Home cooking…overrated? You tell me.
This weekend’s dinner with Darren started out a little earlier with a visit to the Downtown Line open house. The first phase – a horseshoe beginning from Bugis, pass the Marina Centre district, through Bayfront and arching back towards Cross Street into Chinatown – doesn’t really break new ground in terms of coverage. From a bigger perspective, it’s part of a vast mega-project to offer alternative accessibility into the northwest reaches of Bukit Timah and Bukit Panjang, as well as the peripheral eastern districts such as Ubi, Bedok Reservoir and Tampines West, which currently don’t have convenient passages to existing rail lines.
With the first stage spanning just six stations – four of them interchanges, and none of the locales unfamiliar – the open house was admittedly, not as exciting as I’d have expected. Perhaps I’m too well-traveled, having ridden on the great subway systems of Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, and now Beijing and Shanghai. Singapore’s transport network feels like it’s bigger than it really is, and it’s not a compliment. The whole infrastructure feels deliberately slow and clumsy, especially when you compare commute times with similar geographical distances in other cities. Or perhaps it’s December. I often unknowingly sink into a pool of miserable melancholy as the year-end festive season approaches…it’s festive seasons like these that the reality of being single really hits home, hard.
For dinner today, Darren suggested his long-time favorite, Kim’s Family Restaurant. This Korean restaurant is located at Lorong Kilat, just off the beaten track from the main thoroughfare of the Bukit Timah corridor. Kim’s is a “family restaurant”, which is a restaurant category typical of Northeast Asian nations. Make no mistake, this is no Swensen’s, Sizzler or Denny’s where the buffet table’s first, family or friends second. Instead, it’s a medium for the routine, every day life – a “go to” institution for no fuss, quick meals, and a place to socialize over a meal without all the pretense of the glitzy urban setting. The result is a simple and functional setting – almost drab and ghetto looking, really – but with an intrinsic quality of heart, memories and nostalgia. It’d be disingenuous to expect a well draped cabin and Michelin starred service standards. Here’s where it’s at: straight forward, raw and genuine.
Even though I’d much rather go for the heavyweight classics of Korean barbecue and mouth-watering pancakes, I’ve to make do with lesser items. You might have heard: I’ve returned to school, and when you’re studying, life doesn’t afford you much dole. So, I opted for the simpler set of bulgogi and hoped for the best.
Once you’ve placed your orders, the classic ban chan, or Korean side dishes are to be expected. These “side dishes”, often of organic origin, are also prevalent in Northern Chinese and Japanese dining, but are far more pronounced in Korean, where the quantity is far more numerous and often served prior the main meal rather than during like its cultural counterparts. I’ve read so many sites and reviews all these past years, and despite the obvious familiarity and ubiquity with Korean dining, some Singaporeans continue to remain amazed that these little trinkets are free. Nevertheless, while there was variety, neither really stood out nor impressed. Even the traditional kimchi tasted like it was held back, almost as if on purpose.
Our mains continued with the same level of mediocrity. Actually, I shouldn’t use that word, for the chicken bulgogi was bursting with flavor although the words, “poor” and “troll” would be more appropriate for Darren’s beef bulgogi. It was okay, I guess, but there was a certain x-factor that was sorely lacking. I suppose that the best description for the two mains was that they lacked “soul”, and for that reason, was disappointing on a couple of levels. I wouldn’t take too much offense if it was run by non-Koreans, but Kim’s Family Restaurant seems to be run by Koreans but yet, delivered a plate that tasted dead. It’s embarrassing to be honest, especially when Mainland Chinese staffing the Korean stalls at food courts and coffee shops across the island can deliver something more alive than this.
One of the most basic criterion of the Michelin guide looks at whether a restaurant is worth making a detour to. That’s what the guide started out as, a guide for French motorists for rest stops. 2-stars meant that it’s worth making a detour to check out; if a place was rated 3-stars, it was worth actually taking a trip to go visit. A 1-star was only appropriate for if you were in the area, or passing through. I wouldn’t travel all the way from Bishan just to go to Kim’s Family Restaurant – I’ve got Auntie Kim’s very close by, and various places scattered across the city area which are infinitely more convenient to get to to get my fix of homecooked Korean food.