Glamming up Kampong Glam

Shisha and grime used to be the calling cards of Kampong Glam. Anti-hipsters were drawn to the area for its grit and real grunge, not the manufactured kind.

With the gentrification of Haji Lane over the last few years and a shisha ban since last November, the last bastion of hippiedom is making way for the inevitable - the cafe culture.

Dotted along North Bridge Road, Bali Lane, and their peripheral streets lie the evidence that Kampong Glam won't be the same for much longer.

One of the newest entrants is Afterwit, a month-old modern Mexican cafe run by Calvin Seah who also co-owns the two-year-old cafe (working title) just down Arab Street. In the time that he's been there, he has observed the Kampong Glam area "becoming a lot more like Tiong Bahru."

He says: "You see more cafes, more indie shops. It's definitely more quiet at night compared to the past, especially on Haji Lane where there used to be a lot of chairs and tables for people to smoke shisha on the street."

Adds Mr Seah: "Some of the shops that used to offer shisha in the area have rebranded their place to focus more on their food . . . it seems to be better for them especially since the crowd here has become more discerning."

However, there are other shisha joints and pubs that have chosen to shut their doors instead, and this has made way for new modern concepts like the dessert bar Cake Love (which took over Nabin's at Bali Lane), and Western-local cafe Krave (which used to be a pub named Beerhouse).

Krave's chef-owner Sufiyan Safee believes the negative stigma associated with the area is already starting to disappear. He says: "I think when people think of Bali Lane, they don't think about shisha anymore. You have a very established hair salons, a few fashion boutiques, bakeries, cafes, even a leather shop that holds workshops - so it's kind of 'clean' now."

His next-door neighbour, Yeo Chern Yu of two-year-old Stateland cafe, finds that it is in fact attracting a more upmarket crowd these days. He says: "Last time people used to come for coffeeshop food like Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant, or Kampong Glam Cafe. But recently the crowd seems to be a higher-spending one. There are still people who come for their mee goreng, but there's another crowd who comes for the cafe food."

It's still taking some time for that clientele to grow to match the crowd in the past though, notes Jamuri Busori, who runs three cafes in the area - I Am, & Why, and All In. "It's a bit sad because we've been running I Am for almost two years and noticed a dip in people patronising the place. In the past, people came for shisha at night, so they would walk around first. Now there's nothing like that to get them to come here," he says.

Not that he's complaining of course, since the change in customer demographics has attracted more families and cafe-hoppers to come by, and less of the rowdy drinkers who used to show up at night.

Explains Mr Jamuri: "We're not against the pubs, but we're happy that some of them have closed down because we've had some of their customers come here and vomit or fight in our premises. But places like Blu Jaz Cafe (which serves shisha), I would love them to stay because they are anchor tenants and they attract the working class people who just want to come here to have dinner and chill out. That gives this area a good balance as well."

Comfortable flavours

Seventeen years after local chef Sufiyan Safee started his career in the F&B industry, he is finally the boss of his own establishment - a two-storey cafe in the Kampong Glam area named Krave.

He started out with a job at KFC at the age of 15, and later went on to study at Shatec before working at various other restaurants over the years.

"The food (at Krave) basically comes from my years of experience at different places," says the 32-year-old, whose resume includes stints at Supply and Demand, Jimmy Monkey Cafe, Amara Sanctuary Resort, TWG Tea Salon, and even a cooking show on the TV channel Suria.

That's why the menu at Krave features Western dishes heavily, inspired by his training in Western kitchens, but which also contain some local Malay flavours as a tribute to his personal heritage.

For instance, aside from the regular truffle fries (S$12) and calamari rings (S$10) as appetisers, he also created his own spin on cereal prawns (Shrimp 'O' Nauts, S$10) and battered deep-fried otah otah ('O' tahtah, S$10).

As for the mains, diners can choose a more traditional Kraving ayam bakar (S$16), or a cafe-favourite such as steak and chips (S$20), or be a little more adventurous with Chef Sufiyan's own creations such as the Kurry Kremoso - curry chicken with pasta (S$14), or his bestselling Sambal Marinara seafood pasta (S$16).

"That's why my cafe attracts a lot of families, because older people don't really like to have Western food. Here they have their comfortable flavours, and they can try some of the fusion Malay-Western dishes," he says.

Business has been doing well too, as queues often build up on weekday evenings and on weekends despite the cafe having over 40 seats, so it seems like Chef Sufiyan's dream of running his own place has finally come true.

He says: "I'm not well to do, so I've spent the last 15 years just working, hopping around to learn whatever I can, and save up money. After all, my main aim has always been to open my own shop, and now I have."

28 Bali Lane
Tel: 8643 4557
Opens: Tue-Thu, Sun, 11.30am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11.30am-11pm; Closed on Mon

Beyond midnight

Fancy a cold-pressed juice at 3am in the morning? Come next month, you'll be able to get that (or a coffee or pastry instead, if you prefer) at a new takeaway kiosk on the corner of North Bridge Road named All In.

One of its co-owners is 43-year-old Jamuri Busori, who also runs the popular streetside cafe I Am (alluding to Amsterdam), and the casual restaurant & Why (New York), which are both just around the corner.

All In (New Orleans) currently serves a limited menu of mostly drinks and desserts, but according to Mr Jamuri, new items will be added once they are running at full capacity in August. His intention is for it to be a 24-hour kiosk that will serve the many backpacker hostels within the vicinity, as well as the night staff working at the nearby Raffles Hospital.

"We realised that after midnight, a lot of the businesses around here close, so if people want food, there's nothing here except for McDonalds. We want to cater to these people who want to wander around at night," says Mr Jamuri.

For now, the menu is kept simple with just coffees (S$3 to S$5), ice creams (S$3.90 for 70g, S$10.90 for 210g), cold-pressed juices (S$4.90 to S$6.90), as well as a selection of pastries.

However, the plan is for more staple items such as sandwiches or noodles in to-go boxes to be eventually added, once they have enough manpower to operate 24 hours a day, and to start getting feedback from customers about what they want too, he adds.

All In
660 North Bridge Road
Tel: 6295 5509
Opens: 7am-10pm daily

London inspiration

When Phyllis Lau returned to Singapore late last year after spending three years working and living at Richmond in London, she decided to bring a little piece of it back with her in the form of her month-old London-inspired cafe named Richmond Station.

"London was my home, so I wanted to bring back a little bit of the concept back home (to Singapore) - a little bit of London with an Asian twist," says the 27-year-old who used to work in logistics before quitting her job to pursue her passion for coffee, and became a barista for a year in London.

Located at Bali Lane, Ms Lau's cosy 50-seater cafe serves traditional English cakes and pastries such as scones, crumpets, and English muffins all made in-house, from scratch. They also serve some dishes with Asian-influences such as a Crab Benedict made with shredded crab meat and poached eggs (S$16.90) and a Zesty Crab Angel Hair Pasta with lime rind, crab meat and garlic (S$18.90).

"I wanted a place that is authentically local, a little bit more vibrant yet relaxed at the same time," says Ms Lau, who describes her current clientele as a variety of people of all ages who just want a simple, quiet place to relax.

She adds: "I wanted a cosy place, so this one fits me perfectly. Moving forward, we might take the unit upstairs, but nothing has been confirmed yet. But right now, I just want to focus on getting everything right here."

Richmond Station
17 Bali Lane
Tel: 6291 4170
Open: 9am-9pm daily

Mexican best-sellers

If you're tired of having the usual eggs benedict and french toast for breakfast, how about shaking things up a little and trying a Mexican breakfast burrito instead?

Served at a new modern-Mexican cafe along North Bridge Road named Afterwit, this breakfast wrap is made up of scrambled eggs, mushrooms, guacamole, tomatoes, and Mexican rice.

The dish first appeared as a special on the cafe's pre-launch menu, but was so popular that the owners decided to keep it permanently, says co-owner Calvin Seah, who also runs the two-year-old cafe (working title) on Arab Street with his business partner.

"Personally, we like Mexican food but the Mexican places in Singapore tend to be quite pricey and you don't get to chill out in a cafe setting. So we wanted to create a place where you can still have your nice coffee and desserts, but with Mexican food," explains Mr Seah, 31.

Afterwit opened just over a month ago, as a collaboration between Mr Seah, his business partner, and an advertising agency called The Methodology Works (TMW Asia).

Some of the best-sellers so far are the Pato Jarabe de Arce burrito which contains smoked duck, scrambled eggs, and maple syrup at S$15, and the Quesadillas con Pato (quesadillas with duck) at S$14. They also serve their own version of eggs benedict, except with Chipotle Hollandaise sauce, fresh salsa, and chicken chipolata (fresh sausage) at S$15.

In the future, Mr Seah intends to experiment with some new items with local influences, such as a nasi lemak burrito with rice and otah.

"With the cafe craze now, there's quite a lot of places serving the usual bunch, so we want to introduce something more unique - a bit of fusion with a local twist," he says.

778 North Bridge Road
Tel: 6299 3508
Open: 10am-9pm daily


This article was first published on July 25, 2015.
Get The Business Times for more stories.