Pasta for the People

Pasta J Upper Thomson

Singapore is a foodie’s heaven.  Anything you can possibly conceive of can be found here and by and large the quality is usually very good.  In fact, even today, 5 years after I first stepped foot on these shores, I am constantly amazed by the variety, the abundance and the affordability of all of this food.

From humble yet delicious hawker fare, right up through the mid-range zhi char stalls to the very high end of fine dining Michelin starred restaurants, there is something to suit every palette and wallet.  The competition is so tough that if somewhere is not up to scratch, or the price point is just that little bit too high that it does not give value for money, then it’s finished; the average Singaporean will not tolerate it.

In choosing where to eat, the food comes before all else.  Forget ambiance, forget distance from where one might live, and to a certain extent forget level of service, if the food doesn’t pass muster the food loving public of Singapore will, en masse, boycott the place.  Take for example a recent Sunday evening visit to Ban Leong on Upper Thomson road; this Zhi char restaurant specialising in seafood (particularly crab) is situated on a main road, half of the restaurant is practically inside a concrete bunker, hidden underneath a filthy overhead bridge.  The service is spectacularly, amazingly awful!  From being ignored when trying to order for 10 solid minutes when stood in front of the Aunty at the cashier, to being pushed out of the way by angry members of the waiting staff the abysmal service never ceases to astonish me.  I recently witnessed a member of staff being given an almighty dressing down by a very rotund aunty from the kitchen, I was starting to feel bad for her until she let loose with a series of what I can only assume to be some rather unpleasant comments about rotund aunty’s lineage.

But, here’s the thing; this place was packed!  Absolutely rammed to the gills with families, couples and the odd Ang Mo, and the reason quite clearly is the food.  It is good, it is reasonably priced and the portions are of a decent size.  Even with the atrocious service, loved ones and friends made a conscious decision on that day to make a trip to this place; the level of service, the unfriendliness of the staff and the fact that it looks like a prison canteen did not enter anyone’s mind.  Food is king.

Service, or the lack of it, here in Singapore is something I will come back to at a later date.  It’s something that manages to constantly anger, humour and astonish me often all at the same time, but one place where I cannot complain about the service is this week’s review: Pasta J.

Pasta J is situated on Upper Thomson Road, and as the name would suggest specialises in Pasta.  It really is a very bizarre establishment, from the plastic flowers in plant pots hanging from the ceiling, the bizarre signs adorning the walls, the fact that it is a Dog friendly restaurant (you can have your Dog’s picture taken inside a life-size Facebook photo frame if that’s something you’d like to do when going out for a meal) to the slightly kitsch decorations, it really does feel as if someone just woke up one day and decided to turn their living room into a restaurant.

All of the above does give it a certain charm, and it is unlike any restaurant I have ever been to in Singapore, in fact I am genuinely surprised yet very happy that a place like this does exist here.  This is maybe one of the few places where my theory that the food is the only thing that matters doesn’t apply.  The food is not bad, please do not misunderstand me, but like the establishment itself, it is just a bit odd.

We arrived on a windy rain sodden Friday evening, trudging in somewhat dejected and tired after a week of long hours and little joy in our respective jobs, we craved somewhere quiet, comfortable and without fuss.  We found it in Pasta J.  After sitting down, a man who I presume to be the owner, welcomed us warmly and talked us through the menu and after recommending a beer for me, to which I readily agreed to, we decided on what to eat.  We ordered Pesto and crackers, followed by Seafood pasta (Clammy Addiction) for my girlfriend, and Clam Chowder followed by Rib Eye steak (also known as the break up steak as it’s supposedly so good that you will immediately break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend.  There is no evidence to suggest this has ever happened. Ever) for me.

The food, like the establishment, is rather odd.  There are big flavours here no doubt but everything, and I do mean everything, tastes like it has been cooked in bacon.  The clam chowder when it arrived looked so unlike any chowder I had ever seen before that I actually ignored it thinking my girlfriend had ordered some bacon soup.  The pesto was probably one of the best things we ate, punchy and Zingy but also quite light.  My steak I have to say was somewhat average, cooked exactly to what I had asked for (medium rare) but the flavour was underwhelming and a bit bland.  My girlfriend’s pasta came with a generous portion of seafood, but unfortunately an equally generous amount of essence of bacon, I am not sure how the chef prepares the food but I would hazard a guess that a meat based stock forms the base for a lot of his creations.

Desert was a tiny, and I mean miniscule Crème Brule and an equally tiny Pandan Ice cream.  The fact that that the sugar was caramelised a la table did not make up for the fact that these deserts were shockingly small for the price charged ($8 for the Brule and $6 for the Pandan Ice Cream.)

The place was not packed, but it was by no means empty.  A steady stream of punters arrived throughout the night along with a fair few Deliveroo drivers; all were met with kind and sincere service; everyone was made to feel welcome.  Does Pasta J destroy my theory that the food and only the food is the only deciding factor behind keeping an F&B place open in Singapore?  Maybe.  One thing is for sure, the team at Pasta J are doing something almost unique in Singapore: providing decent home cooked food with great warm service, even if it is inside the front room of a dog loving eccentric.

Our meal for 2 cost $133, the price was very high due to the ridiculous Singapore alcohol tax applied to my 3 delicious Belgian beers.  Pasta J can be found at 205 Upper Thomson Road.

La bella Vita

Fratini’s, Bukit Timah

You can tell you are approaching Bukit Timah, that small expat enclave in central Singapore, by the amount of air kissing that takes place in public, particularly in restaurants. This strange evolution of the southern European art of kissing ones fellow man, or indeed woman, on both cheeks, has morphed into an art form of severe false sincerity; pursing ones lips and mustering up a suitably audible “muwahh” as the head darts from one ear to the other, usually twice (one for each side) or if the occasion warrants it or the person (s) carrying out this bizarre ritual deem themselves to be of a specific social standing (think uber hipster, Instagram social influencer or just French) four times.

So, it was that we found ourselves, after a somewhat traumatic taxi ride with one of Singapore’s infamous Taxi uncles stood very unsteadily outside Fratini’s restaurant in Bukit Timah. I first visited this establishment late last year as a birthday treat from my girlfriend, we enjoyed it greatly, so as a bit of a treat my girlfriend kindly decided to treat me to it again.

Fratini’s is an Italian restaurant that operates a policy, theme or gimmick of having (officially at least) no menu. And here is my first problem with this place; how can you have no menu? By implication having no menu essentially means you have no idea what on earth you are going to cook on any particular given evening, your chefs have no idea what they will be cooking when they turn up for their shift and the waiting staff will not have a single clue what they are serving to their paying clientele. No, what this concept essentially is, is a restaurant choosing not to tell me what they are going to serve me. They can dress it up however they chose: “please let us know if there is anything you don’t like to eat or are allergic to” and yes, I do believe there is a certain amount of flexibility within the chef’s ability and the ingredients they have on site to allow them to vary their output to a certain extent, but please do not tell me that there is no menu. I guess these days with the economy how it is and the F&B industry as competitive as it is, there has to be that edge, or that USP that will draw in the punters.

‘Did you hear about the Italian in Bukit Timah? Darling it has no menu (cue first round of air kissing)”

“What on earth did you eat Darling?” (cue second round of air kissing.)

“Well, it was fabulous, they just make it up on the spot, how marvellous!” (More air kissing.) Obviously, the characters enacting this in my mind are straight out of English central casting for some terrible sequel to one of those god-awful films like ‘Love Actually.”

Putting my somewhat pedantic gripe to one side, the place is an inviting and cosy restaurant served by a warm and genial team, who DO KNOW what they are going to serve you. The lovely front of house lady patiently explained that we would be sampling 14 different items throughout the evening, inspired by several different regions across Italy (Chef must be a bloody genius to have planned all that out straight after starting his shift.)
The first course was a sharing platter served on a long wooden board consisting of: Rock Melon with Parma ham and pomegranate seeds, Salmon mousse, Raw Swordfish with a delicious pumpkin puree and a Scallop in a cheese sauce served with wild rice. All rather pleasant and tasty if a tad under seasoned for me. To follow we were served Deep fried octopus, carrots and beans and a Yuzu mayonnaise.

I am not a fan of Octopus. In recent years, I have become better at dealing with food that looks like it has come from somewhere outside of our own universe, but I have not yet overcome my fear of this tentacled mollusc. Nevertheless, if it’s deep fried, how bad can it be?

Far from being put off by the look of it, I was actually disappointed in the taste; I found it slightly charred and the vegetables had no taste and as for the Yuzu mayonnaise, well all I could taste was Wasabi.

Following this was the guilt-ridden pleasure that is Foie Gras. The lovely front of house lady kindly asked us if we had a problem with Foie gras? I actually thought this was a nice touch, however I think she was somewhat taken aback by our enthusiastic response to her question: “No issue at all, send it over!” The foie gras was served with a blueberry sauce and fig chutney, not bad but not amazing.

We were then treated to 3 courses that really made the night: Veal Shank Ossobuco with Parmesan Risotto, Slipper Lobster with Pesto sauce and an exquisite Aglo olio. These three dishes lifted the meal to another level and showed just what a chef can do when he has no menu and therefore no idea what he is going to cook at the start of every service. Probably the standout course for me was the Beef cheeks: succulent melting beef with a rich flavourful jus served on top of the most perfectly cooked risotto.

The meal was rounded off with a selection of desserts, served on the now ubiquitous long wooden board: Tiramisu, a small chocolate brownie, crème Brule and a lavender panecotta. All acceptable and non-offensive, except for the lavender panecotta. Why on earth anyone would put lavender in a desert is beyond me.

All in all, a very enjoyable meal, served by attentive, warm and friendly staff who obviously take great pride in what they are doing, and, definitely know what they are going to be serving that evening.

Cost for 2 people was $331, the meal was a bit more expensive than planned due to the amount of alcohol consumed. Set meal is $95++ per person and even though they have absolutely no idea what they are going to serve you, it is well worth a visit.