There’s more to tea in Singapore than a trip to Raffles

We couldn’t resist a visit to Raffles in Singapore, not for a Singapore Sling, but for Afternoon Tea. With only 24 hours in the city, though, that meant we didn’t get to revisit the wonderful Tea Chapter in Neil Road for a Chinese tea experience (you’ll have to see the Fancy a Cuppa blog entry for our views on that).

It also meant we didn’t manage to get to Smitten Coffee & Tea Bar, which is out by Robertsons Quay and looked really hard to get to on public transport in the time we had. That was a shame and it goes top of our list for next time we’re in Singapore, because its concept reminded me of the wonderful Bean & Bud in Harrogate for its focus on both coffee and tea…

So for this trip, it was Raffles and only Raffles.

We quickly found out that the done thing for afternoon tea at Raffles is to reserve a table, as elegantly-dressed couples and groups sailed past us into the tea room, while we were asked to wait.

In fact, we were told, it would be 45 minutes before a table was free and, they added, with local taxes and service added (the so-called plus-plus), our afternoon tea would come to some £50 a head (as if that would put us off, when we’d travelled so far…).

Raffles in Singapore

So, we sat and waited in the sultry, but leafy grounds of the hotel and watched people coming and going, some dashing by on their way to their (presumably reserved) tea, others just coming in for a selfie in this hotel of all hotels in Singapore.

Raffles for tea in Singapore

Some of the Trip Advisor and Google reviews of afternoon tea at Raffles do speak of the confusion over just what afternoon tea consists of, what you are obliged to have, and how much it all costs. Some even say they were forced to have the champagne tea, taking the price way over what we had been quoted.

There was never any question of champagne for us (maybe we just didn’t look the champers types), but when they came to serve us and spoke of the eat-all-you-can buffet in the other room, with spring rolls, fruit and other delights, we told them we actually just wanted a regular tiered tray afternoon tea with a pot of tea of our choice. Was that possible?

Indeed it was, they said, and that would cost us less than the initially quoted about £100 for two, coming in at nearer £30 a head…

Slightly bemused by the pricing system, we sat and waited for our tea to arrive, taking in the atmosphere. We enjoyed the old colonial feel and the notice that spoke of this (the Tiffin) dining room having been the best ‘east of Suez’, though there’s something about the stuffiness of those exclusive colonial hang-outs and the fawning nature of the service in them that would put us off going too often.

Afternoon tea in Singapore at Raffles

Actually, the afternoon tea was quite generous (five little sandwiches each, macaroons, little pastries, mince pies – being near Christmas), with a quality pot of tea (Darjeeling for me, English Breakfast for Anita), and a delightful harpist strumming away in the background.

Afternoon Tea at Raffles in Singapore

The mystery, though, were the dishes of clotted cream and jam that sat untouched on the table next to the tiered tray. Untouched because…there were no scones to spread them on.

I ventured over to the waiter to ask whether there were scones, since we had jam and cream. Oh no, they’re on the buffet, we were told, along with the spring rolls and the fruit…

Hmmm. I’m not sure what the Colonel and his wife would have made of that in colonial days, but we smiled to ourselves and made do without, only for the waiter to appear suddenly with a plate of four scones for us, thrown in gratis, I think because by this time they were at the end of the afternoon tea time and most people were turning to Singapore Slings.

Still, I can confirm that the cream and jam are very tasty, and the scones good quality. It just seems bizarre that they are part of the full buffet rather than the tiered tray of afternoon tea. Ah well, when in Singapore…

To be fair to the staff, as the afternoon came to an end, and we were virtually the last tea drinkers left, they did become a lot more relaxed and friendly. I just wish we could get away from the stiff formality of such elegant places. They could learn a thing or two from our favourite posh afternoon tea place in London: the Palm Court tea room in Piccadilly somehow manage that great service, with elegance and friendliness rather than starchiness…

East India Rooms at Raffles

And one final gripe about Raffles. I know it’s the tropics and you can’t really avoid them, but the tea room was abuzz with flies, mostly quite small, but somewhat disconcerting as they wander over your sarnies or macaroons before you take a bite.

Other than that, it was a beautiful afternoon and actually well worth the cost. So a hearty thumbs up from us for afternoon tea in Singapore at Raffles. There is more to tea in Singapore than Raffles, but at least once in your life, do give it a go.

Posted in Asia Visits, Singapore, World visits | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ideas and inspiration from coffee shops in Singapore

I’d heard good things about the coffee scene in Singapore, but it’s the kind of place we usually rush through on the way somewhere else. This visit was no different, with just 24 hours in the country before we headed towards Indonesia, though this time we prioritised the coffee. And I’m very glad we did.

Nylon Coffee in Everton Park was very special.

Nylon Coffee in Everton Park, Singapore

They just do coffee (rather like some of the coffee shops we’d found earlier on the journey in Vienna or Budapest), so the only question you’ll be asked on entering the shop is: “How do you want it?” (If you’re desperate for a cake or something else to nibble with your coffee, there is a bakery next door, by the way).

They roast their own beans, so your nose will guide you the last few yards to the coffee shop entrance, with the aroma wafting out into the street.

Nylon Coffee in Singapore roast their own

And their menu is pretty simple. It’s espresso, white, iced, long black or filter. And there are three sizes to choose from. They do a seasonal blend in the espresso machine (Central American beans in there for our visit), though there are more options if you go for the filter.

Simple menu for coffee in Singapore at Nylon Coffee

Who needs a more complicated menu than that?

No sugar is needed in coffee this good, so no sugar is offered and in fact there was no sugar in sight anywhere in the coffee shop. What a contrast to the coffee scene in many other parts of South East Asia.

Best coffee in Singapore at Nylon Coffee

Best of all, there’s nothing pretentious about this place. We got to meet Jiamin, one of the co-owners, and I immediately warmed to her attitude, especially when I mentioned that I hadn’t enjoyed my coffee in another venue in Singapore earlier that day.

“Coffee is very subjective,” she said, and you know what, I really think it is. A place I don’t like might be someone else’s favourite, though in our case it’s usually as much to do with atmosphere and welcome as it is the actual coffee quality.

So Nylon Coffee Roasters was one of my favourite coffee shops on the whole 25-country journey, even if it was standing room only, and there’s no wifi!

The fact that Nylon Coffee was so busy on the afternoon we dropped by shows what a destination coffee shop it has become for locals in Singapore, especially as it is tucked away at the back of a residential block well away from any main streets.

Nylon Coffee in Singapore

If you’re going for the first time, you might need a hand with directions, mind you. Once you find the arched entrance to Everton Park (just off Everton Road), you can avoid doing the tour we did of every retail outlet by nipping round the back to the right after the arch and then walking along the side of the block. After 100 yards or so, you’ll find Nylon. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Chye Seng Huat Hardware coffee shop in Singapore

Chye Seng Huat Hardware is a completely different type of coffee shop, actually more reminiscent of those trendy mums and toddlers places you find in Dulwich or Stoke Newington.

Again, we spent a while finding the way in to this place, pushing and poking the front door and windows on Tyrwhitt Street street before we realised the entrance is around the side, where everyone is sitting out on the terrace.

This is an old hardware shop near to Little India, which is how the coffee shop got its rather unusual name. It’s in an art deco building, with a lot of the fittings from the old hardware store giving the place a real urban coffee shop feel, as you would find in many big western cities.

Inside Chye Seng Huat Hardware coffee shop in Singapore

Education is a big part of CSHH and they’re keen to show the whole coffee-making process, from the green beans to the coffee cup. So there’s different coffee stuff going on all over the premises, with a roaster, a workshop, an annex with a retail space, the coffee shop itself and more activities we didn’t get a chance to see upstairs.

Good coffee in Singapore at Chye Seng Huat Hardware

But, like Nylon Coffee, there’s nothing preachy about the approach in CSHH. And they were happy to chat about their coffee and the coffee shop concept even though the queue was building up behind us.

Coffee in Singapore at Chye Seng Huat Hardware

The coffee was fantastic quality, again. And with two choices of espresso blends on the hopper, we had no option but to stay for a second cup.

Oh, and unlike Nylon, these guys do food. It was our choice for an excellent breakfast, though beware of the small tables if you do choose to eat (yes, we had a spill, which seems almost inevitable if you try to fit two cups and two plates on one table…).

Good breakfast in Singapore at Chye Seng Huat Hardware

So, coffee in Singapore is a fantastic experience, and we barely scratched the surface of the scene over there. If you really want to check out all the good coffee shops there, you’ll need at least a week. But if you only have 24 hours like us, we’d highly recommend Nylon Coffee and Chye Seng Huat Hardware.

Posted in Asia Visits, Singapore, World visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A traditional coffee in Kluang; an exciting Liberica in Johor Bahru; and a lively local place for breakfast

A lot of travel guidebooks tell you it’s worth stopping at Kluang railway station for a coffee, but they don’t tend to go into the history of this place, which goes back almost 80 years.

Kluang Rail Coffee in Malaysia

We got lucky with a coffee connection made in Kuala Lumpur when we met local lad Ony, who insisted we stop off on our way south towards Johor because he knows the owners of the Station cafe.

This meant we not only got to try the coffee experience in Kluang, but were also shown around by Chiang Lim Jit, one of the family members whose grandfather set up the station café all those years ago.

Coffee shop in Kluang at the railway station

It’s a fantastic story, involving immigrant workers from Hainan in China, who came to Malaysia mainly to work for the Brits, whose army camp was nearby. The Hainanese had great culinary skills, and part of that involved making the coffee.

It’s intriguing, mind you, to wonder what happened a couple of years after they opened up shop when the Japanese rampaged their way through these parts: did the station café remain open? Did the Japanese even drink coffee? We didn’t get time to ask these questions, so if anybody knowns anything, do let us know…

Coffee in Kluang at the railkway station

The coffee they use here used to be grown just two stations up the line, but is now sourced a little further away nearer to Johor. It’s still a quality Liberica bean, though.

This is no ‘third wave’ artisan coffee shop in the modern western sense of the word, however. And we didn’t really get to see exactly how the coffee is prepared: the staff were so in awe of Chiang’s techniques when he turned up, that he was hidden from view as the waiters all huddled around him to watch.

We could see it involved pouring the coffee from a great height, though, or was it just the water being poured over the coffee beans or powder? In any case, the result is what is known as a traditional coffee (as opposed to your espresso or more modern ‘pourover’) and you have the option of black, with sweetened milk or with evaporated milk.

It’s a strong, rich coffee, and it’s very very popular round these parts. The café was full shortly after it reopened for the afternoon at 2.30pm (yes, they close for lunch!), and we were told its regulars include Singapore border officials who think it’s worth hopping on the train up for a cuppa, and the Sultan of Johor, who has been known to arrive driving his own private train to get here.

Inside Kluang railway station cafe

It’s also hard to know what exactly goes in the rather tasty toasty things they serve up to have with your coffee. There’s a secret family recipe to their kaya, which comes on toast or steamed, but is basically roasted sugar and butter – it is delicious!

Kaya toast in Kluang at railway coffee

There’s talk of developing the railway through here, making it a fast track across Asia and pulling down the railway station building. The family have opened up other coffee shops round Kluang, but we think the original place is a fantastic piece of history they surely have to preserve: the kitchen is still in the same position it was 78 years ago, as is most of the seating area; the only major change since 1938 is that the owners no longer sleep on-site waiting for the first train to pull through in the mornings.

Sadly, because the train departures from Kluang are so few and far between, we had to transfer to the bus for our onward journey south; now that’s something they could do to improve travellers’ access to this wonderful café in Kluang…

We found a fantastic coffee shop in Johor Bahru. My Liberica has a good story of its own, too.

My Liberica coffee shop in Johor Bahru

It’s run by four brothers, who each have a different role in the business, one focusing on the coffee plantation where they grow their own Liberica beans, one leading on the roasting side of things, one doing the marketing, and the fourth keeping an overall eye on the business.

The great part of this story was that to start up their coffee business the brothers had to persuade their father to swap part of his palm plantation over to coffee, and if you’ve been to Malaysia you’ll know how hard that must have been, with hectare after hectare of land now covered with palm oil trees as far as the eye can see.

It’s especially exciting because the liberica bean represents a mere 2% of total worldwide coffee production, and it’s certainly not a bean I’d come across before hitting south east Asia.

Best coffee shop in Johor Bahru has to be My Liberica

My Liberica has the feel of a western style artisan coffee shop, with lots of choices of how dark you like the roast, how you like your coffee prepared and which bean or blend you want. They even do the infamous civet luwak, which we’d seen on the road since Vietnam, but avoided trying.

And best of all is the My Liberica philosophy: “It’s OK to enjoy or dislike your coffee how your palate prefers; a coffee can be a matter of compatibility or fate.”

We chose a cappuccino made to perfection on their Marzocco machine, while the barista fiddled around with syphons and flames for someone else that morning. This is the kind of coffee shop we’d return to day after day if we lived in Johor Bahru and we’d love one day to visit their coffee plantation…

Good coffee in Johor Bahru at My Liberica

It’s not an easy coffee shop to get to, mind you, with no public transport within a mile of the place, so we had to get a taxi to and from the Taman Molek area, but we tried another coffee shop right in the centre of Johor and didn’t like it nearly as much. So if you’re anywhere near Malaysia’s second city, get yourself to My Liberica for a fantastic coffee experience.

Of course, there’s also that new coffee shop opened up by the guy we’d heard about who used to be based in Kuala Lumpur. We managed to miss the soft opening of Atlas Coffee Embassy by a few days, and he was opening up properly a week or so after our visit. But this means the choices for coffee in Johor Bahru are good ones.

We can’t leave Malaysia, though, without a mention for our favourite place for breakfast in Johor Bahru. Hua Mui (on the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby) has been around for decades, but the original owner’s granddaughter is still in charge.

Outside Hua Mui cafe in Johor Bahru

You’ll get a fabulous egg toast with a rich milky cup of tea for next to nothing here, and you’ll feel most welcome as one of the few westerners among a crowd of locals.

The way they prepare the tea reminded us of the Kluang coffee maker, with the kettle held way up high and poured deftly into our cups from about 6 feet up – it’s apparently another Hainanese family doing things the Hainan way.

Making tea in Hua Mui Cafe in Johor Bahru

It’s the usual sweetened milk and it probably isn’t the best quality tea, but it’s a fabulous experience and our top tip of all in Johor Bahru.

Tea for breakfast in Johor Bahru at Hua Mui Cafe

We returned there a second time, by which we were recognised and made even more welcome by the staff, before we embarked on the lengthy and arduous border crossing into Singapore by bus, but that’s another story…

Posted in Asia Visits, Malaysia, World visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment