Where to go if you want to talk to each other all night about how much you’re enjoying the night? Well maybe not talk all night. I’ll have to say my adventurous pub-discovering days are pretty much over now that I’m out of college. My weekend hang-out place is invariably Holland Village. After a long, fruitless google search for date+cool+night+Singapore, I stuffed my new Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T2 into my leather handbag, dragged my partner away from his Murakami Haruki novel, and made my way to the taxi-stand in front of Holland Village Shopping Centre. If all else fails, ask a taxi driver.
I explained to the driver that I wanted to go somewhere like Holland Village, but not Holland Village. Even more sophisticated. For a drink, and dinner, maybe, but no movie or shopping. I wanted him to describe some entirely new secret place that he’d been taking everyone to but me. After an awkward pause of a few minutes, the driver let out in broken English. “Mohamed Sultan! Used to be very crowded. Now take over by Clarke Quay.”
Not exactly what I was expecting. The name of the neighbourhood brought back memories of teenage clubs, loud music spilling in all directions, and (gulp) police raids of under-aged drinkers. “Very different now” he said, “like Chip Bee Garden”. He went on about how the street used to be packed with pub-goers especially in the days of Madam Wong’s (or ‘Sultan of Swing’ as it was first called), but ever since that place had closed the street that become home to a post-teen-age crowd. Ok, we were game.
Mohamed Sultan has indeed changed: those colourful shophouses now promise a more sophisticated late-night experience. Most places are new, like “Martini Firm (closed 6/08)” though a few like the “Maru Korean BBQ Restaurant” were familiar to me from Madam Wong’s heyday. The new Mohamed Sultan is less fiery than it was then, exuding taste and charm that blends so well with the bourgeois air of Robertson Quay that one can hardly tell that the two were once distinct. Hey, we thought, lets give the old neighbourhood a new try.
It’s almost two years since my partner and I were in this part of town, and we decided to start exactly where we’d left off: the Japanese restaurant where for some reason lost in time, I’d picked a fight and ruined the meal. Shunjuu, a Japanese restaurant whose kitchen is run by skilled local chefs, is along the Singapore River just a hop, skip, and jump from Mohamed Sultan. Four years into its operation, the restaurant is older than Robertson Quay.
My partner and I sat at the counter in close proximity to its bustling kitchen and friendly chefs. Shunjuu is like the typical Tokyo izakaya, serving up all kinds of beer and sake (Japanese rice wine) and skewered meat and vegetables carefully grilled to the right texture, except that it’s more upscale than the underground basements of Shinjuku. We decided to go yaki, and ordered mushrooms, peppers, leeks, chicken, gingko nuts, shrimp, and on and on. The highlight of our dining experience, though, was when one of the chefs offered us a bowl of stewed ox tongue (his specialty) and grilled cod fish. How could I have picked a fight in a place with food this good?
After a satisfying dinner that helped erase our old lunch experience, we took desert at the nearby Cugini, a cool Italian restaurant and lounge bar just two months old. Cugini is the Italian word for ‘cousins’, which refers to the two owners, Mauro and Gerri. Its located in the spacious corner of the Spanish-style piazza at Robertson Walk. The handsome Mauro Muroni, who greeted me at the door, explained in his dazzling Italian-accented English (each word ended with a seductive upward slur), that he’s organising a gorgeous party for New Year’s Eve, whose centrepiece is a showing of the classic film La Dolce Vitta by Fellini.
This bar is new but Mauro is no novice. He also has a bar in London called Il Bacio which means ‘to kiss’, and another on his native castle-strewn island of Sardinia. “Singapore is a nice country and I want to provide the people here authentic Italian fine food at affordable prices … nothing too formal,” says Mauro, with an Italian chef watching from the kitchen.
The dessert menu indeed looked delicious, and we opted for rum soaked beignets (a kind of donut) in vanilla cream and fruits, and semi frozen ricotta cheese with shaved chocolate in a citrus sauce. Splendid. We also glanced at the wine list, which includes lots of prize-winners and helpfully describes each bottle. We’re coming here back for New Year’s.
The next call we made was to the buzzing cafe Chocolatier, whose specialty is obvious, though after the dessert at Cugini’s we wanted something light and refreshing. We both ordered mint tea, and I was surprised to find it served exactly as it is in Morocco (as I recall from my long-ago trip there) with fresh leaves in a stylish glass jar. Class is the word.
The scent brought back the look and sensation of sitting in the hot Moroccan dessert, staring back at the ancient city walls of Marrakech, with soaring snow-capped mountains in the distance. The Arabs say you’re better off with hot mint tea in such a hot dry climate than a cold Coke, and they’re right.
I was half in Morocco for the rest of the evening (after, successively, Japan and Sardinia) but my partner soon found Cuba. On our way to Mohamed Sultan proper he discovered a little cigar store, Connoisseur Divan full of box upon box of fine Havanas, kept in an air-conned room at just the right temperature. There’s a very attractive little bar attached with excellent live music, and we would have lingered but for my fear he’d indulge his stogie fetish. We had a budget for the evening, it was my treat, and fine imported Havanas weren’t included. He promised to come back on his own time with an all-male crew.
Mohamed Sultan at last, and I was ready to chill. End the evening with a long romantic drink in the most stylish bar we could find. There are some nice open wine bars along one side of the street, but I was intrigued by the subdued, atmospheric shop-fronts on the far side, so we crossed over. From the moment we entered Martini Firm we were in a dream – an all-white one, complete with great big beds, and the lights turned down low.
The beds are really square play-pens you have to remove your shoes to enter and, after you do, don’t plan on leaving soon. There was a cool blue glow under the bar, which later turned rose – the only colour in the room except for the fish-tank among the bottles – and the house music was a personal mix as tasteful as the decor and the martinis – which are all unique, and even include dessert varieties!
I was ready to float to martini heaven with a glass in one hand, and comfy pillows propping up my back. How do they get people out of bed and out the door, I wondered? But there are tables too (well, bed-like tables) and most customers were actually at one of those, because they also serve meat and fish with your choice of original, custom-blended sauces. My partner and I lay there amid white velvet thinking we couldn’t possibly be in Singapore – this was Tokyo or New York but at a fraction of the cost.
Mohamed Sultan is much improved with the underaged crowd mostly gone. In fact, the new atmosphere, a result of a more subdued clientele, has actually helped revert the street back to what must have been its original charm, but with an added touch of modern eclectic mysticism.
Indeed, a trip to Robertson Quay will only be made complete if one walks up along Unity Street, past OBar, and soaks in the picturesque view of adjoining shop houses refurbished in vermilion red (the stylish Vietnamese restaurant-bar Le Tonkin, which we’ll visit next time), pearl white (Martini Firm), and the colours of antique Chinese style. You can’t go wrong in this neighbourhood, which is destined to be our regular alternative to good old Holland Village.
MOHAMED SULTAN ROAD: First named in 1896, this row of shophouses is actually much older than that. To get here take any bus to River Valley Road or walk up from Clarke Quay MRT, via Clarke Quay.