The New Harbour Cafe & Bar, Tanjong Pagar
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, "Hey...is 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 too...it 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 nope...no 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.