We were away most of February, and the break couldn't have come at a better time. This winter was particularly cold and harsh with lots of strong wind and near-zero humidity.
Back in Singapore, we ate well with very little effort. Within hours of landing, I received a message about a dinner gathering organised by A. At said dinner, we were joined by none other than local food hero KF Seetoh. Present as well were some longtime foodie friends and Makansutra forum veterans. Conversation, unsurprisingly, revolved around food, and the darling restaurant of the moment was discussed. None other than JB Ah Meng, where the food is good enough for Seetoh to introduce to Washington Post journalists. We quickly made plans to eat there two nights later.
To call it a restaurant would be giving it airs. JB Ah Meng occupies part of a coffee shop on Lorong 23, smack in the heart of the red-light district, but shop space is taken up by the kitchen. Customers sit on basic tables and chairs set out on the alleyway between shophouses. As Seetoh was expected, they put a pink plastic sheet on our table, i.e. we got VIP treatment (but I must clarify, everyone paid their share of the meal; other than a tablecloth we got the same treatment as every other customer).
The menu occupies one A4 sheet, mostly cooked-to-order dishes that is typical of the cze-char style in Johore Bahru. What stands out also is their down-to-earth prices, eating here is inexpensive.
Open kitchen existed long before they became fashionable in fine-dining restaurants. Looks like they favour Kikkoman and Pearl River sauces.
The food came out in quick succession, and were just as speedily devoured. Deep fried fish skin, which I observe has become the must-have dish on every cze char restaurant menu. This was excellent, the skin shatteringly crisp in parts not soaked up with the tongue-tingling dressing of the young papaya salad.
Underneath the mushrooms and braised chicken there lay a bed of silky transparent noodles, all the better to slurp with my dear.
What every customer come here for is their signature dish of "Sam lau maifan", literally translated as "three-storey rice noodles", the origins which I am ignorant of. What matters is that this was absolutely delicious. I love my chow-maifan, and this ranks as one of the best I've eaten. The noodles were presented almost like an omelet, with loads of beautifully charred surfaces permeated with that intoxicating and desirable aroma of "wok-hei". They use a particularly finely stranded noodle which absorbs flavours well but is prone to breakage on handling, so to obtain such results need considerable skills.
A closer look at the noodles, all long and unbroken. Looks are not as important as taste, and the taste was very good.
Another interesting dish. Brinjal (eggplants) deepfried then cooked in a quasi-Sichuanese fish-fragrant style. The twist being that they have managed to make the brinjals taste like fish. Beyond their crisp exterior, the pieces of brinjals were delectably soft and fish-paste like inside.
Paparazzi shot. Lotus root chips with sugar peas for the obligatory vegetable course. Who were we kidding? This is not the place for spa cuisine. Most of the dishes here are deepfried or panfried, but never greasy or oily, with generous dashes of seasonings for maximal taste impact.
Pork chops marinated in fermented bean curd, then deepfried. Not as strongly flavoured as some local renditions can get, and strangely a bit dry in some parts.
Prawns coated in salted egg yolk and then deepfried is not considered exotic anymore, but what made this dish pop was the addition of sweet, crunchy kernels of corn in the batter. Not cardiologist approved obviously, but what a way to go eh?
This dish of tofu and taukan (compressed tofu skin) is very common in Malaysia but hardly known in Singapore, until now. Every time we eat at any Chinese restaurant in KL with my family this would be a default order, we love the textural contrast between the silky soft tofu and the soft spongy layers of the taukan.
Another typical Malaysian cze char dish- Stir fried yau mak (romaine lettuce) with fried dace. The crunchy sweet vegetables punched up with the smoky salty fish is not easy to get right. This time the vegetables were slightly overcooked and wet.
There was more food. We ate, we drank, we reminisced, and then we ate some more. The street life unfolded around us, and we speculated on the goings-on around us. Good company and good food go hand-in-hand in making a good meal, and this was a great start to our holidays.
JB Ah Meng: New Good Place Eating House, 2 Geylang Lorong 3. Dinners only.