Sep 262012

Some Singaporean eateries want, like Ferran Adria, for their customers to go away happy – feeling like they’ve had the meal of a lifetime, a memorable event that they will replay in their mind’s eye over and over again.

Others, well, would rather the customer went away poorer.

Singaporean businesses must collect a 7% goods and services tax (GST) on behalf of the government – this is a fair thing, and one that they must do to remain compliant with the law here. No one should have any problem with this. Some places absorb the GST – that is, the price given on the menu is an all-in cost, and the restaurant owner will pay the GST out of that amount.

Service industries here are allowed to levy a 10% service charge – not everyone does this, but enough do. Again, the service charge should be stated on the menu – where this is done, you will sometimes see it expressed as ++ – plus GST, plus service charge. You’ll hear people mention (and sometimes curse) “the plus plus”. Whether the service charge is just a way to pad out the price, or it is genuinely distributed to the salaried workers in lieu of tips, is another thing entirely. But it is up front.

Then there are the other ways that a restaurant bill gets padded out. Here is one – the moist towelette:

These are supplied without asking, and most places add them to the bill – it is only an extra few cents (20-80 that I have seen) but you are paying for it.

A lot of the chain/franchise places in malls will place a bowl of nuts or pickled vegetables in front of you when you are seated. These are also frequently added to the bill – and again, it will not break the bank at a dollar or two, but it is still something to be aware of.

Live seafood can be a bigger trap – the price quoted will mostly be by 100 grams weight – expect that a reasonable mud crab will be a kilogram or more. If in doubt, please ask for an all-in cost (including the plus-plus) before confirming the order.

Corkage can also be a surprise – some places will allow you to take a bottle of wine with you, but charge SGD30 and more a bottle for supplying a couple of vaguely clean glasses. Check first.

I have to say that not every place is like this – indeed, many restauranteurs and hawker food operators I have met here are incredibly generous people – but there are some more interested in short term gain than building a long term mutually profitable relationship. Exercise caution and you will be fine.

Sep 052012

I am sometimes a little critical. Sometimes,  more than a little. So I will try to keep this balanced.

A menu sets a promise. There is a description that tempts the diner to try this dish or that. It’s like a contract between diner and chef – I will give you money, and in exchange, you will give me what I ordered.

There seems to be a tendency, and it is almost universal, for places selling hawker stand food at restaurant prices to not put a lot into presentation. Some times, like the Thai place I will never return to, they go a step further, and three people ordering the same dish at the same price will get wildly differing portion sizes. But anyhow, this post is about presentation differences between what is promised in the menu and what is served.

Without naming the place, I ate at a nearby restaurant here today that promises to bring a little bit of Penang to Singapore. Having been the victim of misrepresented hotel accommodation in Penang in the past, I have to say with regret that perhaps they have succeeded a little too well.

Please forgive the cameraphone quality images that follow. This is the kway teow as promised in the menu:

This is what was served:

Honestly, if I hadn’t seen the photo in the menu, and I’d paid hawker centre price for it, it would have been OK.

What prompted me to write this article, though, was the dessert. This is the King Chendol (ice chendol with durian) in the menu:

And this was the same dish as presented:

Honestly, the taste was acceptable if not entirely wonderful. But it looks like something you might find in a field of very unwell cattle. A little care in presentation would go a long way to justifying the restaurant premium for this street food dish. It’s been said that we eat first with our eyes, then with our nose, well before the food reaches the mouth. If this is the case, then presentation is important.

So where does that leave me? Am I unenthusiastic about returning to this place? Very much so. Would I ever recommend it to a friend – or a blog reader? Absolutely not. Will I go out of my way to name and shame them? No… because to be fair I’d need to name the other establishments that do the same kind of thing here. And that would take more time than I have. There is so much good food in Singapore, and it is a pity to waste time on the mediocre.

I will leave you with this advice though – if you eat regularly at “hawker food, restaurant price” places, please go and seek out the authentic hawker version and try it for yourself. Makansutra produces an excellent food guide that will tell you the best places to go in Singapore – and you can pick up a copy of this excellent little book at most good book stores.