Is Katong too cool?

SINGAPORE - Hawker Pang Weng Hong, 61, has been selling his fried Hokkien prawn mee, fried mee suah and fried kway teow in a Katong coffee shop for 43 years.

When the coffee shop was taken over by an operator in 2012, he contemplated retiring. But he decided to stay on and "see how" his stall would fit into the new operator's plan to convert the place into a "hawker bar".

The coffee shop at the bustling cross-junction of East Coast and Joo Chiat roads has been renamed Alibabar and Mr Pang is still enjoying brisk business.

He says in Mandarin: "At first, I said no to the changes, when I knew the coffee shop was going to have a bar. But after they did it, I think it is okay. There's a lot of competition now, but we still can survive because we have customer support."

Indeed, many regular customers still queue up for his noodle dishes, which come with a portion of fried lard. "No lard, no good," he says with a hearty laugh.

His stall retains his hawker roots, in contrast to the other hipster stalls in Alibabar, such as French stall Le Petit Paradis; and iCookuEat, which serves homey Eurasian food.

Alibabar's bar section, which sells kopi and toast for breakfast, becomes a watering hole in the evening for residents and working professionals winding down for the day, with its wide selection of craft beers.

On setting up his neighbourhood bar, owner Tan Kay Chuan, 46, says: "I could have done an Italian restaurant, but at the same time, I wanted to retain some character of the area. I didn't want it to be just any coffee shop. I wanted it to be a neighbourhood bar, where people can come in their T-shirts and shorts.

"Katong has become a vibrant foodie hub and we want to blend in with the landscape."

It is the juxtaposition of old and new in Alibabar that exemplifies the current food and beverage landscape of Katong.

Business owners and diners that SundayLife! spoke to all agree that Katong is, and has always been, a foodie paradise with a rich food heritage. Yet some fear its dilution with the slew of new eateries, which seem to be elbowing out traditional ones.

The area's history is commonly associated with the Peranakan and Eurasian communities. Shophouses, coffee shops and mom-and-pop stores plied their trades there.

The neighbourhood is home to famous chicken rice and laksa stalls and now, to many new restaurants and cafes that sell steak, Thai food and ice cream.

Four-month-old Katong V mall has even more food choices, ranging from artisan bakery East Manhattan to chic gelato cafe Azzura Gelati.

Along East Coast Road, Mexican restaurant Lower East Side Taqueria, crab shack Full Of Crab and chicken wings restaurant Wings World all opened in the past six months.

Even German restaurant chain Brotzeit set up shop opposite Katong I12 six months ago. Calling Katong a "foodie hotspot", Mr Aidan Hay, chief executive officer of Brotzeit International, says he picked the strategic location when the lease for the space, formerly a coffee shop, was up.

He says: "Katong has a rich diversity of cuisines; Western, Chinese, Peranakan, Malay and Eurasian. Brotzeit's presence adds a new taste to the mix of flavours."

On Joo Chiat Road, various new restaurants have added to the smorgasbord of food options. These include Rochor Thai, Immigrants Gastrobar, 8 Degrees Taiwanese Bistro, and Eurasian-Peranakan restaurant Casa Bom Vento.

But while some are going full steam ahead with a modern look, others are also trying to balance modernity with nostalgia.

To "pay homage" to the old Katong, Ms Lyn Lee, founder of the Awfully Chocolate chain of dessert shops, decided to open Sinpopo Brand, styled as a 1960s coffee shop with furnishings such as an old TV set, retro signboard and old-school crockery.

It took over the space formerly occupied by her casual diner Everything With Fries.

She says: "We made our Le Cordon Bleu- trained chef re-learn his heritage and learn to serve long-lost restaurant dishes such as scissor-cut curry rice, traditional nasi lemak and durian pengat."

Awfully Chocolate first opened in 1998 at the junction of Joo Chiat and East Coast roads.

She says: "Awfully Chocolate and Everything With Fries were the trendiest businesses in the area back then. More people then started to take notice of Katong and set up shop here. With the opening of Katong I12 in late 2010, the area was transformed into a very modern food area.

"As a resident and business owner in the area, I would have liked to have seen a wider variety of businesses come in. Street food is an endangered species, and the proliferation of modern food concepts seemed to strike a death knell for the many smaller local players.

"I was rather heartbroken to see my neighbourhood stores taken over by big commercial players with deep pockets, jacking up area rentals two- and three-fold."

Expressing similar concerns on the heritage of the area is Ms Bebe Seet, 63, who runs Rumah Bebe. It houses a shop selling Peranakan crafts and a cafe serving traditional Peranakan food and snacks.

She says: "The intention to retain the Peranakan culture in Katong hasn't seemed to work out. There are only a few of us in this stretch, so you don't really get a Peranakan vibe. We are trying to preserve our culture. If we didn't own our shops, it's likely we would have been pushed out too."

Awfully Chocolate's Ms Lee, 40, adds: "When we saw the humongous electronic traffic board go up right in front of East Coast Road's two-storey conservation shophouses, we were appalled at the lack of sensitivity to the design heritage of the area.

"There are also lovely brick and mosaic pavements along East Coast Road which have been carelessly plastered over with cement instead of being replaced. We think a lot more thought and regard should be taken with an area of historical and cultural significance like Katong."

Retired public health officer Philip Chew - the great-grandson of Mr Chew Joo Chiat, after whom the famous road is named - also laments that many of his favourite shops and eateries have disappeared over the years.

The 79-year-old, who lives in a five-room HDB flat in Marine Parade with his 77-year-old wife, tells SundayLife!: "It's so different now. Sometimes I just walk around the area to see the changes and relive the memories. Over the years, many residential premises have given way to shops and eateries. Progress cannot bring back the old neighbourhood."

But the slew of new restaurant openings in the area is unlikely to stop.

Katong I12's latest food tenant, Captain Leo, a fried rice eatery, will open by March 28. The mall houses restaurants such as Da Paolo Gastronomia, Din Tai Fung and Crust Gourmet Pizza Bar.

Captain Leo's managing director William Lim, 27, says: "When I was doing research, I found out that almost all Chinese restaurants sell fried rice, but it's not their focus. So I thought this would be a good new concept to introduce."

The fried rice menu has two categories - local and international flavours. Signature items in the local category are sambal belacan fried rice ($6.90) and salted egg fried rice ($7.90), while the international flavours include nori fried rice ($8.90); and the Great American Fried Rice ($14.90).

While the new seems to be replacing the old, there is at least one development aimed at bringing back some of the old-world charm of Katong.

Red House Bakery opened in 1931 and its closure in 2003 was much lamented.

In the second half of next year, it will be revived, as part of an integrated heritage development with a five-storey serviced apartment complex called The Red House.

There are plans for a bakery and a Heritage Gallery showcasing Katong's history.

The developer, Warees Investments, is also considering the idea of having a social enterprise running a bakery studio offering baking programmes for the public.

Ms Rumaizah Modafi, vice-president of endowment development for Warees Investments, says: "The Heritage Gallery will capture the old charm of Katong past, and will be a permanent installation to exhibit the historical timeline.

"Conservation guidelines will be adhered to and nostalgic retail concepts will be welcomed to retain the character of the old Katong district."

Art director Lim Theng, 29, who lives in a bungalow on Dunman Road with his family, has mixed feelings about the changes in the area, where he has lived all his life.

He says: "Katong I12 is better than the previous Katong Mall, with more cafes to chill out at. However, with all the new places opening, the food is likely to be more commercialised. I miss the popular tau kwa bao that was previously located at Alibabar.

"But no matter what, Katong will always be a food heaven."

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Whet your appetite with six new restaurants that have opened along East Coast Road over the past six months, all within walking distance of one another.

They include casual Mexican restaurant Lower East Side Taqueria (19 East Coast Road), crab shack Full Of Crab (195 East Coast Road, right), chicken wing joint Wings World (214 East Coast Road), and ice cream parlour Fanny Ice Cream (99 East Coast Road).

The Katong shop is Fanny Ice Cream's first one outside Vietnam, and the two-week-old place will be the brand's flagship ice cream parlour.

The franchise, named after a 1932 French film of the same name, is run by co-owners Woon Shung Toon, 49, and Kwan Kum Hon, 36, who have plans to expand the brand into South-east Asia.

Mr Woon says: "We were always looking for a dessert concept to bring in, and felt that it would fit into this nice food street along East Coast Road which doesn't really have a good ice cream parlour."

Over the next few months, they will introduce pastries and savoury crepes to the menu, in addition to ice cream desserts.

Options include Demi Bol ($25), which has a mix of ice cream, sorbet, chocolate sauce and caramel sauce, as well as fruit salad; and Lotus ($22), which has strawberry yogurt ice cream, mixed berry sorbet, fresh lotus chips, and a lotus bloom made out of white chocolate. Single ice cream scoops start at $4.

Their next outlet is slated to open in Bukit Timah by mid-May, and they have plans to open in Tiong Bahru this year.

Further down the road is six-month-old German restaurant chain Brotzeit (126 East Coast Road) and Wings World, which opened in November last year.

Wings World's menu features a range of chicken wings with flavours such as Italian Herb, and four levels of spiciness.

For the more health-conscious, head to month-old Simply Eden, which is located in a two-storey shophouse. The ground floor features a bakery and takeaway food such as sandwiches, salads and desserts. There is also a range of organic groceries available, such as juices, chips, teas and vinegars.

The second storey is used for tea workshops and children's art classes.

Simply Eden's chef-owner Clement Ng, who is of Peranakan heritage, uses edible flowers in his cooking and grows his own herbs for the breads.

On opening in Katong, he says: "Katong has a tradition of good food and is developing well. We can only hope that the area can adapt to embrace the exciting new influences while retaining its charm."


Where: 30 East Coast Road

The latest mall to open in the Katong area is the three-storey Katong V, which is part of a mixed development that includes Village Hotel Katong - a 12-storey, 230-room hotel operated by Far East Hospitality.

Keeping up with the competition in the area, the mall houses new food businesses.

They include artisan bakery East Manhattan (01-04), Tiferet Tea Room (02-17), Australian gelato brand Azzura Gelati (01-01), and Indian restaurant Delhi 6 (01-12/13).

The gelato shop is Azzura Gelati's first outside of Perth, Western Australia.

Besides serving gelato ($4 for a single scoop), the cafe also has waffles (from $6), milkshakes ($8) and craft beers (from $12) on the menu.

Light bites such as salads, sandwiches and antipasti are also available.

Its signature desserts include Honey Bee and Peach Fantasia ($8.90 each).

At East Manhattan, pick up fresh bakes for breakfast, such as sourdough breads ($6.80 each) and a daily selection of loaves such as mixed herb and cranberry ($3.90) and nutty country loaf ($4.80) with walnuts and hazelnuts.

Owner John Wee, 46, also makes chocolate pralines ($10.80) and small batches of tarts ($5.80), such as raspberry, strawberry and Manhattan lemon cream.

For a soothing tea break, head to Tiferet Tea Room, which stocks a wide range of teas.

It is run by owner Alex Chua, 46, who studied tea in a Taiwan tea institute. He carries an exclusive range of teas from the institute and teaches customers about the art of drinking tea; including the tea to water ratio and the time taken to steep tea.

Diners can also buy tea to take home (from $28 to $98, depending on the type of tea and its region). Mr Chua has packaged it specially to cater to tea-drinkers who may not have teapots at home or in the office.

He says: "Drinking tea is not like drinking water. But for those who have no teapot, it's no issue. We have steeping instructions on the box."

The outlet also serves sandwiches to dispel the misconception that Chinese tea and Western food do not pair well, says Mr Chua, who used to work in the IT industry.

In addition to the new concepts, Katong V also houses a FairPrice Finest supermarket, as well as other eateries such as Group Therapy Cafe, Japanese restaurant Tomi Sushi and Italian restaurant Modestos.

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