Also offering Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian food, Baba Chews is a new neighbourhood restaurant that’s perfect for breakfast, weekend brunch and dinner
Being part-Peranakan, I was naturally chuffed to hear about this Hot New Table that opened in the foodie-friendly ’hood of Katong back in June. After all, the restaurant’s moniker – Baba refers to a male descendant of Peranakan culture – instinctively rang some alarm bells in my head; gimme one more addition to the delectable Peranakan food scene anytime. But on the contrary, Baba Chews is not a Peranakan restaurant; instead, it defines itself as a restaurant that specialises in cuisine native to the Straits of Malacca.
Sure, my fellow Nyonyas and Babas can find their ayam buah keluak and itek sio here, but you can also wolf down delicacies like Penang char kway teow and tom yum kung. But I couldn’t help myself; I was adamant on determining if this place could pass my Peranakan litmus test. How did it fare? Let’s just say Baba Chews made me proud of my heritage.
Housed within the former Joo Chiat Police Station, the neighbourhood 90-seater retains much of its colonial charm of the ’20s; white walls brighten up the cosy establishment, and homely, colourful motif-scattered tiles are contrasted against metal mesh sliding panels that are more contemporary than stifling. Weekend brunch is served here as early as 10.30am, and there’s even a breakfast buffet that we hear is popular amongst staycationers residing in the adjacent Hotel Indigo. The kitchen is led by Head Chef, Alvin Leong; while he’s of Cantonese-Malaysian descent, his rendition of Peranakan dishes is spot on, if not better than other variations I’ve tried. It goes to show that you don’t need to be a third-generation Baba to be a master of Peranakan cuisine; it’s all about the heart that you put in your cooking, and Chef Alvin has lots of it.
After nibbling on assorted crackers that begged to be dipped into Baba Chews’ savoury peanut sauce and piquant sambal belachan, I was presented with a Baba Platter that showcased some of the restaurant’s appetisers. Chef Alvin prepared a dense and firm otah ($14) – using three ingredients of prawn, mackerel and shellfish – and I was startled to have this presented to me in a Cantonese siew mai, showcasing his playfulness in fusing Asian cuisines. His five-spice ngoh hiang ($12) was another favourite of mine – a pork and prawn roll wrapped in a light beancurd skin that wasn’t overly fried – as was his take on the Singaporean favourite, a chilli crab cake ($15) served with fried mantou chips and sweet, thick chilli crab sauce.
Another stand-out that you should consider starting your meal with is the pong tauhu ($10), a peppery Peranakan soup with lightly-chewy pork meatballs, crunchy bamboo shoots, and lots of umami-rich prawn stock that would appeal to any fan of prawn soup noodles. Also on the menu, available only for dinner, is the itek tim consommé ($11) – a double boiled duck soup with salted mustard leaves, spices, tamarind and green chilli – that doesn’t shy away from tweaking Peranakan influences either. Early into the meal, and I was already convinced that Chef Alvin is one who revamps rather than rehashes, and this was further apparent in the mains to follow.
As per any traditional Asian meal, several dishes are spread out for sharing, and these are best eaten with rice to soak up the addictive bevy of gravies. One that impressed was Chef Alvin’s version of the Indonesian beef rendang ($25) – using succulent, very fatty, melt-in-your-mouth beef short ribs, this is stewed in a rich, mildly-sweet gravy of coconut cream, spices, gula Melaka and turmeric leaf. And if you’re Peranakan, “What about the ayam buah keluak ($18),” you ask? Fantastic. I couldn’t stop digging into the black nuts for their pasty, fermented goodness (this is also stuffed with minced pork), and the stewed chicken thigh that accompanied it was cooked to tender perfection. If you want to mix things up, you can even order an ayam buah keluak burger ($18) here that your Nyonya grandma would squeal in delight for.
Other traditional must-tries here are Chef Alvin’s barramundi goreng chilli ($29), a pan-fried sea bass fillet cooked in sambal chilli that brings to mind Javanese nasi padang fare; and also the brown bean-infused mixed vegetable dish that Peranakans know best as chap chye ($12), comprising cabbage, black fungus, carrots and vermicelli. Likewise, I strongly recommend you munch on all of these with rice.
The Straits of Malacca offer some of the best desserts in the world, and Chef Alvin makes sure you can find these on the menu to end your meal. Crowd-pleasers include the familiar chendol ($6) and bubur sago terigu ($5), but what really wowed us was the kueh durian ($12) – durian mousse and shredded coconut cooked in gula Melaka, wrapped in slightly-charred pandan crepes, and topped with gula Melaka ice cream. Being the durian lovers we are (thumbs up if it’s D24 like the one used in Baba Chews), we couldn’t help but clean this off our plate.
So once more, Baba Chews isn’t a traditional Peranakan restaurant. But did that disappoint the Baba in me? Not in the slightest. With cuisine this ambitious, homely, and chock-full of flavour, Baba Chews is another outstanding Katong addition for family-friendly Southeast Asian dining.
Baba Chews, #01-01 Katong Square, 86 East Coast Road, Singapore 428788, p. 6723 2025. Open daily 6.30am-12am.