Is the slowing economy condemning you to a life of cafe dining? Don't fret. BT Weekend scours the city for proof that it's still possible for two people to get a three-course dinner at a mid-range to upscale restaurant for S$50 nett each. Check out our top 20 picks.
999.99 (Five Nines) 29 Keong Saik Road 6221 7098
Cheesy name aside, 999.99 is the kind of place that surprises you, as the food quality and prices don't quite match. You expect to pay more for that quality, but yet, the prices are very affordable, with the most expensive item on the menu being the S$26 lobster gratin.
The kitchen is headed by chef Masano Saito, who began his career as a chef de partie in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo, before moving to Stockholm, where he was the head chef in the Japanese embassy.
Our choice of a meal starts with Mushrooms & Squid Ink with Toast (S$9), which is literally as it is. The squid is lightly cooked and still retains its crunch.
For the main course, go for the Rossini (S$23), a piece of pan seared striploin, topped with foie gras and a fairly generous serving of truffle with pomme puree and spinach on the side (left).
For dessert, have the Raspberry & Chocolate (S$9), a flourless dark chocolate cake with raspberry cream and raspberry coulis. For the record, 999.99 is the finest form of gold and is considered the gold standard. The team at 999.99 hold themselves to this standard in quality, service and presentation.
Jiang-Nan Chun Four Seasons Hotel, Level 2 6831 7220
The newly revamped Jiang-Nan Chun shows that you don't have to avoid fine dining restaurants even if you're on a budget. The space is now brighter and more inviting, and the food still top notch.
To keep to our budget, we have to forgo the restaurant's famed Peking Duck. Instead, we pick a three-course meal that is nonetheless satisfying and leaves us fairly stuffed. We start with four types of dimsum (S$10): Steamed Shrimp Dumpling with mushroom, Crispy Flaky Pastry with black pepper beef, Steamed Scallop Dumpling with Crabmeat and Shrimp, Baked Flaky Pastry with smoked ham.
Next up is Jasmine Tea Smoked Chicken (S$14). The dish is served at the table under a glass dome filled with the aroma of smoked jasmine tea. The chicken pieces are tender, and there is a slight sweetness from the jasmine tea.
Finish the meal with a serving of Hong Kong noodles with barbecued pork belly (S$18) that is fired in a Mesquite wood-fired oven.
All diners get an amuse bouche to start the meal, and a palate cleanser at the end of the mains. The palate cleanser selection changes daily, but it is always something sweet with a citrus tinge, that works well as a dessert too.
Long Chim #02-02, Atrium 2, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Ave 6688 7299
It's at Marina Bay Sands, it's opened by celebrity chef David Thompson, so who would've thought you could get a dinner for two at Long Chim under S$100? This fancy Thai restaurant, however, has always been about robust flavours and sharing plates, with luxe decor to boot.
Start with the dried prawns with ginger, toasted coconut and wrapped in betel leaves (S$14), a sure winner with a harmonious blend of shrimpiness amped up with sweet and spicy flavours.
Mains-wise, there's Chiang Mai curried noodles soup (S$27) - bursting with fragrance from the piquant spice base, topped with tender chicken, and a heaping garnish of herbs, pickles, and crispy egg noodles. For those with delicate tastebuds, their glass noodles are a safer bet (S$26), stir fried with cured pork and lightly charred squid, and infused with wok hei.
For dessert, forget the mango sticky rice (though it's good) and go for the banana roti (S$12) - it's served piping hot, with a flaky pastry, a dusting of sugar, and a filling that's not too cloying. Many upmarket eateries pay lip service to providing affordable luxury, but at Long Chim, you're getting the real deal.
:pluck 90 Club Street 6225 8286
If you're not averse to the boisterous bar-hopping crowd at Club Street, consider :pluck, a stylish hole-in-wall restaurant with a gastrobar vibe. The inventive food is best described as soul fusion, with some South-east Asian influence, but nothing feels pretentious.
The pork subway (S$19) is inspired by banh mi, and boasts cured lardo paired with braised Iberico pork jowl. The succulent meats sit on house-baked sandwich bread, which is a fluffy middle ground between a baguette and a brioche, and drenched in a vibrant dressing which cuts through the fattiness. For a safe staple, follow up with the fried chicken (S$15) which comes with onion rings, or opt instead for the miso glazed pork ribs (S$15) which is an elevated version of the king ribs at your neighbourhood zi char stall. If you aren't stuffed by this stage, round it off with chef Brandon Teo's "chendol" (S$8), a coconut and pandan parfait served with an icy red bean sorbet (reminiscent of potong ice cream), drizzled with gula melaka - a good mix of textures, and not too sweet.
The Naked Finn 39 Malan Road, Gillman Barracks 6694 0807
Who says eating at a seafood restaurant has to be expensive? The Naked Finn's owner Tan Ken Loon has an obsession with sourcing for the best seafood in the world, yet he still manages to keep prices affordable.
On a S$100 nett budget, two people can easily share their sizeable serving of piquant rice vermicelli (S$8) topped with sakura ebi for flavour (above, top dish), and go with a locally farmed mesclun salad with orange and cherry tomato (S$12) as a safe bet for your vegetable fix. A more interesting alternative for the latter is their cold water spinach (or kang kong, S$10), which is blanched for a nice crunch before being tossed in kalamansi juice.
For mains, share the sweet eight-piece farmed giant tiger prawns (S$30) coated in salted egg yolk sauce, and the secreto iberico pork - a lean cut of meat that's grilled and served with a side of in-house dried solefish salt (S$30).
Sum Yi Tai 25 Boon Tat Street 6221 3665
The interior of Sum Yi Tai looks like something you'd see on the streets of Hong Kong - dim lighting and bar stools, with rows of (fake) roast meats hanging next to bottles of alcohol. The food, however, is a bit more familiar and friendly to local tastebuds. This modern Chinese tapas bar serves things such as crispy salmon skin (S$12) coated with salted egg and a touch of lime zest for acidity, alongside more traditional dishes such as a mui choy pork belly (S$24) like the one your grandmother might make at home. To share as a good main dish is the Singapore fried rice (S$24) where the "secret" ingredient is the addition of curry powder to the mix of prawns and char siew.
It's a heavier meal than it sounds, so to end off, you could get a simple chilled lemongrass jelly with mixed fruits (S$6) as a light dessert to refresh your palate before you leave.
5th Quarter 39 Syed Alwi Road 6291 1936
Dining at 5th Quarter is not for the faint-hearted - one look at the menu is enough to tell you that you're in for an unusual meal. But put yourself in the capable hands of chef Drew Nocente who has a knack for making odd cuts of meat and flavours work well on a plate.
Start off with the Lardo, Truffle honey, and Chilli (S$8), made up of slivers of translucent melt-in-your-mouth fat well complemented by spicy fennel seed crackers. A good follow-up is their most popular dish, the Salt 'N' Pepper Tripe (S$10). Even those who can't stomach innards might enjoy this crunchy snack, which is sous vide for 12 hours before being fried with togarashi powder.
A tender eight-hour braised Beef Tongue (S$12) served with crunchy fried shallots proves to be a little more potent, but still tasty with the help of some charred pickled onion and wasabi mayo. The charcoal-black Hamachi collar (S$28) with soy meringue and fennel works as a good main to share.
A head's up though - this eccentric restaurant will be relocating some time this month, and aims to reopen in June. Updates will be posted on their Facebook page.
La Taperia 1 Scotts Road, #02-10/11 6737 8336
Spanish food usually means tapas and paella, and that's no different at La Taperia - a Spanish restaurant by the Les Amis Group. A meal here is definitely more wallet friendly than at its French counterpart downstairs, and you can share a couple of tapas, a paella, and even a dessert. Some suggestions for the tapas are the Croquetas de Jamon (S$15) - croquettes filled with buttery mashed potato, bechamel and chunky bits of iberico ham, or a sizzling pan of Gambas al Ajillo (S$20) - prawns cooked with garlic, chilli, and extra virgin olive oil for a peppery kick (best mopped up with some toast). Alternatively, you could have the hearty Huevoes Estrellados con Patatas (S$18) which is simple fried eggs with chorizo, red peppers, mushrooms and crispy straw potato. While our choice paella, the Chistorrado de Pollo (S$30), is a little less impressive - salty grains and somewhat flavourless chicken - its portion is definitely more than enough for two. Otherwise, there are other options within the same price range.
Tang Restaurant and Bar 25 Keong Saik Road 6222 7708
You may not be getting the usual eat-all-you-can steamboat buffet at Tang Restaurant and Bar in Keong Saik, but at least you'll be walking out stuffed with much better quality food. Its kitchen is run by head chef Zou Bin, who has worked in hotpot restaurants in China for 14 years, so he knows his way around the steamboat kitchen.
For S$21 you get to choose two out of their three available soup bases - we recommend the regular herbal broth (boiled with chicken, fish, and pork bones for a super addictive brew) and the spicy Sichuan for those who prefer a kick. Each diner is also charged S$3 for a side plate of three different refillable spicy dips.
Suggested dishes to make up the bulk of the meal are the delicately sliced snakehead fish (S$11 for six), chilled tenderbeef from Australia (S$9 for 150g), homemade dumplings with pork, shrimp, and chives (S$6 for 4), and US pork collar (S$9 for 10 slices). The best part is that because either the restaurant's owner Zoe Zhang or one of her staff will be cooking your meats for you tableside, there's no risk of anything over-cooking so you can just sit back and let them do all the work.
Mitzo Level 4 Grand Park Orchard, 270 Orchard Road 6603 8855
As if to drive home the point that it's a modern Cantonese restaurant, Mitzo decks out its futuristic premises with glitzy, geometric surfaces and translucent neon panels. It's a nice change from the usual industrial-chic eatery, yet thankfully, the food keeps to the basics of Cantonese fare with just enough modern spins to add interest.
As with any Chinese eatery, expect family-style dining. Also, some dishes are rich and intensely flavoured - so a little goes a long way. The black truffle duck is a hot seller (the skin remains crispy despite the viscous sauce), but that would bust our budget. Pick instead a braised fish maw soup (S$14), a silky brew of shrimps, scallops, and the umami richness of superior stock. Their signature barbecued pork (S$18) is a must-try: the pork belly is tender, unctuous goodness that's a touch fattier than your typical char siew, and crusted with torched, caramelised sugar which adds smokiness and a lovely crunch for contrast.
Follow that up with a dim sum platter (S$28), which, while competently done, is pretty pricey for the small portion. There are just three pairs of steamed dumplings: siew mai with baby abalone, chicken and shrimp osmanthus dumpling, and har gow.
Mitzo's stir fried udon (S$22) more than makes up for it; the hearty serving is not just a tummy filler, it comes with a sizeable portion of roast duck and is suffused with wok hei.
boCHINche 22 Martin Road, #02-01 6235 4990
boCHINche is one of those eateries that has caved to our insatiable demand for brunch menus, but skip right past that hipster bait and get straight to the Argentinian fare. A partnership between London-based chef Diego Jacquet (of Zoilo and Casa Malevo fame) and the Spa Esprit group, the kitchen here is helmed by Fabrice Mergalet, who has kept standards up and prices stable since 2013.
We are treated to a succession of small plate dishes that's more than enough for two. To begin with, there's crab and humita croquettes (S$16), which would have been forgettable if not for the punchy criolla sauce (watch out, it contains chilli padi).
It's followed by a sweet and savoury cold starter: an invigorating watermelon salad (S$14). The fruit is grilled to deepen the flavour, and it sits on mounds of mozzarella cream topped with watermelon and mint granita.
Next comes a skillet of bubbling provoleta cheese, garnished with almonds and drenched in oregano honey (S$17). There's foccacia bread to go with it - it's simple and addictive.
To make sure you roll out of there stuffed, the chimichurri steak burger (S$29) is a signature dish which surprises us with a fairly juicy patty that has its smokiness amped up with bone marrow.
Fat Saigon Boy 14 Ann Siang Road 6221 6784
Chef Cang Lai updates his menu so frequently that it makes our heads spin, but that's because he's still tweaking his Vietnamese Australian recipes to account for our humidity and palates - the restaurant only opened late last year. Many things stay the same, however: he keeps things casual, his small plates and mains are simply priced at S$10 and S$15, and he loves vibrant flavours and heaping garnishes.
A tapas and a main are enough to fill you up, and to that end, we recommend the soft shell crab sliders (S$10 for two), with a crispy enough tempura batter and a lime chilli sauce that gives the deep-fried treat some much needed lift. For S$15, you can pick from a selection of pho or rice bowls, but go for for the signature grilled lemongrass pork with vermicelli, which is smoky and juicy. Drench the generous-sized fried shallots and herb salad in yuzu dressing - it's a heady, intoxicating burst of flavours.
You probably won't need to, but there's enough in the budget to add a second small plate (S$10), and there are healthier choices such as the summer rolls - tiger prawns and pork or chicken wrapped with rice sheets and seaweed - or indulgent options like crispy chicken served with a spicy coriander and orange sauce.
Cheek by Jowl 21 Boon Tat Street 6211 1911
Opened just February this year, modern Australian restaurant Cheek by Jowl offers big flavours and bold references to Asian cuisine. On first glance, the finnicky, stylish plating may put bargain hunters off, but portions lean towards fairly priced sharing plates, and the airy premises and friendly service will put you at ease.
While the eatery is better known for its duck confit with waffles, it's head chef Rishi Naleendra's treatment of vegetables which gets our attention. For instance, he pairs the oysters with smoked tomato granita (S$10 for two), and the tangy topping melts into a chilly smokiness as it hits the palate.
Then there's the roast pumpkin (S$22) which is in a league of its own (and vegetarian to boot): Sri Lankan curry powder kicks the ground cashews and sauce into high gear. The scorched kale and preserved pumpkin chutney - sweetened with gula melaka - adds texture and depth.
As for the popular duck leg confit (S$32), the fowl is fairly moist and crispy, albeit drenched in a five-spice caramel that borders on cloying, but it's balanced by a crisply acidic salad and fluffy waffles. There's a return to form with the desserts - adventurous diners should opt for the coconut semifreddo, a creamy concoction served with with laksa leaf cream, green chilli coulis for an unexpected kick, and fresh pomelo for a touch of tartness and bitterness at the finish (S$15).
Kilo Kallang 66 Kampong Bugis, Mezzanine Level 6467 3987 (call after 4.30pm)
If there's an award for obscure eateries, Kilo Kallang would be the Meryl Streep of the nominees. The restaurant sits on the mezzanine level of an old warehouse, overlooking the Kallang Basin. There's now an early bird menu on weekdays between 6pm and 7pm (S$75++ for five-course sharing plates for two), and you'll be in time to catch the sunset.
The ceviche is an excellent starter with tuna, salmon and octopus, mixed in a refreshingly acidic dressing, topped with shredded crispy wonton skin. Pick the broccolini next - it's grilled and served on stracciatella cheese, balanced by the sweetness of the sesame and sake paste.
Both dishes ought to have primed you for the restaurant's dining aesthetic, which pulls you in all directions: sweet, sour, savoury, spicy, even bitter. That backfires a little with the chicken bulgogi, where flakes of fried tempura beer batter adds an overwhelming smokiness. The "Naughty" pork and beans is better - while the char siew-styled pork is a hair too sweet, the tom yum stewed beans with chorizo adds some kick.
Desserts wise, we prefer the "Fortune Cookie" which is a light mandarin sorbet paired with yuzu cheese cake and a cracker hiding your destiny.
It's probably telling you to make a return trip.
Buyan Russian Haute Cuisine and Caviar Bar 9 Duxton Hill 6223 7008
Buyan has been around for around five years - no mean feat, which suggests one or both of two things: there's perhaps an untapped market for Russian cuisine here, or its owners have deep pockets. After all, they reportedly forked out S$43,000 for a bottle of 1841 Veuve Clicquot back in 2011, and the group also owns Indian fine dining restaurant Saha.
Thankfully, this eatery doesn't actually charge outlandish prices for its food, contrary to what its reputation would suggest. There's a set dinner at S$38++ which serves as a gentle introduction to Eastern European fare.
The borscht is a light and refined version of the iconic dish, with a generous amount of thin, tender strips of beef and beetroot - have a sip before adding the sour cream. As for the main, pick the chicken kiev. The breast meat is kept moist with a generous coat of butter, and the creamy mushroom sauce served on the side helps it along.
End your meal with the milk kissel, which is a wobbly pudding topped with a layer of lingonberry jelly. Slices of green apple add a nice tartness to the unique sweetness of the dessert.
Super Loco 60 Robertson Quay 6235 8900
This 200-seater diner, sister to Lucha Loco at Duxton Hill, offers a vast selection of small plates in a relaxed riverside setting.
The Alitas De Pollo (S$12) is a chicken wing dish with red chilli and a refreshing lime cream. The Mango Ceviche with wild snapper (S$18) has a clean taste favourably complemented by the acidic juice that envelopes it.
The Baja taco (above) (S$11) is another one to steer clear of if you're averse to spicy food, but the combination of crispy fish fillet, jalepeno cabbage and chimmichuri mayo is a winner.
Also check out the Cordero quesadilla (S$16) with pulled lamb, mint, red onion jam and radish. The lamb is tender and well seasoned, and stands out despite the strong flavours surrounding it.
For a sweet ending, get the Super Churros (S$13) which are crispy as described and the chocolate mezcal sauce is pleasing without being too rich. The raspberry salsa also served on the side, however, might be a better fit in their Frozen Margaritas (S$18).
Uma Uma Restaurant & Bar Millenia Walk, #02-06 6837 0827
While Uma Uma Ramen at Forum The Shopping Mall serves mostly ramen, its second outlet at Millenia Walk comes with an expanded menu, one that also includes yakitori and kukshikatsu or deep fried breaded skewers.
With prices for the ramen from S$14 to S$16, and the skewers from S$2, you can eat a lot and not bust the budget. From the ramen selection, go for the Mazesoba (S$14), a dry-style ramen with bamboo shoots, leeks, chilli oil and an onsen egg. There are sides to choose from such as the dashi maki tamago (S$5), a fluffy and slightly sweet omelette. For the grilled section, we like the pork belly, the chicken thigh and the nankotsu or chicken softbone, which are all priced at S$2 per skewer. For kushikatsu, the prawn skewers (S$2) are crunchy on the outside thanks to the breadcrumbs, while the prawn is still juicy on the inside.
Those who feel guilty about eating too much meat can balance the meal out with a plate of grilled Brussel sprouts (S$10). These are so crunchy that even those who previously detested them will find the sprouts hard to resist.
Mad About Sucre 27 Teo Hong Road 6221 3969
Patisserie Mad About Sucre is not only about desserts, but it now has a savoury menu too, after customers started asking them to serve mains.
The cosy restaurant prides itself on cooking everything from scratch, and like its desserts, the menu changes seasonally.
Our meal starts with the Spring Tangy Tomato Soup with Irish Crab (S$13). Three types of tomatoes are used for the soup - San Marzano, beef steak and sun-dried tomatoes. The result is a soup that is flavourful with a slight tang to it.
For mains, we have the Hot Smoked Salmon with lemongrass perfumed mashed potatoes, sauce of peas and cauliflowers (S$23). The salmon is smoked with thyme, fruit peel and dried dill. Unfortunately, smoking it makes it rather dry and flaky, so this is best eaten together with the mash. Having the mash infused with lemongrass gives it an added dimension.
The food is filling but don't say no to dessert, since this is what Mad About Sucre is known for. We go for the Saveurs De Printemps or Flavours of Spring (S$11.80). This is a French Earl Grey-Apricot mousse, on a Savoire sponge with a blood orange and grapefruit gel within the mousse.
Share the dessert between the two of you to keep within budget and your waistline a little smaller.
Jiu Zhuang Block 6C and 6D Dempsey Road 6471 1711
If you think you've tried every variation of Xiao Long Bao, then you haven't tried Jiu Zhuang and its signature Xiao Long Bao infused with single malt whisky (S$18).
Nestled within a cosy corner of Dempsey, the restaurant - with its flamboyant Chinese decor complete with red lanterns and kitschy posters - offers oriental chic that meets our S$50 nett budget.
Start your dinner with its Double Boiled Soup with wonton dumplings and dried scallops in superior broth (S$18), which is light with an intense umami flavour. The dumplings - filled with minced pork and blended with malt whisky - are flawlessly executed but may taste alien to more purist tastes. Enjoy them with a side of Scallion La mian (S$8) - al dente with a very tasty sauce.
For more variety, you could also try the Tofu with Century Egg and Crabmeat (S$14) and Salted Egg Custard Bun (S$8).
Neon Pigeon 1 Keong Saik Road 6222 3623
Neon Pigeon - complete with trendy and quirky interiors - believes in sharing small and large plates, and recommends 7 to 8 dishes for two people. Check out the Crispy Brussel Sprouts (S$15), Chilled Cucumber (S$9), and Roasted Bone Marrow (S$19). Though these dishes seem quite filling in themselves, you can well afford to add more: Grilled Duck Breast with Pumpkin Puree and Japanese Red Rickles (S$21) and the Roasted Zucchini Rice (S$16). The highlights include the bone marrow, crispy brussel sprouts and the roasted zucchini rice. As well as being filling, the dishes offered a wide variety of flavours, and never fell short of interesting. Being a Japanese-inspired menu gives them the freedom to bring together ingredients that you're not quite sure will work, but do.
Want more S$50 meals? Then check out more dining places online at www.businesstimes.com.sg/lifestyle/food-drink
This article was first published on April 16, 2016. Get The Business Times for more stories.