THE next time you head out to Tiong Bahru, it may not be just for the famous chwee kway, deep-fried pig intestine porridge or pig organ soup. Instead of 'two packets, extra chilli', you might find yourself saying, '100 grammes of Morbier cheese and a cassis nectar', or, 'one grand cru royale and a box of mixed macarons please' at two new gourmet stores that have sprung up next to each other to give the neighbourhood its first taste of the high life.
In fact, serendipity couldn't have played a bigger role in putting gourmet deli Le Bon Marche and high-end patisserie Centre PS (pronounced centrepiece) side by side in a row of shops bookended by a clinic and a hardware shop on Guan Chuan Street, near the wet market.
'We didn't even know they were opening,' says pastry chef Steven Ong of Centre PS (main picture). 'It's all coincidental. But now with the two of us, we are like a one-stop shopping destination. We have people driving by to pick up something from them and they come over and buy some cakes to bring home.'
Together, they hope to inject new life into Tiong Bahru, says Shirley Tang, who together with husband Stephane Herve (right), a former chef, brings in artisinal gourmet products from France to sell at Le Bon Marche, which is French for 'the good market'. As Mr Herve quips: 'It's a play on the market here - you have the famous wet market and now you have the good market.
He adds: 'We chose Tiong Bahru because we like the wet market, the low-rise buildings. It's got the essence of the original Singapore. Also, it's a central location and we felt that Tiong Bahru needs something gourmet.'
Their confidence is boosted by the fact that many young professionals have now moved into the neighbourhood and the area is slowly becoming more trendy, what with the nearby boutique Link Hotel and surrounding upgrading works in progress.
'This place has potential,' says Tan Kim Boon, co-owner of Centre PS. 'With more young professionals moving here, in time to come this place will become more hip.'
And it's reflected in the strong response it's had since Centre PS opened in September. That's also due to the creations of pastry master Mr Ong, who idolises French patissier Pierre Herme and is no pushover himself - he's been in the pastry business for almost 20 years and has led the Singapore team in various World Cup Pastry championships. In his last job, he was the executive pastry chef at the Conrad Centennial Singapore, and he says that coming out of the hotel into his own business is a logical progression in his career.
'You can only do so much creatively in a hotel, whereas I can offer a lot more on my own,' he explains. Hence, the name Centre PS, which refers to his penchant for creating centrepieces - large elaborate works like wedding cakes or special orders where his creativity knows no bounds.
By setting up his own business, what he hopes to achieve is 'money of course', but at the same time, 'I want to translate what I feel about pastry into my shop, develop my own identity and also hopefully boost the pastry scene in Singapore'.
Meanwhile, since opening in September, business has been growing rapidly. 'We've had lots of orders - we do a lot of customisation and corporate gifts.' In his shop, the all-white decor is a blank canvas to show off the cakes in the display case, which are filled with whole cakes like his bestselling grand cru royale, individual cakes, macarons, eclairs and gateaux voyage - a big thing now in Japan, he says. The literally translated 'travel cakes' are really individually wrapped and decorated pound cakes - classic butter cakes which are undergoing a revival in Japan.
People are quite taken with the idea of getting hotel-style cakes in a heartland neighbourhood, says co-owner Mr Tan, who relates the story of how a banker popped by to get a grand cru royale for a company charity function, and the winning bid for the cake was a whopping $1,700. 'She was so excited, she came back to tell us and grabbed a whole bunch of brochures to take with her,' he laughs.
Meanwhile, at Le Bon Marche, the simply decorated shop is a treasure trove of artisinal goodies you won't find elsewhere, says owner Mr Herve. The focus is on producers which have been in business for hundreds of years, he explains. He points to a packet of what looks like pink sponge fingers made by the brand Fossier from Reims in Champagne, which he says were baked specially for Louis XIV in the 18th century for him to dunk into champagne. The sugary cookies do not disintegrate when soaked, says Mr Herve, so you still get that crunch when you bite into this champagne soaked biscuit.
You'll also get a taste of light-as-air gingerbread from Mulot Petitjean, which originated in Dijon in 1796, and chestnuts from Corsiglia, which has been producing them since 1896.
The plans are to build Le Bon Marche into a niche gourmet shop - 'there is such a big market of products out there which are not available here', adds Ms Tang. 'People are so well-travelled now that they are always looking for certain products which they can't get here.' Hence, there are wines that are exclusive to them, as well as Malpighi balsamic vinegar that has been aged for 25 years, and intense fruit juices like a delicious grape juice made from chardonnay grapes from Edmond Fallot, as well as a small range of well-chosen cheeses from France which Mr Herve gets from the afineur (cheese middleman) Bernard Antony. The specialty cheeses include Munster Vosges from Alsace, two-year-old Comte, Tomme de chevre de L'Ariege from the Pyrenees, and Ossau Iraty from the Basque region. He has about 12 varieties at the moment, although there is a range of 50 cheeses that he could easily bring in if his customers wanted.
The shop also stocks regular stuff like a small range of sausages and fresh meats, while chillers hold items like salad greens, yoghurts and assorted vegetables. The long term plan is to create a line of takeaway food, says Mr Herve, who used to be a chef at Top of the M. Christmas will also be an exciting time for them, as they'll be bringing in cute gingerbread cookies in different toy shapes and other seasonal products as well.
Meanwhile, this little slice of Europe sits comfortably in this decidedly heartland frontier. You are reminded of this as you sample a piece of grand cru royale - a decadent chocolate mousse layered with crunchy hazelnut biscuit - while watching a guy yawning outside his shop, which sells brooms and dustpans. Yes, the old and the new seem to be getting along just fine.
- Centre PS, 78 Guan Chuan Street, #01-43. Tel: 6220-1285
- Le Bon Marche, 78 Guan Chuan Street, #01-41. Tel: 6226-3269