Cutesy fare with lots of masak-masak at The Prawn Star and May May

Cutesy fare with lots of masak-masak at The Prawn Star and May May

One fancies cutesy word play about salacious shrimp (porn star, get it?); the other prefers a more innocent, little- girl cuteness.

But while The Prawn Star and May May are poles apart in concept, there's something similar about their approach to cuisine - in the sense that you don't know exactly what kind of food you're eating.

As in, it's neither modern European nor even mod-Singaporean.

It's not avant garde or rustic.

It's familiar, but yet alien - surely there's some word to describe it?

Oh yes: masak-masak.

This Malay colloquialism for playing around in the kitchen reflects, too, a growing new confidence in Singaporean chefs.

The kind that frees them from the rigours of old-school kitchen rules - whether Western or even hawker - and allows them to indulge in a cowboy, free-association cooking style where no tradition is sacred and deliciousness really depends on how you look at it.

The Prawn Star (which takes over the space from Duxton Hill pioneer BROTH) is pretty much on a different planet from its predecessor's likeable, easygoing Aussie fare.

Its brazen menu- that letsyouorder cheese-covered fries in the same breath as claypot crab with glass noodles - is packaged in one achingly hipster package with its casually-dressed staff and graffiti-inspired mural over its bar counter.

This offshoot of the Tiong Bahru Bar is not opening without precedent, sothe food - with a very arbitrary division between starters (things to share) and "bare hands" (literally eat with your hands, complete with finger bowl and folded paper bowls for discarded shells) - has substance despite its haphazard variety.

Despite our misgivings about starting our meal with a movie snack, we're glad we let our friendly server persuade us to order the sriracha caramel popcorn (S$8).

The addictive crisp popped kernels arrive slightly warm with a lingering butteriness that tempers the unforgiving heat of the sriracha sauce that forms a sugary crisp sheen around the corn.

Calamari "yaki udon" (S$18) is a dead ringer for the Japanese fast-food staple, except that stodgy noodles are replaced by fresh firm curls of squid sauteed in salty Worcestershire-ketchupy sauce showered with bonito flakes,shredded seaweed, pickled ginger and crunchy cabbage.

The Prawn Star's signature river prawns (S$26) in a spicy kimchi-miso butter is a winner not so much for the fresh and firm (but not sweet) prawns but the smoky, spicy chilli garlic oil amped up with the brininess released from the sauteed shells that justify an extra S$3 portion of chewy grilled bread to soak it up with.

Less satisfying but still worth a shot is the deep-fried battered swimmer crab on a bed of glass noodles just like you get in Thai restaurants.

The crab loses moisture from being deep-fried but it's at least fresh with a fair bit of meat.

At least you know this is the real thing, unlike the fat, treated scallops tossed in XO sauce that edges close to spongy fishball territory, even if the sauce does a good job of distracting you.

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