When I recently learned that a new business had moved into the space of the former Cafe Scrumptious in Erskineville I couldn’t help but get a little curious. Not by the notion of it being just another cafe in my neighbourhood but by the name the new owner chose to use. Straits Kaffe. By the spelling of kaffe you can only assume it refers to the strait that sits between the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia’s island of Sumatra, and when I wandered down the road for a closer inspection I discover the cafe has split personalities.
Come for breakfast and you’ll get your usual eggy cook-ups with toast and coffee. Come for lunch and you’ll have a selection of salads, wraps and sambo’s, even fish & chips. When the clock strikes 5.30pm things get a little more interesting.
The bloke behind it all is David Ang, a Singaporean that once consulted in Jakarta as well as cruised around the world on luxury vessels being personal chef to people with money to burn. This guy has some interesting stories, from cooking it up in Patagonia to eating seal in Iceland. “And the flavour of seal would be?” Think slow-cooked beef with salty fish. You don’t exactly have chickens and pigs running around so you eat what is available.
The dinner menu at Straits Kaffe is almost as diverse as Davids travels. No, you won’t find seal on the menu (though I really want to try it now) but you will see Western flavours sitting alongside Asian ones and with the chef being a Singapore native, expect to taste more from this tiny island nation.
My first visit had me trying the chicken satay – succulent spears of meat cooked over charcoal and served with cucumber and tasty peanut sauce. If I could wish for anything else it would be a little red onion and a few chunks of lontong.
The Singapore-style beef rendang is an instant favourite and the use of beef rib produces a much more tender bite. The serving is generous and has a great chilli kick.
The salmon sashimi was nothing short of being sensational. A light confit of melt-in-the-mouth salmon, sliced thinly and zenfully arranged on a plate with olive oil, soy sauce and a julienned greens.
The straits beef salad underwhelmed me a little with its simple construction of sautéed beef over iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber but the cabbage salad had me wanting the recipe. Shredded cabbage, strands of poached chicken, Vietnamese mint and a zingy dressing. An ideal dish that perfectly suited the hot weather we’ve been having.
Finding pork knuckle on a menu heavy with Asian dishes may come as a surprise but it was something I just had to try. Thank god I did. This baby is designed for two but with my voracious appetite I probably could have scoffed it all myself. The crispy porcine mass sits on a bed of sauerkraut and has a graceful smear of mustard slowly diluting into the gorgeous savoury juices. Tapping the skin with a knife says to me I’ll be leaving much of the crackling for the end and the meat within, well … all I can say it’s one of the best swine knuckles I’ve had for a while.
Third visit has me wanting to try the catch of the day as well as the pork ribs and despite the warning that the flavours may clash, I went with my gut feeling and ordered both. The catch is a plate-sized whole snapper grilled Singapore-style with glorious sambal wrapped in banana leaves. The fiery redness of the belacan-infused sambal scared me for a moment but once tasted it wasn’t as hot as I thought it would have been. Yes it’s spicy but the tomato in the sauce cools things down a tad and when you peel back the skin and flake into the soft flesh, who cares if your lips are tingling?
The pork ribs are another sensation. The flavours may clash to some so I appreciate the warning but the sweetness in both dishes somehow connected the two. David makes his own barbecue sauce and believe me, it’s a damn good one. The 30cm length of ribs has quite a bit of meat to get into and using cutlery the way someone else did, I jumped right in fingers and all. There’s only one way to eat ribs and that’s with your hands. I reckon a sambal sauce would have been nice as well. David?
On my first visit I questioned whether they’d have any desserts appearing on the menu and I was immediately answered with another question. “Would you like to be our guinea pig?” Hell yeah. On all three occasions I got to try some wonderful sweets, two of which had something in common – sago. The aptly named strawberry cocktail came in a towering martini glass and was a perfect palate cleanser and end-of-meal sugar hit. Sago pearls topped with an icy cold purée of strawberries, a little scoop of cream and we’re done. Beautiful.
The coconut crème caramel is just as delicious and cooling and I loved the shard of crispy coconut bark that made up its crown.
The gula melaka crème brûlée has a hidden layer of sago pearls as well, firming up the custard and adding that typical “caviar” texture after crunching through the sweet palm sugar crust. This one definitely needs to stay on the menu.
As much as I liked the food here a small part of me wished for more of a Singaporean angle on the menu, something this area hasn’t had for many years. Location wise, Straits Kaffe has a bit of a challenge on its hands. You won’t find it on King Street or Erskineville Road but instead under an apartment building in the back streets next to an industrial estate, so it’s purely relying on word of mouth and dishing up the great food & service. Relying on word of mouth may take a while but dishing up great service & food … I reckon it’s already doing that.