In Melbourne, a city with a relatively recent history of contemporary development, any establishment which exceeds ten years old is considered part of the woodwork. So Old Raffles Place, a Singaporean restaurant which has marked the corner of Johnston and Wellington Street for close to two decades, is almost an heirloom of the Collingwood dining scene.
Not only has this place been around for ages, but it is one of the few dining spots in the area devoted entirely to food from Singapore and its dietary influencers (namely Indonesia, India, Thailand, China and Malaysia, plus some sway from the Brits).
This may sound like a lot, but Singaporean cuisine is nothing but original. It incorporates so much fusion that it’s hard to compare to any other country’s fare. Food from Singapore is something that cannot be understood until it has been tried.
And I have tried it, while visiting Singapore, and have been dying to relive the experience ever since. Which brought me to Old Raffles Place, around 6:30 on a Wednesday night, where I was greeted by the owner/operator of the joint.
When I wandered in, he was standing behind a counter, cash register before him and a whole wall of condiments behind.
At first I thought I had made a mistake- accidentally walked into the kitchen, perhaps, rather than what I thought to be the main entrance. From what I could see, there was nothing but a few chairs to sit in while you wait for your takeaway. But upon asking the gentleman if I could dine in, I was whisked around the corner, through a doorway which lead to the main dining area of Old Raffles Place.
I sat alone at a table in the main room, where one other table of three laughed and drank beer and slurped up soupy laksa. I perused the menu, already sure of what I wanted (Penang Char Koay Kak) but double checking, just in case. And good thing I did, because when the waitress came to take my order, I was informed that all carrot cakes were unavailable that night.
In spite of the name, this dish is neither carrot nor cake. It is actually made up primarily of radish and rice flour, which is then stir-fried with eggs. As a former vegan, I’m almost afraid to write in a public platform that travelling through Asia lead me to fall in love with eggs, but it’s true.
Singapore can prepare some mean eggs- in curries, fried rice, veggie-filled omelets… For nostalgia’s sake, I was in need of something eggy that eve, so I opted for gado gado- a “salad” that’s more like your late grandmother’s Betty Crooker cookbooks’ idea of a salad. I’m talking boiled cabbage, potatoes and eggs, raw tomato and cucumber chunks and fried tofu, all slathered in a sweet and slightly syrupy peanut sauce. Health food it’s not, but it sure is comforting.
At the relatively steep price of $18, this salad is probably not a meal I would take away, as I felt I was partially paying for the ambiance. That is, to sit surrounded by mid-century photos of old town Singapore and rainbow fairy lights and the smell of stuffed roti emerging from the jaffle press in the next room, where the cooks look like grandmas and the kitchen looks like your own.
Dining at Old Raffles Place is all about embracing the whole experience, immersing yourself in this gateway to a culture so close yet so distant. By the time I was finishing up, the restaurant was almost full (of mostly older couples and groups, but also a few young parties and solo diners). They were chatting over black sesame puddings and strawberry sago, sipping hot milo, which (believe it or not) is extremely popular in Singapore.
Although, if you’re not one for chocolate, a traditional Singaporean milk tea (lightened up with sweetened condensed milk) is another great option.
Both the food and the atmosphere at Old Raffles Place is pretty inoffensive- it’s not five-star dining by any means, but it can appease the picky and delight the adventurous. It offers old-school vibes that hone deeper than just a retro-inspired fit out, down to the roots of one of Melbourne’s oldest suburbs. It’s got history, charm, and something different to offer diners burnt out on the latest hyped-up food trends. If you’re craving authenticity and the sweet taste of Singapore, Raffles is your place.
Feature Image Credit: Quincy Malesovas