Festive Ala Carte Buffet @ IndoCafe The White House
It is just days to Christmas and I reckon it was timely for a gathering with some friends whom I’d gotten to know over Facebook, a good time to get together again since meet ups as such are far and few in between given everyone’s busy schedules. It is also good to be able to put a face to a name, transcending from online acquaintances to friends in real life. There have been quite a number of Christmas promotions running in our local restaurants and F&B establishments in hotels so we are literally spoilt for choices. Despite coming back from Melaka just a couple of days back, I still crave for good Peranakan food. A quick buzz over one of the Facebook groups I am active in and it didn’t take long for like-minded foodies to respond to the calling. We chose ‘The House of Indocafe’ as none of us have been here before. We thought it would be a good chance to try out their “Festive Ala Carte Buffet” menu which is currently running at their “White House” restaurant located just along the fringe of the Orchard Road shopping belt. It was a choice we grew to regret. Read on to find out why…
The White House of Indocafe is located along Scotts Road just off the Cairnhill turning. Literally just steps away from Newton MRT, it is very accessible via public transport. Upon reaching, we were all awed by the beautiful black and white pre-colonial house it is nested in. Such architecture are a rare sight now in urban Singapore, with the steps of economic progress and modernity fast on our heels. Built of stilts, the building exudes an alluring aura of the yesteryears and its historical richness. It stands quiet and stoic on its own, against the looming backdrop of tall buildings and new condominium projects in the vicinity. Very captivating I must say, especially when Indocafe’s website too serenades to the tune on the heritage of the Peranakan legacy in Singapore. One can only be drawn into the mood set all too easily.
The interior decor was very artistically done up, lovely artwork as well as framed vintage kebayas that donned the walls, accentuated by carefully curated lighting that helped to articulate a wonderful dining ambience. But how is the food exactly? Well here goes…
Despite our reservation at 12.30 pm, most of us arrived before that and were nicely seated at a long table that I had requested at the time of booking. A quick chat with the maitre d’ of the restaurant and we decide its best to run through the entire ala carte buffet menu once before setting our minds on what are worthy for second helpings. An online copy of the menu can be found here for those who are interested to find out what we ate.
First up was a selection of appetisers and soups with Satay Sapi, which apparently is how “Satay Daging” is known in Indonesia. The meat was well marinated but unfortunately, the texture after grilling was a tad dry for my liking. The kuah satay that went along also looked rather watered down, both in consistency and flavour. It clearly lacked the thick grated peanut-packed sauce one would have anticipated. And this is not due to mere geographical variation as a quick check with my Indonesian friends also yielded equally bewildering replies to why the rendition offered at Indocafe was so “diluted”. It didn’t have the oomph of the spices one would expect from a good kuah satay as well.
There was also Satay Ayam which I felt was slightly better than the beef version. That said, it still did not deliver what I had expected out of good satay making and grilling.
One thing I must comment is one how counter-intuitive the ceramic vessel used to contain the satay sauce is. It is petite, no bigger than a Japanese teacup, and being only half filled, it could barely contain enough sauce to last through the number of sticks of grilled meat on the plate. Given the narrow and steep vertical walls and how small it is, it was very difficult for one to “celup” for all the meat pieces on each skewer to be properly robed with sufficient sauce to enjoy every stick. Having the sauce in such a runny consistency most certainly did not help for it to properly adhere to the meat either. I had never experienced anything more ‘painstaking’ and ‘ungratifying’ from eating satay elsewhere than here.
Kueh Pie Tee seems quintessential in any Peranakan-themed restaurant nowadays and the White House of IndoCafe is no exception. Julienned yambean stewed with cabbage and carrots for additional sweetness made the filling rather yummy. The use of dried cuttlefish in this dish makes it become the Penang “Jiu Hu Char” that sets it apart from our local version commonly used in popiahs. I like Indocafe’s version as the dried cuttlefish imparts a sense of umami flavours unto the stewed vegetables, though very faintly and hardly noticeable. I would have hoped for it to be more bold and apparent in its flavour profile. The pie tee shells were crisp but a tad too thick than what I would have liked. Nonetheless, the burst of crunchy and crisp sensations one gets from sending each bitesize into one’s mouth is quite rewarding.
The accompanying chili sauce was most curious. It used “cili hijau” instead of the standard ‘cili chukka” one would expect. Made with green chilies, rice vinegar and lots of garlic, I quite like the cili hijau actually though I must add that cili chukka would have been aesthetically more pleasing while delivering a very similar flavour profile as what cili hijau would. Call me anal retentive, but if one wishes to do Peranakan cuisine properly, one must be prepared to get everything right down to the last detail, especially when the diners are paying so much for it.
Hee Peow Tng aka Kuah Hee Pio is also a Peranakan classic soup. I liked it that they have made their own prawn balls for the soup, which is incidentally cooked from pig bones as the taste was quite distinctive. Cooked slices of pig maw was added. While others may claim it as being unconventional, I actually quite like the idea. But the richness of a good hee pio soup is not quite there. The seasoning definitely needs more working on.
The other soup which we tried was Sup Ayam Belanda which is essentially Turkey soup, made to usher the festivities I am guessing. While the stock base was clearly more flavourful than their version of Hee Peow Tng, the pieces of turkey was dry and drab. They were so dry that prompted me to inform the maitre d’ to take out the “Kari Ayam Belanda” and “Aromatic Spiced Turkey” from our first round of sampling. I am not terribly fond of turkey and it seems like quite a few of my friends ain’t fans of it either. So we’d given any turkey on the menu a decided miss.
The restaurant named this “Otak Klasik” but the truth could not have been further. The rendition at Indocafe is based on the Japanese chawanmushi, a silky steamed egg custard which in this case had been flavoured with rempah kuning. Mitsuba is replaced with Chinese coriander, and a piece of seabass fillet was added instead of the usual gingko and kamaboko which one would see in the Japanese version. This was one of the more enjoyable dishes this afternoon, discounting the fact that it is nothing remotely near the textures of the traditional and classic Otak Otak. I got a small broken piece of what I thought was daun kaduk in my serving but some others did not have it. Why are the inconsistencies, I am not sure…
Nasi Ulam, a Peranakan rice dish which has a lot of different herbs added to it traditionally. For the version at the restaurant however, it seems like only kacang botol (winged bean) and daun kunyit (tumeric leaf) were added. I could not see or taste the other common herbs and ingredents like daun kaduk, daun selasir, daun limau purut, serai or even bawang merah in today’s version, let alone the other more difficult-to-source herbs. The taste of tumeric was overpowering and basically masked whatever else that was added to the rice. It does not have the complexity of flavours one would expect in a decent nasi ulam, so let’s not even talk about it being near a good one. As I’d mentioned before, should one wish to produce something out from traditional cuisine and market it as being so, please be ready to put in more effort by going the extra mile to source for the appropriate ingredients for the dish. I may be starting to sound unforgiving but preparing it in such a half-hearted manner would only serve to create a misconception to the uninitiated for what Nasi Ulam is meant to taste and look like, which in this case would be gravely erroneous.
Wagyu Beef Rendang, a rather good rendition here. The flavours would be a bit richer but what was presented is passable on all accounts. The meat was fork tender with good amount of fat layering in between for an almost melt-in-the-mouth experience. This is one of the very few dishes which we went for seconds.
Terung Belado, slices of brinjal which has been scalded in oil before being robed with a sauce of sambal udang kering. Like the beef rendang, this was also one of the better dishes that afternoon. The brinjal had a good bite to it while the sambal sauce had a decent dose of dried shrimp in it for lifting the flavours of the brinjal making it more enjoyable.
Ikan Masak Merah. We were told that the dish uses cod but we thought it tasted more like garoupa instead. We had mixed feelings about this dish across the table. Some of us liked it enough to go for a second piece but quite a number of us found the sauce slightly off than what would have been expected of this popular Malay dish (yes kuah Masak Merah is not Peranakan for the records). I am “ok” with it I guess, without strong feelings for it be it positive or negative. There are clearing other dishes on the menu which are failing more badly than expected and are taking the rap.
We were initially told that there would not be any squid or prawn dishes being offered that day from the menu as the kitchen had ‘ran out of’ these ingredients due to an event hosted at the restaurant the night before. We thought it to be more of an excuse as it is the responsibility of the restaurant to ensure that they have everything properly in stock and available for the dishes on the buffet menu. Not that there is anything we can do about it of course. Thankfully we were informed by the maitre d’ later that their supply of prawns have arrived, but still no “sotong” in sight though. Nonetheless, we were thankful that all was not lost.
Gulai Udang, or Prawns in Curry Sauce was served to us. The prawns were quite fresh and succulent and I liked the fact that the shell was largely removed, save for the head and tail. This little gesture made it much easier for us to enjoy the prawns. If only such thoughtfulness was perpetuated to the other dishes as well. That said, I found the curry a little too dry than what I would have expected, with too little gravy for it to be enjoyed properly. It was more like a stir-fry of prawns, onions, tomatoes in very little curry-based sauce. Enough said.
Inche Kabin, a signature Penang Peranakan dish was quite well prepared. The chicken was delightfully moist despite the frying process and sufficiently seasoned. The accompanying Worcestershire sauce based ‘ang moh tau yew’ went well with the chicken.
Udang Assam Goreng was also a dish made available to us from the supply of prawns that came in later. Not much to fault with the prawns but the sauce was lacking in the characteristic piquant flavors this classic dish is mostly known for. Not quite there yet. Not quite near in fact.
“Babi Pongteh” we were told as this was being served to us but this was not Babi Pongteh at all. In fact it tasted so bizarre I do not know what to call it. Despite being described as “pork belly braised in fragrant soya bean paste and aromatic spices” on the menu, we could not taste any taucheo in it at all. Not only taucheo, but garlic and shallots was clearly absent as well. Not prominently anyway. The pork belly despite being thoroughly braised, possessed a lingering stench which was rather unpleasant. “Weird” is probably a good word to use to summarise how we feel about the dish. It doesn’t taste like Babi Pongteh. In fact, it doesn’t taste like anything we’d eaten before elsewhere, and sorry to say it doesn’t taste good at all to start with for us to want to eat it ever again.
“Sotong Assam Goreng“. No squid from the lack of supplies as we were told by the Maitre d’ but he asked if we would like to have the dish cooked with octopus instead. I did not think too much about it, so we took to his suggestion, only to regret the outcome. The baby octopus was so dry and rubbery making the dish almost unpalatable. It didn’t help with the kuah assam not tasting right as it should. We risked having to pay for food wastage and left the dish largely untouched. The baby octopus had all died in vain and this dish goes down in my books as a sheer culinary disaster.
Back home, I took a good look at the different menus offered at Indocafe and strangely I could not detect any dish which would have required baby octopus at all. What were they doing in their kitchens then? Curious I must say but in retrospect, I would rather not find out…
Assam Laksa was recommended to us by the maitre d’ as their must-try signatures. Yes indeed, this is one of the dishes that represent the essence of Penang Peranakan cuisine which bore unmistakably influences from Thai and Burmese cooking. It has the looks of Penang Assam Laksa but unfortunately, the taste like many of the preceding dishes we had sampled was watered down and not rich at all. From the sauce which is supposed to be packed with all the wonderful flavours of the rempah and ikan kembong, down to the hae koh which was drizzled over the noodles before serving, everything tasted diluted as if the flavours were deliberated tuned down for whatsoever unfathomable reasons. This kind of spoils it for me which make me wonder if the restaurant could get such a classic so gravely “wrong”, what else could be left “right” at all about the place. The very thought was really disheartening I know but if you had eaten there before, I am pretty sure you would echo my lamentations on the quality of food here.
To end it all, we had a round of kuehs and desserts offered on the menu in hope that there would be at least something good that would come out of it. Boy were we wrong. The sauce of the bubur cha cha was overdosed with sugar beyond recognition even for one who loves to make and eat kuehs and desserts like myself. The talam hijau was not talam hijau at all. Firstly the base was white instead of taking on an earthy tone from the use of gula melaka. The textures were all wrong, as if the whole piece was just made with tepong hoon kwe instead of what they should have been. Despite the green, there was no taste of pandan at all, nor did the white taste of santan. It was practically non-descript.
The ondeh ondeh was a catastrophe. Instead of tepong pulot (glutinous rice flour), tepong beras (rice flour) was used instead and the textures were all wrong wrong wrong. It was not soft and chewy at all as what would have been expected from ondeh ondeh. It just tasted like a sticky and mushy mess in the mouth, not knowing what to make out of it except for to spit it out. The skin of the ondeh ondeh was probably the thickest I had eaten before ever and there was virtually no taste of gula melaka at all despite each ball having a small reservoir in the middle which contain a bare few drops of it. The outmost layer was tough like the ondeh ondehs were made a long time back and left around for too long for a hardened skin to have developed. yucky is an understatement here.
The Serikaya was horrible as well. The layer of glutinous rice at the bottom was not seasoned at all and horror of horrors, the rice was coloured with artificial colouring instead of using bunga telang which was growing in abundance along the fence in front of the restaurant.
The kek lapis was also dry and not tasting any good at all. Thoroughly disappointing. In the end, the only dessert that tasted remotely decent were the “Guli Jelly” in lemongrass syrup but even they are not fantastic, and may I add, not Peranakan at all. I think the service staff clearly could knew that their own food was lousy as they only served us two pieces of talam and serikaya each despite having requested for a portion for everyone. They probably foresaw that we would not have enjoyed the kuehs perhaps only because they themselves do not like their own kuehs too. I could not think of anything sadder than that.
In short, our dining experience at The White House of Indocafe was an absolute disaster. It is probably the worst dine-outs I have had this year, and for a long time. It was a major mistake on my part as I should have done my homework and read up some reviews on the restaurant before even thinking to recommend it to my friends. While the waiting service was professional and prompt, that was not enough at all to offset and make up for all the misses and mistakes committed in the food throughout the entire course. Save for a very limited few, most of the dishes were not even near to standards of being decent, let alone to be called good or delicious. The inferior quality of food served demonstrated in no uncertain terms, a very poor level of understanding towards Peranakan cuisine, be it Penang or Malaccan by whomever helmed the kitchen. We were thoroughly disappointed to an irrevocable point of being disgusted by the food, and they could not even get the basic kuehs correct. The only saving grace that afternoon was the good company we enjoyed from friends at the same table, criticising the dishes being served and laughing it off together albeit helplessly for having spent almost SGD 500 on a table for 8 on lousy Peranakan food beyond doubt, which we ourselves (all foodies and food bloggers) could have very easily whipped up in our own kitchens, costing only a small fraction of what we had paid for.
Dining at the White House of Indocafe is the first for all of us, once and once only, and in this case, even once was far too many.
The details for the White House of Indocafe is below for completion sake but take my word for it, bring your money, your guests and most importantly your appetite elsewhere more worthy.
The White House of Indocafe
35 Scotts Road, Singapore 228227
Reservation and contact details – please do not even bother…