An indie spirit

An indie spirit

In the hipster scene, Tan Quee Lan may not have the same ring as, say, Ann Siang, Telok Ayer, Keong Saik or Teck Lim - original Chinese names which didn't need to be changed by deed poll into something more English to complete their Western(ised) domination.

But with its equally ethnic sister Liang Seah and the refreshingly unglamorous location sandwiched between Beach and North Bridge Roads better known for its steamboat, chicken rice and no-frills Thai food joints, this place is shaping up to be a working-class Club Street - with less contrivance and slightly better parking.

The bohemian, grunge-chic vibe feels more genuine here, partly because it all seems so ad hoc and messy, as if a whole bunch of people of different mindsets and (mostly Asian) native tongues got together in this relatively cheaper and increasingly spruced up neighbourhood to try and succeed in F&B.

It's against this background that you'll find Joo Bar - a chill, unpretentious hangout that pegs itself more as a bar but is too serious about its food to be just that.

Given our superior expertise on Korean life and culture through long hours of study via our huge collection of Korean drama DVDs, we've established that Joo Bar would not be out of place in Gangnam, with its coiffured clientele sipping on organic makgeolli and supping on kimchi mac 'n cheese.

Fine, so it's just the in-house music blaring K-Pop (is there such a thing as K-Rap?) that sends a deja vu which-drama-soundtrack- did-I-hear-this-on shiver down our spine and sets the mood for our vicarious trip to down town Seoul.

Or maybe it has something to do with the house-brewed organic makgeolli (S$22 for small carafe) - a fermented rice wine that is brewed in-house and tastes like a delicious citrusy lassi with a very light alcoholic buzz.

The sweetness totally offsets the saltiness of the crunchy fried Joo wings (S$16) which will make you swear off queuing for Bon Chon and its ilk any time soon.

These wings are jumbo- sized stunners with the kind of crunch you can hear next door, although the mess of shattered batter will stay on your lap.

The meat has been sitting in its marinade long enough that the flavour reaches the bone, and the only thing that stops you from a second order is that the sweet-tart-tangy-salty combo overwhelms after a while. But we foresee that chicken wing lovers will not see that as an obstacle.

Slightly more civil snacking comes in the form of crispy sheets of baby eel "paper" (S$12) - a cute paper-lined tin pail is filled with these golden-brown briny crackers that you spritz with a lime wedge for a perky twist.

The complimentary home-fried potato crisps are also pretty addictive. There's also some free ban chan or side dishes - in this case it's a trio of macaroni salad, salty fried white bait and almonds and spicy radish slices - no doubt designed to work up a thirst.

That the chef is Korean is a big plus in the authenticity department, and he's confident enough with his own cooking that he knows just the right amount of "fusion" tampering to add in before it loses all reason.

The food is fundamentally sound, and you can tell from the slow-roasted Hungarian Mangalitsa pork (S$32).

It's pricy but worth it for the firm gelatinous skin and layer of fat, right down to the bouncy tender meat that's rounded off with a pungent salad of onions and scallions tossed in a spicy chilli oil.

The seafood tofu stew (S$22) is a must-try for its devilishly red potion of kimchi-infused stock that draws extra flavour from the array of clams and shrimp, while pillowy soft tofu, zucchini chunks and onions are sponges for that addictive, tongue-tingling broth.

We rather prefer that to the seafood gochujang risotto (S$24) hybrid - a slightly more heavy-going but still palatable serving of soft rice grains studded with clams and shrimp, swirling in a cheesy tomato and seafood broth, that's got a bare hint of heat from the ubiquitous Korean soy bean chilli paste.

Although there are desserts listed on the menu, Joo Bar still hasn't got its sweets organised yet. So you may need to end off with anotherroundof makgeolli - if not the yucha(citron) flavour then try its sampler of other fruity flavours.

Order from the young and friendly staff even if most of them don't really speak the kind of English you understand - but there are a couple of them including the manager who smoothen the ordering process.

It adds to the quaint "foreignness" and overall appeal of Joo Bar and the street it's on: slightly raw and rough-around-the-edges, but with a take-me-as-I-am honesty about it. Concepts like Joo Bar are what this neighbourhood needs - independent spirits with spunk, slowly creating a little eco-system that thrives on challenge and ideas.

There's a name for this, but it's not Club Street.

Rating: 7

WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average


This article was first published on January 5, 2015.
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