Much ado about something

Common Man Coffee Roasters

22 Martin Road, #01-00 6836 4695
Hours 8am to 7pm daily

Singapore's speciality coffee scene has become so trendy of late that new entrants easily fall into the trap of gunning for style over substance. Common Man Coffee Roasters, however, seems to have gotten both parts down in equal measure.

Firstly, it comes backed by both coffee and retail heavyweights: the fortnight-old, 60-seater is a collaboration between the Spa Esprit Group, Harry Grover of 40 Hands Coffee in Tiong Bahru, and Australian speciality coffee roaster, Five Senses Coffee, a wholesale-only business that supplies Australia-roasted coffee to the group’s outlets.

Style-wise, they’ve thankfully skipped the predictably broody industrial-chic design brief, forging their own path instead with whimsical three-legged chairs and a glamorous marble bar as the centrepiece of the brightly lit, 2,500 sq ft space.

And instead of inundating the budding java lover with jargon-clad beverage options, the coffee menu here comes in four simple choices: black ($5) or white ($4.50) espresso coffees, filter coffee ($6) or Back Room coffee (market price). Back Room coffees are made from award-winning beans brought in only in limited quantities, while filter coffees are either dripped through a Hario v60 pour over or an AeroPress for a cleaner, brighter caffeine kick. Two single origins are featured each month, with a spotlight on a robust Sumatran and a citrus-tinged Ethiopian for August. Advanced coffee geeks can also request bespoke brews.

Unlike at most coffee joints, the food at Common Man is far from an afterthought – and substantial enough to keep even non-coffee drinkers coming back.

Now-ubiquitous eggs benedict ($24) gets a gourmet lift with braised ox cheeks and organic eggs, but for something truly original, try the green pea fritters topped with slivers of crispy pancetta and balsamic syrup ($22), or the Turkish breakfast ($25), a refreshing salad of hummus, feta and tomato padded with pita bread. A soft poached egg encased in a slightly sweet nest of phyllo pastry steals the limelight.

While Common Man is a coffee retail spot for now, Mr Grover and his team have their sights set on expanding into roasting and wholesaling coffee beans to other speciality cafes here and in the region by the end of the year.

A roaster fronted in a glass-encased room onsite supplies the cafe’s needs, while a larger industrial roastery will soon be set up for the wholesale business.

While Mr Grover will oversee the retail aspects, American barista Andrew Kent, re-assigned from Five Senses’ Barista Academy in Melbourne, will man the roasting and wholesale business. A confessed coffee geek who efferverscently takes our questions on everything from coffee presses to his year spent in Ethiopia tracking coffee supply chains, Mr Kent adds that cupping sessions and coffee appreciation classes will be rolled out soon – a luxury that space-constrained sister outlet 40 Hands did not have.

“When we first started 40 Hands in 2010 on a shoestring budget of $30,000 and in a quiet street in a traditional neighbourhood, everyone said we were crazy,” says Mr Grover. “Now, the speciality coffee scene in Singapore has progressed so much that everyone has gone from drinking Starbucks to running a cafe-roastery almost overnight.”

“But it has missed a few steps along the way,” he adds. “And that’s where we want to step in, with the pedigree and expertise of Five Senses, to give the speciality coffee scene here that nudge forward.”

By Debbie Yong

Drury Lane

94 Tanjong Pagar Road 6222 6698
Open weekdays from 9am to 10pm, and weekends from 10am to 6pm. Closed on Tuesdays

Muffins may well be the new doughnut as folks swing by Drury Lane for their favourite cup of java and a crumbly pay-as-you-wish muffin in various flavours including kaya, black sesame and taro.

Yes, “pay-as-you-wish”. Which means you can pay as little or as much as you like for a muffin, and the café owners are not allowed to gripe about it, says one co-owner, Marilyn Liew, 25. She later reveals that the most they have gotten for one muffin so far was $10 while the least was 50 cents.

Ms Liew is one of five people who started Drury Lane after realising that they shared a common goal of opening their own café. Since Ms Liew attended culinary school in Australia, she does the baking every morning, and helps with the cooking in the afternoons.

Another co-owner, Chin Chia Hwee, 27, focuses mainly on the coffee served in the café. They get their coffee beans from Australian coffee chain Toby’s Estate, but blends them in-house so they can tweak the mixture as and when they feel the need.

Mr Chin, who got his barista training from previous work in cafes, describes his coffees as “a choice of the exciting blend or comfort blend”. The blends are seasonal though, so you won’t get the exact same flavour every time you drop by, but it would still be a good cup, he says. An espresso costs $3.50 while a cappuccino costs $4.50.

As for their menu, it includes a standard all-day brunch menu, and a list of specials that changes every other day like the prawn laksa pasta ($14), beef rendang lasagna ($14) or smoked duck sandwich ($10).

One staple item on the brunch menu is Ms Liew’s own creation – baked eggs. Basically it’s a concoction of tomatoes, homemade baked beans, a choice of meat like bacon or salmon, topped with eggs and cheese and baked in the oven. While it has a rather overpowering taste of tomato, the flavours still work nicely to earn its place in the brunch menu for $12.

Department of Caffeine

15 Duxton Road 6223 3426
Open weekdays from 10.30am to 7.30pm and weekends from 9.30am to 7.30pm

A name like Department of Caffeine might suggest a speciality in coffee. Owner Andrew Lek, 35, doesn’t discount the importance of it, but his real speciality is actually his hot chocolate.

“When you open a café, hot chocolate is the thing most people tend to forget. But some people don’t want to drink coffee after 4pm or 5pm. So instead of just using chocolate sauce or Hershey’s, I have this,” he explains. The drink he refers to is a Mörk speciality hot chocolate ($6.50) imported directly from a small company located in Melbourne. It’s actually Venezuelan chocolate grounded into powder, so it tastes richer than the usual hot chocolate.

As for his coffees, Mr Lek brings them in from an Australian coffee roaster company called Five Senses Coffee. He usually has a house blend, a single origin blend plus another three or four filter coffees, where the latter two would rotate depending on seasonal availability. An espresso costs $4, while a cappuccino costs $5.

Another thing Mr Lek believes café owners tend to forget about is the quality of food. According to him, before starting Department of Caffeine, Mr Lek had visited many cafes in Singapore, and felt that the food served was fairly straightforward, if not a bit bland.

“There wasn’t a place where attention and detail was applied to both food and coffee, so I thought that was the right time to start my own,” he adds.

His café is located in a little corner of Duxton Road that’s easily missed if you’re not looking out for it. Which is what Mr Lek liked about the space in the first place.

The menu is designed by his head chef, Benedict Yong, a 23-year-old graduate from Temasek Polytechnic, with input from Mr Lek. There’s an “over the counter” section where $15 buys you a choice of salad and main for diners who are in a hurry, as well as a “from the kitchen” section where mains take a little longer to cook and are priced differently. All the items change every now and then to keep things fresh, but a couple of dishes have stayed since the café’s opening in April.

One of these is the 8hr pulled pork sandwich ($14.50) with a tender meaty filling covered in barbeque sauce and coleslaw. It’s messy to eat, but at least Mr Lek promises that no one in his casual café will judge you for licking the sauce off your fingers.

By Rachel Loi

The Coffee Shot

103 Lavender Street 6299 5909
Open Mon, Wed-Sat: 10am to 10pm; Sun: 9am to 7pm. Closed on Tuesdays

Don't be fooled by The Coffee Shot’s European-inspired décor and increasingly hipster location ie Jalan Besar. Owner Bryan Tan is into equal-opportunity coffee appreciation, in that “everyone, such as youngsters, as well as aunties and uncles, can enjoy our coffee”.

Hence, his local-inspired concept which serves drinks such as Old School Ice, which is really just a fancy name for the coffee shop classic, kopi-peng (iced coffee).

The difference is that the five-month-old cafe uses 100 per cent arabica beans and includes an espresso shot in every cup of coffee it serves – hence the name, The Coffee Shot.

“A lot of coffee houses these days target the younger generation, but we want to cater to all age groups,” says Mr Tan. “I feel that good coffee should be enjoyed by people of all ages, not just the young ones.”

For those a little more adventurous, you can take on some of the cafe’s speciality coffees, namely the Honey Con Leche, which is “sort of a latte with honey”; the Chinchulilla, which contains peach liqueur with a honey latte; and the Rome Holiday, a milk coffee with baileys, peach liqueur and whipped cream – all inclusive of that espresso shot, of course.

On why he’s so enthusiastic about espresso, he simply replies: “Personally, I have to drink coffee every day . . . I can even drink two cups of arabica coffee at a time. I like coffee – so why not?”

Coffee is the main draw although there is a small menu which also emphasises local flavours. The Old School Bun is the familiar childhood egg and luncheon meat snack, and there’s also otah pizza. There are also few Western options such as poached eggs and ham, as well as cakes and sandwiches.

Mr Tan, who has helmed several F&B ventures including cafes and western food stalls, struck out on his own so he could indulge in his coffee passion and also he felt there was room for a concept like his. Since the cafe launched in March this year, business has been gradually improving, and Mr Tan is confident it will improve even more as the area is currently going through a revival of sorts. “There are a lot of coffee places coming up here, but mostly along Jalan Besar road itself, while ours is at Lavender Street. But I see us as co-existing rather than competing. There is definitely a market for plenty of coffee places in the area,” he adds.

By Natalie Koh

Craft Bakery & Café

24 Lorong Mambong 6467 7710
Open Sundays to Thursdays from noon to 11pm, and Fridays to Saturdays from noon to midnight

Three years after siblings Celine and Kevin Yeo made a name for themselves selling molten lava cakes at their dessert bar 3-Inch Sin, they decided to branch out with a casual eatery – the month-old Craft Bakery & Café at Holland Village. “The idea of a café always enticed me. But we didn’t want to dilute 3-Inch Sin’s concept by selling sandwiches, so we opened this instead,” says Kevin, 32.

According to him, Holland Village was the ideal location because it held many childhood memories for the pair. So when they chanced upon the available space, they knew they had to take it.

Craft is a bright, modern-looking café with wooden benches and white walls that offers a refreshing contrast to the pubs around the area. Of course, you can still find their famous 3-inch in diameter molten lava cakes ($9.50) there, among a list of other cakes and pastries that Celine bakes at the central kitchen every day. But Craft was also intended as an opportunity for a wider and more adventurous menu, so that includes mains such as sandwiches, pastas, and pizzas.

One unique creation is The Craft ($11.50) – an unconventional sandwich made up of waffles filled with maple-caramelised bacon and green apple slaw with mustard. While the combination may sound a little daunting, they do a decent job of balancing one another out. And if you don’t feel like having the molten lava cake for dessert, they have others like a slice of red velvet cake ($7.50) with cream cheese and covered in a layer of shredded coconut.

As for coffee, they get their blends from local coffee roaster called Papa Palheta, which has also been supplying coffee to 3-Inch Sin for two years.

What’s different about this coffee is that there is a bit of a chocolate flavour to it, to go with the sweet desserts that Craft offers, says Kevin. After all, what goes better with chocolate than more chocolate?

Revolution Coffee

21 Media Circle, #01-03A 6777 2110
Open weekdays from 8am to 5pm and weekends from 10am to 6pm

When someone is passionate about what they do, it shows. So it does with 33-year-old Ajie Permana, who talks about coffee-making techniques involving temperature, pressure or his custom-painted coffee machine with the energy of an excited child.

“The most important thing about coffee is to keep it consistent. So you have the same cup no matter who makes it. Because coffee is a living and breathing thing,” he explains.

Though he has a degree in mechanical engineering from Nanyang Technological University, Mr Permana worked a few jobs in other fields like marketing, where he had the opportunity to travel to Australia where he was exposed to their growing café scene.

Before opening his now-three-month-old café, Revolution Coffee, Mr Permana contacted coffee roasters from all over Australia, and eventually chose eight different coffees from four different roasters. He then conducted a blind taste test at home with his friends, and picked what later became his house blend – Reservoir Road by Single Origin Roasters, a small company with their own café in Sydney. It is a mix of beans from Burundi, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, blended together to give a smooth caramel taste, he says.

And while the house blend has a more fruity and acidic flavour profile, Mr Permana also makes sure to carry a contrasting earthy blend that rotates every two weeks.

An espresso costs $3.50, while a cappuccino costs $5.50.

The café itself has a laidback, cosy atmosphere, with a bit of an “indie” feel. Hanging on the ceiling is a lamp made of used coffee filters, while the tables are made of beer crates and recycled wood from our local stadium benches. Not to mention, on the wall is a black-and-white wallpaper art piece by the “sticker lady”, Samantha Lo.

And since his main interest is in coffee, Mr Permana hired food consultant Shen Tan of Wok & Barrel to help him construct a menu to suit his café. The food leans towards local fusion, such as low fat chicken satay breast salad ($8) and sticky date pudding with gula melaka sauce and ice cream ($9.90). 

Brawn & Brains

100 Guillemard Road #01-07
Open Tue-Sun: 11.30am to 8.30pm

When Gwen Peh, 30, and Xavier Teo, 37, decided to open their own cafe, they just wanted a quiet place for them to roast their own coffee beans and share a cuppa with their fellow coffee-loving friends.

Sure, a little extra business would be nice, but they weren’t exactly expecting much tucked away in a corner of the Old Badminton Hall at Kallang.

But since their soft launch two weeks ago, they’ve been getting a pretty decent crowd during the weekends – and not just from the usual rock-climbing enthusiasts from the climbing gym next door.

“Suddenly we were getting customers who would come in all dressed up in designer wear, which isn’t common in this area,” Mr Teo shares. “It turns out they found out about us through Instagram because someone posted a photo of our cafe, so people decided to come and check us out. We’re so amazed at how powerful social media is. And we are quite happy about it, of course.”

For now, the café is offering a Brazilian single-origin coffee with nutty overtones, but they will be introducing some original coffee blends into the menu in a couple of weeks – once Ms Peh and Mr Teo have worked out the kinks of the cafe operations and fine-tuned the blends.

And even though the blends haven’t been finalised yet – one thing’s for sure: they will be made from organic beans. “We noticed that there’s a lack of organic blends in the market right now, and we want to promote healthy food,” says Mr Teo. “I’m planning to have maybe two to three origins to one blend – all organic.”

While coffee had always been a big part of Mr Teo’s life, it was only a few years ago that he was hit by inspiration to start roasting his own beans.

“I visited Milan a few years back and I just loved the coffee culture there. So I got the idea to start doing my own coffee, and since most of my friends love coffee as well, I thought of buying a roaster that we could all benefit from,” he remembers.

He began buying raw beans, reading up on coffee roasting, and experimenting with his roaster until he found himself liking the idea of having his own blends more and more. “It felt quite nice to have some personal touch to my coffee,” he says.

And that, perhaps, is precisely the appeal of cafes with their own coffee blends – that personal touch in each blend that doesn’t shout “mass production” like the commercial brands do.

The café currently offers a staple of sandwiches and cakes in the daily menu. Ms Peh bakes the cakes fresh every morning, and shares that her Lavender and Earl Grey Pound Cakes are among the more popular choices with customers.

On why they chose the Old Badminton Hall to open shop, Mr Teo shares that it was really by chance – he had been passing by and noticed that there was an empty shop space.

“Both of us liked that it wasn’t too crowded. And a place like this has a very strong character because of its history; at the same time, we’re bringing something new and modern to it,” he says.

Anythingz Café

139 Tyrwhitt Road #01-03
Open Mon to Wed: 8am to 8pm; Fri & Sat: 8am to 10pm; Sun 10am to 10pm

It takes some guts to open a cafe right across the highly popular Chye Seng Huat Hardware, but Jackey Wong doesn’t seem too bothered by the competition.

“Every cafe has its own identity and specialities,” he says. “Our coffee is different from theirs, so it’s really up to the customers’ personal preferences."

Seeing that there was little point in trying to compete with the special coffee blends offered by cafes in the surrounding area of Jalan Besar, Mr Wong decided to take a more tried-and-tested path: selling a well-known brand of coffee.

During his six-year stay in Sydney, Australia, he fell in love with Vittoria Coffee, and decided to bring that into Anythingz Cafe, which he opened in March this year.

“I chose this brand because I was most familiar with it, and you would like it even if you weren’t a coffee person,” he shares. “The espresso doesn’t taste acidic, and you can actually taste a bit of sweetness in it.”

But perhaps the most attractive thing about the cafe is its intimate, homely feel, thanks to a small seating space for up to 26 people, and delightfully homemade food that he makes himself every day.

“I just wanted to have a relaxing place for people to have nice coffee, dessert and food,” Mr Wong says. “My intention was to create a cosy hangout place for high tea and chit chat.”

Most of the food, like the breakfast sets, sandwiches, pizza and pasta, are made from his own personal recipes, created through rounds of trial and error. “I wanted to have a variety of international and western food,” Mr Wong says. “So I take some inspiration from photos that I find on the Internet, then I look for different recipes and ingredients for each dish, and experiment with them.”

Even a few of the desserts, such as the Crème Brulee, Mille Crepes, Chocolate Mousse and Tofu Cheese Cake are homemade, while the others are imported from France.

Being a small establishment, the cafe offers a very personalised form of service as well. Mr Wong is currently a one-man show, so he meets all his customers personally and tries to remember all of them. Which is probably why he gets plenty of return customers. “I try to give good and friendly service so that customers would feel good here and come back again. That way, new customers become regular customers, which will definitely boost my business,” he offers.” 

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