Bukit Gombak is a surprisingly pleasant little area in the west of Singapore. The changes in elevation certainly help to break up the monotony of the HDBs (“Bukit Gombak” actually translates as something like “a collection of hills” – there are two), as does the abundance of parks and other green spaces. Even the stadium is somewhat picturesque, occupying a fortress-like position on raised ground, with sweeping stone steps that lead up to the entrance. Very evocative.
A stone’s throw from Bukit Gombak MRT station is the Bukit Gombak Neighbourhood Centre, and a hop, skip and a jump inside will get you to Xi Shi Fu Vegetarian. Whilst the BG Neighbourhood Centre looks utterly miserable from the outside (could have been the weather), once you’re inside it’s actually quite charming. Lots of old-fashioned retailers selling all manner of foodstuffs, religious artefacts and clothes. Everything is small-scale and individually owned. The community vibe is strong, and is no doubt helped by the vegetarian virtue that radiates out from Xi Shi Fu. A bit like a spiritual sonar, I would imagine.
Xi Shi Fu is located in Block 373, and occupies a rather modest stall space that is defined by a rather large swastika taped to the service counter. A beacon of Chinese vegetarianism if ever there was one. The food took a long time to come, which didn’t bother me in the slightest. Why? Because it was raining heavily and I thought that Little Guilin probably wasn’t going to go anywhere in a hurry, and because slow food generally means freshly cooked food. Which usually means good – or, at least, better – food. No? Yes. Sort of.
When it was brought to the table, I thought they had mistaken my wanton mee (SGD 3.00) with another dish. Wanton mee is usually so distinctive, so idiosyncratic in its presentation – shallow oval plate, noodles on top of sauce, ingredients on top of noodles. But not this time. Instead it came in a bowl, everything intermingling with everything else. To say I was ever so slightly put out by this presentational deviation would be an understatement. But I squared my jaw, gripped my chopsticks, and soldiered on.
The colours and flavours were undeniably fresh and vibrant. The sombre green of the kailan, the teasing red of the char siew and the optimistic golden hues of the egg noodles made me think that this was more “Rasta mee” than wanton mee. This observation was not entirely unfounded, for the wantons were entirely lacking (although there were some deep-fried squares of wanton shell to compensate). Not that they were missed that much, for in their place were shiitake mushrooms and another brown-coloured mock meat, both of which were a welcome addition. The kailan was crunchy and the noodles robust, although the char siew lacked a little in terms of character. It felt a bit like there was a freeloader in the bowl, and nobody likes a freeloader.
I must say that whoever had the bright idea of chucking everything in a bowl deserves a medal. Not only did this dish look great, but the bowl created a crescendo of (soy) sauce-defined flavours that really made me think about wanton mee in a different way. Talk about thinking outside the plate… Rasta mee, the dish of the future!
The fish soup bee hoon (SGD 3.70) was presented in a rather more predictable fashion and, generally speaking, underwhelmed. It contained large and (as is always the case) mushy wedges of mock fish, black fungus, some deep fried square stuff (same as the wanton shell), ginger, tomatoes and kailan in a milky and shockingly tasteless broth. Funnily enough, laksa noodles were used instead of bee hoon. It could have benefitted immensely from some (more) ginger or seaweed for flavour. But as it stood, we settled for chilli, glorious chilli.
I like Xi Shi Fu a lot more than I let on… It could be because of the abundance of nature in and around Bukit Gombak, but I felt that XSF was a breath of fresh air. The wanton noodles were really quite good; they were certainly innovative. Especially on a rainy day at the end of November.
Xi Shi Fu Vegetarian
BB373 Food House, Block 373, Bukit Batok Street 31
Open 07:00-13:30 Monday; 07:00-17:30 Tuesday-Sunday