French dining in Singapore has taken a curious turn. In the eighties, clichés of silverware galore, baffling menus, flashy belle époque-themed interiors, checks and toffee-nosed maitre’ds were customary to French restaurants in Singapore.
A decade and half later, the fickle dining audience wanted out from the stuffy dining rooms and rituals. ‘Clean’ and ‘chic’ became the operative words. So restaurant designers racked their brains for ways to tackle the minimalist frenzy as the city sprouted independent restaurants touting ‘fine French cuisine’ with mark-ups that subsidized their stylish interiors more than the food.
As the economy nose-dived during the last five years, many of such joints followed suit. A handful who were combat-fit pulled through and are now relishing their niche by justifying high prices with comparably high quality produce, creative cuisine, prestigious wine lists, elegant ambience and professional service.
Today, those with fatter wallets or generous entertainment accounts can testify that the local French dining scene has come a long way. But to the average man-in-the-street, the Délifrance empire and its tuna, egg mayonnaise or smoked salmon stuffed baguette, croissant, Quiche Lorraine, Evian, Perrier and Orangina are still more familiar icons of French gastronomy. Champagne, foie gras and truffles are reserved for special occasions.
As such, a place like The French Stall, which serves a three-course menu degustation, complete with classic French onion soup or escargot simmered in garlic butter for appetizer, beef entrécote for main course and a slab of Valrhona chocolate cake for dessert, for S$16, a decent plate of foie gras terrine for S$12, and a generous serving of wild mushroom risotto for just S$8.50, has automatic appeal.
Never mind the fact that it is housed in a grubby coffee shop on Serangoon Road, a rather notorious stretch often congested with throngs of Indian laborers, packed cheek-to-cheek like canned sardines, for whom picnicking and loitering by the snaking traffic and choking fumes are inexpensive forms of recreation. Even locals fear to tread in this neighborhood and tourists zip past warily on trishaws only when navigated by skilful drivers. Ironically, being found in such circumstances makes The French Stall all the more endearing.
The dining area – where guests eat to the tune of honking traffic and ceaseless chug, chug, chug from the ceiling fans – offers a good view of the main kitchen. The tall French chef, Xavier le Henaff, wearing his white jacket and black knee-length apron shielding a pair of dark bermudas, black leather shoes and socks pulled up to mid-calf, is hard at work. He’s had his share of toiling in high-profile kitchens around the world. Now, he wants to woo the market with authentic French food made attainable with realistic prices.
A chunky, bistro-style chalkboard covered in rough scribbles announces the dishes offered. Inspired by the Chinese-kitchen, order chits are fastened to melamine plates with wooden clothes pegs to indicate the table numbers. The first course arrives within 10 minutes of ordering and a meal may be had within the same half hour. To settle the check, present the cashier with the sticky, oil-sprayed plastic stand from your table and pay cash. Prices are net with no extra charge for service and tax. Dining at The French Stall is a straightforward affair, very similar to an experience at the hawker center or food court, its air-conditioned counterpart.
How gratifying to know that the velvety feel of fresh foie gras, intoxicating perfume of summer truffles or simply, the irresistible combination of pan-seared chicken leg, sautéed mushroom, creamy sauce and freshly ground black pepper, may be savored at fancy without burning a hole in the pocket. Nicknamed ‘Fried Rice Paradise’ for its unique culture of hawker dining and spectacular street food, there can’t be a better home for The French Stall than Singapore. It may be one of the first, but definitely not the last.
The French Stall
Address: 544 Serangoon Road, Singapore 218166; telephone: (65) 299 3544; e-mail: [email protected]
Melisa Teo is a food and travel journalist. After contributing to The Peak, Eat! and the New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene magazines, she now channels her energy into producing cookbooks and other lifestyle publications with French publisher, Editions Didier Millet.
photos by Jorg Sundermann