FANCY dining with the President?
If you're lucky, you could be eating with President SR Nathan, though not necessarily at the same table.
But it won't be in swanky surroundings.
In fact, it is in the decidedly non-swanky surrounds of Joo Chiat Road that you could be tucking into the same nosh as Singapore's 'people's' president.
In fact, Mr Nathan is a long-time resident of Joo Chiat and even now can sometimes be spotted chowing down at one of the many restaurants in the area.
And there is plenty of food he and other hungry souls can choose from these days.
The old and the new have collided on Joo Chiat Road, that long stretch bounded by East Coast Road and Changi Road where culture meets immorality, good food meets bad traffic.
The same stretch which, in the past two years, has seen not just KTV lounges and massage parlours open up, complete with gaudy neon signs and exotic girls, but also new eateries offering anything from Peranakan to French, Cantonese and Taiwanese cuisines, and housed in restored historical buildings.
Makansutra head honcho K.F. Seetoh, 43, remembers that when he first moved to Tembeling Road parallel to Joo Chiat Road 11 years ago, 'there was hardly anything there except a few bakeries. Now, every other month I go back, something's come up'.
The man behind Singapore's well-known food guide puts it down to the 'fairly well-heeled community that believes in spending money on very good food', as well as the 'sleaze factor. It's like the Geylang syndrome'. Geylang is as known for being a red-light district as it is for its huge variety of excellent grub.
On the 1.3km-long Joo Chiat Road, there are close to 40 KTV lounges and pubs, and just as many eateries, an improvement from about 30 eateries just two years ago.
When night falls, the neighbourhood may be a little shady by some straightlaced standards. But that hasn't deterred ministers, top civil servants and big businessmen from venturing to eateries such as the popular Canton Wok By Chef Kang for a taste of the good chef's award-winning Cantonese cuisine.
Yes, competition is cut-throat, say all the restaurants LifeStyle spoke to. But by the same token, it brings in the crowds. And one restaurant's loss - if it is already full - is another restaurant's gain.
Says newcomer Emperor's Soup's manager, Ms Fiona Ng, 42: 'Joo Chiat already has many residents and diners. You don't have to 'invite' people to come here to eat.
'But if the food is no good, you'll also be out of here in no time.'
Competition has driven Canton Wok's Chef Kang, 42, to introduce fusion dishes on top of his signature Cantonese fare. 'You're not the only one who's thinking about the competition. Everyone is. So it's up to you to think of how to innovate,' he says.
When PeraMakan's Kelvin Lee, 56, decided on Joo Chiat Road 11/2 years ago, he knew he was 'going into the lion's den'.
'But we're confident of our food.' Confident enough to jostle for space in this Peranakan stronghold with other nonya restaurants, like Guan Hoe Soon down the road. The latter is one of the oldest restaurants in Joo Chiat Road, having been here for the last 50 years.
But the Lees also have a personal reason. 'Our heart is here,' says Mrs Lee, 56, who grew up at nearby Kampong Amber.
They had been to see the shop in the daytime. Says Mrs Lee: 'We didn't get to see the goings-on at night. We were quite worried initially.' But they now think the bustling nightlife adds to the colour of the street.
Others, like Emperor's Soup's Chef Edmond Lui, are drawn to Joo Chiat Road for the cheap monthly rentals. A 1,500 sq ft shophouse in the middle of Joo Chiat Road is going for $3,000, while a similar-sized shop in Purvis Street off North Bridge Road fetches $8,000.
'We don't belong to a big group, so the pressure is not so great. We can up the quality of food, and prices don't have to be so high,' he says.
Joo Chiat Road may have a lot going for it, but it's still not epicurean utopia. For one thing, all the eateries that LifeStyle spoke to lament that business at lunchtime is as slow as the Bus 16 that plies this road.
As Chef Kang says: 'When it's quiet, it's really quiet.' But he chooses to keep the restaurant open during lunch for regular customers who sometimes come from Changi, Ubi and even Shenton Way for a meal.
Says Mr Lee: 'If you're driving around Katong and you can't find your way to Joo Chiat Road, chances are, you may just eat at Katong because there's so much to eat there.'
Some may consider Joo Chiat Road a poorer cousin to East Coast Road, which has more eateries to offer. But people come to Joo Chiat as much for its food as they do for its old-world charm.
But one problem that afflicts the area is the lack of parking. On weekends, you'll be lucky if you can find a parking lot after 7pm.
Besides roadside parking, the stretch is serviced by three sizeable carparks and Joo Chiat Complex at the Changi end. Not enough still, it seems.
Chef Lui considered hiring a car jockey, 'but that won't solve the problem because there aren't enough parking lots in the first place'.
Try the leisurely Bus 16.
382 Joo Chiat Road
Opening hours: 10.30am to 3pm, 5.30 to 10.30pm, closed on Mondays
CANTON Wok has a big massage parlour sharing its compound and an equally big KTV lounge across the street. But the Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs lining the area are here for Chef Ang Song Kang's critically acclaimed chow.
Having moved here from his no frills, no air-con Serangoon Central eatery last June, the many fans of Chef Kang - as he's affectionately known - have also followed him.
Many are glad for the air-con and full service offered, never mind if they have to fork out a little more, or, on busy weekends, sit in the front yard.
Besides the quality of the food, the affable and humble 42-year-old is his own best-selling point. He flits effortlessly between the kitchen - he still does most of the cooking - and the dining room, chatting with diners.
The dining room, by the way, has only about 10 tables and plenty of space in between. Why not pack in more tables?
'If a customer is scalded by hot soup, and I've seen it happen before, it would be a disaster. Saying sorry won't ever be enough,' he reasons.
Recently granted membership to the Chinese Cuisine category of the prestigious Les Amis D'Escoffier Society, Chef Kang was passing by Joo Chiat Road two years ago when he saw this quaint black and white bungalow and took a shine to it. Then a seafood restaurant, it was tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare.
'I was thinking to myself then that if I had the chance, I'd open my restaurant here.'
As fate would have it, a regular diner at his eatery brought a friend for dinner one day - and the friend was the owner of the bungalow.
The chef, who earned his stripes in restaurants like Lei Garden here and Sai Kung Seafood in Hong Kong, wants to go into private dining next.
Also on the cards is a second eatery dishing out quick and cheap meals, the kind you find on most street corners in Hong Kong selling steaming beef brisket and offal soup, noodles, porridge, roast meats and dim sum.
As for his less than savoury neighbours, Chef Kang isn't too worried. 'They're also just trying to feed their families. They don't disturb us anyway.'
Speciality dishes: Steamed crab with glutinous rice in garlic sauce ($30 to $60), strawberry pork ribs ($12 to $36) and garoupa fillet in spinach sauce ($10).
-- Tan Dawn Wei
* * * * *
348 Joo Chiat Road
Opening hours: 11.30am to 3pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm
PICTURES of celebrities Andy Lau, Eric Tsang, Jackie Chan and various heads of states line one wall of Emperor's Soup.
Those were the days when Chef Edmond Lui, 46, was the No.1 man at Pine Court, Meritus Mandarin Hotel's Chinese restaurant, where he spent 10 years.
Nowadays, he calls the shots at a 12-table restaurant in a small shophouse in Joo Chiat Road, where he has been quietly dishing out fine Cantonese fare on the cheap for the past two months.
You can dine like an emperor, or president for that matter - Chef Lui cooked a meal for Hu Jintao on the Chinese President's first official visit to Singapore in 2002. The menu is framed on the wall and Chef Lui is happy to whip up the meal for you for the right price.
'I demand a certain standard because I used to work in a hotel,' says the Hong Kong native who still insists on wearing a chef's uniform despite the non-air-conditioned kitchen he works in now.
It has been a dream of his to run a shop selling brewed soups. 'In hotels, what you do can be limiting because there's the F&B department and there's cost control.'
Now, he sells his Cantonese dishes at coffee shop prices, and word of mouth has spread about the shop.
Two months ago, all the 10 tables were filled by Joo Chiat residents. Now, hungry diners from other parts of the island make up 40 per cent of his clientele.
'People ask me: 'Can you make money when you sell your dishes so cheap?' I say, can. If you're happy eating my food and I get a basic salary, that's good enough.'
If you want something a little pricier, there's always the double-boiled Hu Die Qing shark's fin with chicken or the braised whole fresh Qing Bian abalone in superior stock at $80 each.
Although there is another Cantonese restaurant, Canton Wok, just a few doors away, Chef Lui says: 'If you sell Cantonese cuisine, you can't run away from soups, steamed dish and shark's fin. It comes down to whether your food is good or your prices are reasonable. You do it your way, I do it mine.'
Speciality dishes: Stewed pork and papaya in soup ($15 for four people), pan-fried beef fillet ($14 and $20), codfish with honey sauce ($8).
--Tan Dawn Wei
Casa Bom Vento
467 Joo Chiat Road.
Opening hours: noon to 3pm, and 6 to 9.30pm, closed on Mondays
WHEN Mr Lionel Chee (42, bought Casa Bom Vento from a group of nine Eurasian partners in 1995, his friends thought he was crazy. 'In the first two years, business was very bad. Out of seven days in a week, we had no business for four days,' says Mr Chee, the co-director of the restaurant.
It's a different story these days for the popular restaurant, which serves Straits Chinese cuisine. It also provides catering for a minimum of 20 people, but it has catered for large events, the biggest for 30,000 people.
His cousin, Ms Janet Lim, 53, together with three chefs and seven other employees, help run the halal restaurant.
Casa Bom Vento, which is Portuguese, means 'house of good winds' in English. Mr Chee says the restaurant's style of cooking is different from Peranakan food. Its dishes are vinegar-based and use thick gravy.
He adds that it has not raised prices for the past four years, and though it has a 10 per cent service charge, the restaurant absorbs GST. It seats about 70 people.
Speciality dishes: Debal curry ($8.50 to $12.50), beef smore ($8.50 to $12.50) and grilled baby stingray with black peppercorn and curry ($12.50). Its own concoction, rose jelly drink with fresh local lime juice ($2.30), is also a must-try.
--Ong Su Bin
Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant
214 Joo Chiat Road
Opening hours: 11am to 3pm, and 6 to 9.30pm, closed on Tuesdays
Tel: 6344-2761, website: www.guanhoesoon.com
ESTABLISHED in 1953, this Peranakan restaurant is one of the oldest surviving eateries in Joo Chiat Road.
Serving traditional and authentic Peranakan dishes, the original owner, the late Mr Yap Chee Quee, although a Hainanese, learnt his culinary skills while working for a Peranakan family.
The restaurant started out as a coffee shop and over the past 53 years, has been renovated three times. It is now air-conditioned and seats about 80 people.
The third generation of the Yap family now run the place. The Joo Chiat Road restaurant is managed by the late Mr Yap's granddaughter Jenny Yap (left), 41, and her husband Raymond Ou Yong, 44.
There are two branches, Straits Chinese Seafood Restaurant (5 Shenton Way #B1-16/17) and Straits Chinese (Nonya) Restaurant (15 Queen Street #01-03).
Madam Yap, who was 12 when she first started helping out at the restaurant, says dishes have changed as people become more health-conscious. The food now is less oily and salty.
Speciality dishes: Ayam buah keluak ($8 to $20), hee peow soup ($8 to $22) and ikan asam pedas (market price). Catering services are available for a minimum of 20 people.
-- Ong Su Bin
451 Joo Chiat Road #01-06
Opening hours: 6.45 to 11pm, closed on Mondays
THEY may specialise in hearty French food of the West, but the East - Singapore's eastern part, that is - is still home for the owners of Le Bistrot.
'Normally if you want non-local food, you go to town. But there's a presence in the East that you don't get elsewhere,' says Mr Lee Chin Sin (left), its chef.
Mr Lee, 31, and his partner Thaddeus Yeo (far left), 30, own the cosy, 35-seat eatery. Both have lived near the Joo Chiat area since childhood.
Le Bistrot, which opened in September 2004, was something of a dream come true for the two food lovers, who have known each other for more than seven years.
'People often dream of starting a cafe or restaurant,' says Mr Yeo, who quit his former job as a technical writer to focus on running the dining area. 'We were lucky to be able to make it happen.'
Mr Lee, who did odd jobs previously, spent nine months in 2003 taking a course in French cooking at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris.
The partners say that Le Bistrot, with its affordable menu, aims to demystify people's perceptions of French cooking.
'It's not like the fancy, small portions that you see in fine dining. The normal Frenchman doesn't eat goose liver all the time,' Mr Yeo says.
Mr Lee chimes in: 'We're serving the zhi char (Chinese stir-fry) of French cuisine.'
The food they serve is 'direct and simple', comes in large portions, and 'is more like the food you'd commonly find in France'.
Hence the staples of bistro dining on the menu: onion soup, large slabs of steak and desserts like creme brulee.
A wine list, mainly French, is also available.
The eatery is often packed on weekends with foodies from all over the island - 'we thought of serving lunch too but decided not to because we were lazy', says Yeo conspiratorially - and the staff of five are kept busy.
With a prix fixe menu where an entree, main and dessert come to only $36, good food and intimate ambience, it is no wonder that business is good.
Mr Lee and Mr Yeo have no problems with having KTV bars in the vicinity. Mr Lee says, chucking: 'It adds to the eclectic character of the place.'
Speciality dishes: Mr Lee says they have no zhao pai cai (speciality dishes), but try the onion soup, steak and stews.
-- Andrea Ong
314 Joo Chiat Road
Opening hours: 11.30am to 3pm, 5.30 to 9.30pm, closed on Mondays,
BLINK and you might miss this small Japanese eatery with its ascetic, old-school design amid the loud neon lights of its neighbours.
But Japanese Delights owner Victor Goh (right), 38, dreamed big when he set up his eatery last October. 'I wanted to pioneer the concept of a Japanese eating house where customers can get high quality Japanese food at low prices,' he says.
Mr Goh, who is the main chef in the kitchen, is an old hand at whipping up Japanese cuisine, having been in this line of work since finishing his national service.
Before setting up shop in Joo Chiat, he ran a Japanese food stall at the popular food centre at Old Airport Road for 71/2 years before it closed for renovation.
Prior to that, he worked at Japanese restaurants like the now-defunct Sakari at Cuppage Plaza.
'I find Japanese food more interesting than others. You need more skill as there's a lot of focus on cutting and preparing the food, especially raw fish,' he says.
At Japanese Delights, he serves one salmon sashimi dish, though there is no sushi on the menu 'to keep costs low'.
He specialises in set meals which range from $5.50 for a rice set to $15 for a bento, which he says is comparable to prices at Japanese stalls in food courts.
He uses only fresh salmon and codfish, which are delivered three times a week. Other ingredients and condiments all come from Japan.
'I still stick to the traditional taste. I don't go for the fusion food which is so popular now,' he says.
But he has experimented with some dishes after customer feedback. His self-concocted sauce for his teriyaki chicken, one of his most popular dishes, is sweeter and less salty than the Japanese version.
While he says he gets about 40 customers a day on average, he confesses to being 'a bit worried' about his business.
According to him, the Chinese restaurants in Joo Chiat tend to do better. Customers are also put off by the area's unsavoury reputation.
'They don't understand... it's cleaned up a lot in recent years,' says Mr Goh, who grew up in nearby Haig Road.
Speciality dishes: Try the chawan mushi, which is steamed with chicken meat instead of the usual prawn, as the fat in the chicken improves its taste. Also try the teriyaki chicken rice and the salmon and codfish sets.
-- Andrea Ong
Peng Lai Ge Taiwan Delight
456 Joo Chiat Road
Opening hours: 10.30am to 10.30pm,
THE owners of Peng Lai Ge Taiwan Delight consider themselves veterans of Joo Chiat after five years of business.
'Here, five years is a long time,' says Mr Chang Kuen Mu of the quick turnover rate of eateries. He has seen four tenants come and go at the space next door.
Mr Chang, 56, opened Peng Lai Ge with his wife Chang Shih Chih-Chun, 52, in 2001. The Joo Chiat flagship did so well that they have since opened two other outlets in North Bridge Road and Orchard Road.
The couple, who moved here from Taiwan in 1997, come from a family of cooks.
'We're the real thing,' says Mrs Chang in Mandarin. 'We serve authentic Taiwanese cuisine.'
This includes the infamous chou toufu (smelly beancurd), which is only available at their Joo Chiat shop. Neighbouring tenants used to complain about the smell, but it is one of their most popular dishes.
Their success, says Chang, is due partly to their insistence on keeping to 'the traditional taste that has been passed down over generations'.
Condiments, including vinegar and the special chilli sauce - which customers often ask to buy - are all from Taiwan, while Mr Chang personally experiments with the dishes and gives instructions to the staff on how to prepare the ingredients and do the cooking.
Dishes like the eatery's pork chop rice and fried spiced chicken have been given the stamp of approval by native Taiwanese themselves.
'Some even tell us that they don't have to go back to Taiwan to taste food from home now,' says Mr Chang.
Prices of the 40 dishes on its menu range between $3 and $13.
Business has taken off thanks to word of mouth and returning customers.
But the couple would welcome having more eateries in the area.
'It can get a bit quiet at night,' says Mrs Chang. 'More eateries would bring more competition, but this would also bring more people to Joo Chiat in search of good food.'
Says Mr Chang: 'We're experienced and we're good at what we do. I'm sure we'll survive.'
Speciality dishes: Pork chop rice, braised beef noodle soup, fried spiced chicken, chou toufu and wo tie (fresh meat dumplings).
-- Andrea Ong