradition and serving only the most authentic of home-style Malay dishes and snacks. We can stoutly vouch for that, because in our six-year patronage of their café, their cooking has yet to disappoint us in quality or heartfelt effort. Arni informs us that all her food is prepared at the shop itself, unlike others’ whose food is prepared elsewhere, or worse, provided by suppliers! Her dishes, she proudly maintains, are always fresh and piping hot.

After Sotong Hitam, our favorite was the fried chicken. This is another simple recipe that is often done brilliantly at home, yet is extremely hard to find in similarly superb form outside of home. It’s almost a cliché but good fried chicken needs to be moist and tender inside and dry and crispy outside – like the one here. Arni’s marinade also had a flavor that reminded me very much of old-style home cooking.

Nangka Lemak -- unripe jackfruit cooked in spicy coconut milk -- was another rare treat we found here. Not common even among Nasi Padang shops, I love this dish for the unique sweetness of the fruit combined with the poultry-like textures of the pulp, flesh and seeds.

In my opinion, the snacks alone make the journey to this eatery worth your while. The Goreng Pisang is one of their best sellers (it’s available from about 3pm onwards). Again, it has the flavors I remember from childhood, unlike the “updated” versions found elsewhere, and it comes loaded with crispy tiny fritters.

Arni’s kuehs are mostly from recipes given to her by family and friends. The Kueh Lopes – triangular glutinous rice cakes coated in grated coconut and bathed with Gula Melaka syrup – was another great dessert, with the right amount of bite to its rice, and accompanied by strongly flavored syrup.

As with all good food, be prepared to fork out a little bit more for the meal. The average spend per person is around S$7 inclusive of drink. But…this is part of Orchard Road, so nothing comes cheap.

Yusuf & Arni’s Café
#05-119 Far East Plaza
Scott Road, Singapore