L.E. Cafe is a class act, no doubt about it. It has been around for longer than Singapore, and over the years has established itself as one of the island’s foremost bakeries. The Middle Road outlet is L.E. HQ (there are two other branches on the nearby Cambridge and Veerasamy Roads), and strikes a nice balance of being homely yet professional. From nearly every surface hangs some sort of certificate, award, press cutting, photo, celebrity-endorsement or, more instructively, menu. The staff are patient, and always happy to remind me that I can’t just waltz in and flash my cash, but need to pre-order. Yes, it’s that kind of place!
A few things can be bought off-the-shelf (rock cakes and old-fashioned butter cupcakes; almond, hazelnut, sugee, cashew nut, pistachio and raisin cookies; pineapple tarts and the occasional moon pie – see L.E.’s website for more info on products), but for the really good stuff you have to order in advance. The trademark bean curd tarts fall within this latter category, and are something I have been eyeing for a while now. Of course, being a stickler for spontaneity I am incapable of pre-ordering anything. I was, therefore, grateful to get my hands on one of the boxes from the day’s second batch. Perhaps the fact that it was Lunar Eclipse day can explain such unprecedented good luck?
Everything has to be bought in bulk, so there’s no messing around with a tart here or a cookie there – commitment is required. Stop complaining, this is a good thing. The bean curd tarts were beautifully packaged in a large and robust cardboard box with the L.E. logo printed on top. Perfect if you’re buying them as a gift, or for any other occasion that requires at least a modicum of presentational panache. As I said, this place is a class act.
L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry
264 Middle Road
Open 10:30-19:00 Monday-Saturday; 10:30-16:00 Sunday
These things are raved about by just about everybody who knows how to put words on the Internet. Seriously, the praise is borderline euphoric. Hungry Ang Mo is possibly the most muted of the bunch, calling them “lovely”. Budget Pantry goes a little further, calling them “absolutely delicious”; the biggest serving of flattery comes from Fabian Poon who says that “the first bite bring[s] the meltdown of fresh bean curd coalescing with the buttery crumbly crust inside the mouth… one can almost instantaneously reach an epiphany”. Steady on Fabian, it’s only a tart!
Such a convergence of opinion never fails to bring out the cynic in me. In this case, I think people get wrapped up in praising the idea and lose focus on the taste. The tart is an interesting idea. As an alternative to the Portuguese egg tart, L.E. Cafe apparently pioneered the idea of substituting egg custard with bean curd, and puff pastry with shortcrust pastry. Nice, in theory.
But in practice, I don’t think the combination is quite the synergy that people think it is. The key problem lies in finding a common ground between the casing and the filling. The bean curd filling has to be kept cold, but any type of pastry is at its tastiest when served warm. The bean curd filling is light and smooth, the shortcrust pastry is brittle and dense. The taste of the filling is that of subtle soyness (i.e. not particularly sweet, but not particularly flavoursome either), whilst the pastry has a slight butteriness to it. The fact that these tarts are unable to reconcile these differences is, in my view, their Achilles heel.
Let me be more specific. The tarts are served cold, meaning the taste of the pastry is heavily compromised. They are difficult to eat because biting into them causes the pastry to almost snap apart, rather than fold in on itself like puff pastry (I found that the best way of eating them was with a spoon – filling first, casing after). The flavours are too muted: the bean curd does not have enough distinctiveness to carry the tart by itself, whilst the rich butteriness of the pastry is almost nullified by refrigeration. As a result, these things are difficult to eat, and bland and watery to taste. Egg tarts work because the egg custard filling and the pastry casing complement each other so well. Bean curd and pastry are both delicious, but not when eaten together.
For the third time, L.E. Cafe is a class act. Of that, I am sure. I do, however, also think that one of its signature products – the bean curd tart – is better as an idea than as a product. I would buy these again, simply because the packaging is tasteful, the idea is interesting, and they are very good value for money. The taste, however, not is quite as revolutionary as most claim it to be.