Coconuts Critic’s Table: Artichoke Café & Bar

COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE — There are a whole lot of restaurants serving technically competent meals here in Singapore. But Artichoke has something different: personality. The place just oozes character and independent spirit.

The locally produced food (30 per cent of the menu showcases local growers and small batch makers), charismatic chef-owner Bjorn Shen, too-loud music, mismatched furniture and location in a historic church that comes with a nice courtyard all add to the cool vibe.

It’s not easy to run an independent restaurant here in Singapore, with the ridiculous rents, manpower issues and so much competition, but Artichoke has held its own for four and a half years — and without “selling out”. Don’t come expecting cheap lunch sets or generic crowd pleasers like truffle fries, though. There are no boring plates.

As it says on their Facebook page, the grub’s “Middle Eastern X Dude Food X No Holds Barred Cooking.” And true to word, Middle Eastern recipes act as a base while chefs riff on those ideas — across cuisines and genres — in outrageous but successful ways. Really, we’d only take issue with one of those descriptors: it’s not just “dude food”. Women love it too. The night we visited, the house was 80 percent female.

For sure, punchy innovative flavours know no gender boundaries. Each meal starts with mezze ($8 each) and pita ($4.50; two to an order) supplied by Kampong Glam’s Pita Bakery. Get your hands dirty. Rip into the flatbread and use it to scoop up their range of dips. Our favourites are the babaganoush with sweet pomegranate molasses teriyaki — it’s sweet, smoky and addictive — as well as the hae bee-topped taramasalata, which swaps ebiko (shrimp roe) for the usual cod roe to wonderful effect.

The sharing plates are no slouch too. Standouts include the slow roasted lamb shoulder ($36), rich and complex with funky fermented butter. Though if you’ve got a group, we highly recommend the Lambgasm ($220), a feast of fall-off-the-bone lamb shoulder, dips and pita. (There’s just something so friendly and convivial about sharing large format meat.) It feeds five or more, and you have to order 48 hours in advance. But it’s totally worth it.

They know how to do more restrained dishes too. The Kranji Countryside Mushrooms ($18) — sourced from Kin Yan Agrotech — with spinach, za’taar and basil is simply presented but delicious, letting flavour of the natural produce shine through.

Though there aren’t many dessert options — it’s mainly baklava by sister bakery Overdoughs — what they do have is well thought out. New menu addition the baklava ice cream sandwich ($15), could have been an over-the-top sugar bomb. But doused in tart berry sauce, it’s a real treat not to be missed.

Wash everything down with affordable, no fuss drinks. You can get beer — from Tiger to Little Creatures — or a glass of vino (mainly New World options) from $10. Some nights, they even have house-made slushies. These not-too-serious, playful drinks are just right with their style of cooking. But if you’re really fussy BYO. Corkage is $30.

The folks at Artichoke make everything too look easy; from the culinary mashups to the unpretentious service. Almost everything is sensational without being forced. But it takes crazy energy to run a joint like this.

Unlike flashy new celeb restos with big PR budgets, it’s not all smoke and mirrors — what they’ve built is substantial and real. We think it has the potential to become a veritable institution in the local small food biz. Artichoke definitely warrants many a return visit.

 

Coconut’s Critics Table reviews are written based on unannounced visits by our writers and paid for by Coconuts Singapore. No freebies here.

Artichoke Café + Bar is at Sculpture Square, 161 Middle Rd, 6336-6949. Open Tue-Sat 6:30-9:45pm, Sat-Sun 11:30am-2:45pm.

Read other Critic’s Table reviews:

– Points for effort, but Arterial lacks cafe magic
– Sweet treats and croc meat can’t disguise desperate mood at Table@Pip’s

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