Friday, August 04, 2006

The New Harbour Cafe & Bar, Tanjong Pagar

Fish & Chips

This place (114 Tanjong Pagar Road, 6226-2657) had been mentioned to me a number of times in the past. And even though I walked by this place frequently, I never stopped to eat here, as my gut kept telling me that the food would be totally localized and not worth eating. But after hearing another mention of this place the other day, I figured that I'd give it a shot to see what all the fuss was about.

They had some lunch specials for S$11.90 (US$7.00), and today's fortunately happened to be the fish & chips that was once a topic of discussion in the past, so I went for that. The set started with a rather pleasant surprise: seafood gumbo. I didn't even realize that was the soup of the day until I took a first stir and up came a slice of okra. I asked myself, " this gumbo??" I took a taste, and indeed it was, and a decent one at that (although my expecations were set very low). There was no rice, but hey, this was off to a better start than I had expected.

Then came the fish and chips itself. And here is where things took a turn for the worse. I had asked the waitress for malt vinegar, and in return, she threw me this puzzled look that pretty much said, "Why the heck would you want to put vinegar on your fish & chips??" It was almost as if she had never heard that request from anyone in her entire life. All right, well I didn't want to jump to any conclusions yet, seeing that I hadn't even tried the fish itself yet.

I had to do one thing first though: clear that annoying little salad thing out of the way (it's a pet peeve of mine, seeing that it is a bit pointless to put some leaves on a plate of fish & chips). But when I took a bite of the salad, I realized that they had put salt on it (and a lot was really salty!). Whoa. Who puts salt on salads? (They put white pepper instead of black pepper on it too, which was of course also a bit odd.) My fears of localization were indeed coalescing now. This brought back memories of some French fries that I once had in Taiwan that had salt and pepper sprinkled on it by default. French fries of course need salt, but pepper?? We had asked why these folks in Taiwan had put pepper on the fries, and they said something to the effect of, "Isn't all Western food supposed to be seasoned with salt and pepper? Isn't that why there are salt and pepper shakers on the table?"

Finally I made my way to the fish itself, which interestingly wasn't battered, but rather was covered with bread crumbs first before hitting the deep fat fryer. OK, that actually wasn't too bad, and featured a very delicate fish inside that I admittedly enjoyed. And it was tongue-scorchingly hot from the fryer too, which was good, although the fries were not nearly as hot...clearly a sign of being deep-fried much earlier and sitting around for a while. They also only provided one stingy little packet of tartar sauce that barely lasted me one piece of fish, let alone two. And vinegar.

So what's the verdict? The fish itself was much better than I had expected, but all in all, my fears about localization weren't too far off-base. The first item on the menu, a "black pepper chicken chop," only seemed to further reinforce that perception. To be fair though, I did see some interesting things available, such as a number of types of escargot as well as burgers on the separate barfood menu that might be worth a try. And the food was served very quickly here, thus making it convenient for a quick weekday lunch. But would I recommend anyone to make an explicit effort to come all the way here? Based on today's experience alone, probably not. Maybe my opinion will change after I come back to try some of that other stuff, but I'm not getting my hopes up.


Anonymous said...

Try fisherman's wharf in 27 new bridge road. Opposite Clarke Quay Mrt Station

They are really focused, fish and chips,nothing else

And you get to choose from different types of fish. Dory, snowfish .. etc . And its cheap. Prices start from $6.50

And yes. There are bottles of malt vinegar on every table. And ulimited tartar sauce.

bma said...

There seems to be a bit of a cyclical discussion going on...

Kathy said...

Hey! Must have walked past you today. I walked past the cafe and noticed the breadcrumb crusted fish and chips instead of the original batter ones I liked.

So I decided to go to Amici to check and they said that the $8 lunch deal is "not available for this month and won't be back till January next year". Is that true?

In the end, I went Mee Doo instead and it was pretty good.

Guess you nixed this place for me already!

bma said...

Really? I technically haven't been to Amici in the month of August, so you may be right, although I won't be surprised if I'm getting the S$8 price because the guy recognizes me from all the times that I go there (!).

Regardless, I can't imagine that the "normal" price would be too bad (and they seriously couldn't have been making much money at S$8). They have been trying to upsell me to the S$15 set meal instead.

回春 said...

Out of curiosity, why are you so hung up on localization? Yes, it is a bastardization of the original dish -- but if it tastes good on its own, isn't that sufficient?

When I lived in New York I used to eat General Tso's chicken once in a while.

bma said...

Yeah, of course food must be evaluated on its own merit without biases, and in fact, some of my favorite things to eat are actually localized versions of food that are even better than the original.

But most localization efforts I've seen are simply atrocious. Sure, I'll look at each dish on its own merits, and if I like it (despite being localized), then I'll definitely say so (Pepper Lunch comes to mind). But most of those efforts are a huge turn-off for me, plain and simply because at the end of the day, the food does not taste good.

Kathy said...

Speaking of localization, one dish that the Japanese really does well is suprisingly Ma Po Tofu. Good chinese restaurants in Asia of course would include this proudly in their repetoire, BUT, those in China usually comes with a layer of chilli oil on top. It really chokes even an avid chilli eater like me.

One of the best I've eaten so far is from Tokyo, it's funny how Japanese Chinese food tastes unauthentic but tasty!

The point is, when you localize something, you've got to take into consideration how the flavour of the dish should come out like BMA is saying; not whether it's authentic or localized.

Ma Po Tofu should be silky and should glide down your throat; whereas the batter of fried fish actually helps seal in the "juice" of the fish. (The French do bake fish in sealed parcels).

Fish and chips with breadcrumb batter, which is common in Singapore, is usually quite oily although Marche had a pretty good version of it.

Breadcrumbs only serve to attact oil and does not help to preserve the juiciness of the fish. The cheaper fish one finds in some Singapore(an) "western food" joint would not illustrate this.

But if you get a good slice of cod, you'd really like it fried in batter. And thick chips with malt vinegar is just heaven. Hhmmm. Now that's the difference between "authentic" fish and chips and other versions!

回春 said...

So it's about the quality of the food, and being localized is just a signal that the food quality may not be that good? Quite fair, I suppose -- it's the same reason why I only ate the General's chicken once in a while; it was only good at some places.

As for Japanese Chinese food, I had some very pleasant surprises when in Japan. The Japanese have a knack for adapting Chinese food. Though I have a soft spot for Indian Chinese food...

Anonymous said...

Gosh! I'm a true blooded Singaporean who stayed here all my life and haven't been to some of these real gems that you found and tasted.....Will check out some of these places you blogged about. :) Cheers!

wei neng said...

This is a bit late but I wanted to add a balancing comment to your review. I have been to New Harbour several times. The fish and chips is mediocre, but the Hainanese western dishes are excellent - try the roast pork with apple sauce and the Hainanese "mah mee".

On a separate note, thanks for posting these reviews, I think they are generally accurate and helpful.