Where: The Old Raffles Place, 68-70 Johnston Street Collingwood
What: A Singaporean/Malaysian restaurant worth its salt because the tautology ‘roti bread’ doesn’t exist anywhere on its menu
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
I’ve never really understood what ‘Singaporean’ food means. It’s akin to Tasmania seceding from the mainland and selling Australian food under the moniker ‘Tasmanian food’. Seeing Singaporean food and Malaysian food are effectively one and the same, I visited Old Raffles Place on a Saturday not long ago to assuage my feelings of homesickness.
Situated on the less frequented end of Johnston Street, Old Raffles Place is a small, kitsch eatery where you enter via what seems like the kitchen and sit within wood panelled interiors with black and white photos of a bygone Singaporean era hanging on the wall.
The menu is a simple one with stock standard favourites from murtabak (an Indian pancake with curried minced meat, onion and peas) and laksa (every white person’s favourite Malaysian dish) to the famous Hainanese chicken rice (poached chicken and aromatic rice with a ginger chilli sauce) and Hokkien mee (an egg noodle dish with seafood and pork cooked in a dark soy sauce). The last page of the menu was dedicated to Thai food, which I ignored, because why would I visit a Singaporean/Malaysian restaurant if I wanted a tom yum?
Entrées were an easy choice because I was dining with a Singaporean friend who harbours the same love of ‘Penang Char Koay Kak’ – a dish that locals affectionately know as ‘carrot cake’ – as I do. We ordered two plates of it.
This deceptive name tells you nothing about the dish because there is neither carrot in it, nor is it a cake of any kind. ‘Carrot cake’ consists of stir-fried umami cubes of white radish and rice flour alongside bean sprouts, chives, eggs, salt and pepper. My friend who resides in Penang tells me ‘carrot cake’ derives its name from the radishes used in it, which Chinese Malaysians call ‘white lobak’, with ‘lobak’ being the Malay word for carrot. ‘Carrot cake’ is Singaporean/Malaysian comfort food of the highest degree and Old Raffles Place is one of the few places in Melbourne that sells it, and a very good version of it at that.
My partner, who celebrates his discovery of roti canai – a flaky, buttery roti eaten with curries – in Malaysia by ordering it in every restaurant that has it in Melbourne, stayed true to form and ordered the ‘Jalan Kayu Roti Prata’ as his entrée at Old Raffles Place, although I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the curry he was enthusiastically dipping his roti canai into was probably a meat curry.
Nary a food pilgrimage to Malaysia passes without me having char kuay teow from a roadside hawker stall and there is no char kuay teow served in Melbourne that quite replicates the ‘wok hei’ that results from stir-frying rice noodles, a rich selection of seafood and pork lard over a large fire in a wax-crusted wok because it’s been that long since the chef has washed it, or so my mum tells me.
The ‘Racecourse Char Kuay Teow – Uniquely Singapore’ at Old Raffles Place came pretty close however. This one came with a mix of both thin egg noodles and flat rice noodles, which was a textural delight doused in dark and sweet soy sauce and tossed with Chinese pork sausage, eggs, prawn, squid, fish cake, Chinese sausage and bean sprouts that absorbed all the flavours they were cooked in. I conveniently forgot to ask for it without onion and garlic, and had a healthy side serving of sambal with it, so I was well past the point of four bloats by the time I’d finished my meal.
People are always surprised when I say Malaysia is great for vegetarians, but the sizeable vegetarian population that resides there and the reduced usage of popular condiments such as oyster sauce and fish sauce that feature more prominently in Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian food ensure my partner always has something to eat when we visit. Old Raffles Place was no different. He ordered a vegetarian ‘Little Indian Mee Goreng’, which is a far cry from the guilty pleasure two-minute noodles that you lazily microwave in a drunken haze, and is in actual fact a highly nutritious dish consisting of egg noodles, vegetables and crispy tofu. He loved it, but doesn’t have the same compulsion to eat to an unhealthily full level that I do and took half of it home in a doggy bag.
My other two dining companions ordered the char kuay teow and the Hainanese chicken rice respectively. I can’t speak for the Hainanese chicken rice, but it didn’t look close to what you’d get at home, and my friend said it tasted ‘too healthy’, which is not what you’d say about rice cooked in chicken fat, so I’m steering clear of this the next time I’m at Old Raffles Place.
However, my friend who visited the restaurant toilet’s said it was subpar, which only reinforces how authentic Old Raffles Place really is. No Aesop hand soap to be found here.
The tram fare to the restaurant is decidedly cheaper than an Air Asia flight home, so I will be back at Old Raffles Place the next time homesickness strikes for that serve of ‘Penang Char Koay Kak’.
The Old Raffles Place is open from 11am to 3pm and from 5pm to 10pm Thursday to Sunday and from 5pm to 10pm Tuesday to Wednesday.