Among the shrubs, there are some juicy grubs in this mix.
Let’s face it: we love food. The fact that Singapore has so many affordable restaurants, and so many good ones at that has made it hard for us to be seduced by the great fine dining institutions out there. Our lives are defined by such hustle and bustle that the only time we can afford to sit back and lie loose are our meal times – be it via texting or engaging in face-to-face conversations, the dining room has become central to maintaining the human connection. We therefore prefer a convivial place where regardless of ethnicity, financial standing or personal palettes, we can chat, laugh, share, all while participating in our universal love for all things gastronomic. The formalities of upmarket dining on the other hand, may be perceived as being socially and financially stifling, and therefore not the most ideal. With this ethos in mind, we’re seeing massive growth in casual shacks – reasonably priced restaurants that balances good food and its role as a place making centre.
I first heard about GRUB at my last hosted media sampling at The Grandstand’s The Ascott, an ode to British hearty favorites – it’s not just Fish & Chips, it’s Bangers & Mash and all the quintessential must-tries whenever if you ever hit up the English capital. An outgoing radio personality, quite a charming and bubbly individual she was, talked about a new hot spot in the middle of Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. And it immediately grabbed my attention, not because it was opened by popular local private chef, Mervyn Phan, but because it was literally minutes away from my place. Once it officially opened, I didn’t quite get the opportunity to visit it despite being a stone’s throw away… until today.
All things considered, people do need a little push to travel, and GRUB, housed in a contemporary minimalist stand in the less popular bit of Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park has it in the form of its chef, Mervyn Phan of culinary school, Cookyn Inc fame. Phan, 32, has built a following through his charming good looks, popular cooking classes and his origin story as a self-taught chef. Set in the idyllic flora and fauna of the renewed Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, he couldn’t have scored a better venue. During the day (for weekends only), the cool dining area provides a keen respite from the heat, but if you’re gonna have dinner, the tables outside are the ones to score. The sunsets from the midst of all this greenery is, on most days, one to behold. Sure, GRUB isn’t instantly the most convenient to get to, but it’s a few bus stop’s ride from Bishan and Ang Mo Kio stations (although I’d recommend coming from Ang Mo Kio, taking either SBS Transit service 166 or SMRT service 169 and alighting at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, because it has fewer stops in between).
The menu is quintessentially western – a European-American mix of mostly familiar mains like Grilled Chicken Steak, Shimeiji Risotto and burgers. The weekend brunch menu however, in my opinion, is a tad restrictive, with 3 breakfast essentials like the usual poached eggs and English breakfast, and 3 burgers, which are pretty prone to selling out. So, if you’d like something more unique, come for dinner instead. It was just me and my Mom, on this overcast but very hot Saturday afternoon, so we shared two dishes.
Now, on to the platter. I ordered the Crispy Fish Burger. Normally, GRUB uses the Hake, which is typically demanded in Europe, and therefore not very common in Asia, much less Singapore. On this occasion, I was advised that the kitchen was serving Pollock, which in recent times, has been marketed as a sustainable alternative to haddock and cod, which I was fine with. Taste wise, it disappointed. The fillet had a definite crisp, the flesh white and fresh, but its consistency was that of a standard supermarket prepackaged frozen “dory” fillet. With little more than a smattering of a largely flavorless tartar sauce mix, the burger was outstandingly bland and not unlike McDonald’s Fillet-O-Fish (my Mom, who’s not a food aficionado by any means, made the comparison). The chips might have fared better, but they tasted as if they’ve been cooked and left out for a long while. The no-fuss, paint-by-numbers cooking class experience that chef Phan comes from is undeniably apparent here – the innovation of combining Fish & Chips in the burger, and the simplicity of the integration is both its highlight and its letdown. Some, like the Churros, are remarkably pedestrian. The dessert was willfully starchy, the sauces looked artificial and diluted, and was inexplicably off the mark in general. However, the Beef & Guiness Pie conveyed an aspiration to explore a more gourmet and artisanal refinement – it was, on the whole, executed with poise. It displayed a deep level of comprehension of the value of each and every single ingredient, and how each one built upon different layers – there were contrasting textures and subtle nuances in flavors that worked to produce something that stood out against the one-note burger. Was it a coincidence that the most sophisticated of the lot being the most aesthetically displeasing? I’m not sure, but attention has been paid to substance here, and it’s not unnoticed. I just wish that we could see the lessons learnt here being applied with the Crispy Fish Burger.