Serene Centre, it seems, is replete with little restaurants and cafés – little food havens in a city that can otherwise feel busy and unfeeling. A newcomer seems to have stealthily appeared at the far end of the building, overlooking the roads leading through the Bukit Timah area with a placid nonchalance. For in The Bakery, new flavours are fermenting each day, gaining their distinctive tastes unclouded by the bustle that those roads represent.
It was how sheerly unassuming the building’s facade was that made me slow down and pay attention to it. Behind its glass walls – with the building’s opening hours written in silver marker next to the door – was a surprisingly dimly-lit interior. Sitting off in the darkest corner was a large two-tier cast-iron oven, and next to it slept one of the owners on a wooden stool. The store was run by a middle-aged couple, and the husband of the pair was moving silently, almost serenely, between the customers hunched over cups of hand-brewed coffee at the wooden tables lining the walkway. Our gazes met; he smiled briefly, cordially.
There were five different types of freshly-baked sourdough bread for sale that afternoon, ranging from baguettes to wholemeal to country loaves. Each of them possessed a distinctly deep dark golden-brown hue: this were not the insipid pale colours of commercial white bread, but the unassuming shades of food that had been forged in steady, patient fires – like the carvings of a craftsman. On the counter sat trays of chocolate cookies and caprese sandwiches, neither of which betrayed their dough’s unorthodox origins. Beyond a small printed sign tacked to the side of the door detailing the health benefits of sourdough, however, there were no signs that the bakery was attempting to pass itself off as one of the numerous health-food chains that have mushroomed over the island. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding.
Had it not been for the unassuming blackboard menus at the front and back of the store, I would have hardly known it was supposed to be a eatery. This was a space that seemed quietly, subtly devoted to bread. A low wooden bookshelf behind the door revealed a selection of well-thumbed volumes on artisan bread and food. The ovens dominated the whole of the indoor shop space. And as I stood peering intently at the menu, conspicuously outlined against the doorway, the owners glided around me, never once pressing me for a purchase. It was a small shop, and a niche enterprise: they would have to be dedicated individuals to devote their time and space to the promotion of a slower, more thoughtful way of eating.
Singaporean food is known for being diverse, loud and colourful. Meals can be whipped up in massive woks by hawkers sweating over a roaring fire, and a common image in many hawker centres is one of hungry crowds milling late into the night around tables laden with a massive spread of dishes from many stalls. But there are times when the more well-heeled urbanites – or perhaps even simply the disillusioned – would yearn for a slower pace of eating. In this way, a nation where eating is said to be the national pastime has been introduced to the advent of slow food. It was against this backdrop that this bakery must have sprung up, reflected not just in the culinary medium it has chosen to express itself but also the atmosphere that it bred in its own little corner of the island.
Some would say that such chains are disingenuous; part of a fad of ‘hipster’ food outlets to cater to the wealthy and socially-conscious. Others might say it detracts from the gems to be found, of much better taste and lower price, at the grittier-seeming hawker centres. And then there will be those who simply don’t like the taste of sourdough. But to me, a space that can promote the treasuring of food and the joy of eating – sitting with a cup of coffee and a sandwich and looking out at the view beyond you, letting time pass by and taste flow across your palate – is as worthy as any.