Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Grasso Coffee -Simei's hidden gem


Singapore’s cafe culture, if it can even be called that, is embarrassingly non-existent. As far as coffee goes, sure, you have your kopi-O’s and other traditional forms of filtered coffee, but there isn't much in the way of espresso style coffee. With our society’s pervasive Western influence though, more people, especially the young, are expecting more out of their coffee drinks, and face great difficulty swallowing the same drinks that their parents and grandparents have drunk for years. It’s therefore a pity that our cafe scene is dominated by monolithic MNCs like Starbucks and Coffee Bean (the latter admittedly serving better coffee than the former), and not by small cafes serving freshly-brewed coffee (I think you know where I’m going with this). Frankly, the younger generation has no idea how to drink coffee beyond their usual syrup-overloaded frappuccinos, much less appreciate this sophisticated beverage by itself.

The very notion of a cafe, itself a romantic ideal of sorts, is a small eatery, operated perhaps by one or two partner-owners. Through their McDonaldization of cafes, Starbucks and co have brutalised, assaulted, raped and basically sent this entire concept to hell, together with all that cafes stand for. For instance, I’ve never felt comfortable around one of those overly-friendly plastic-feeling baristas in these places. There’s really no point in being so fake-nice when it doesn’t add any cheer to the lives of customers, and on the contrary, encourages them to cynically go “what the hell’s this idiot doing?”. Besides this, I also detest their excessive use of contrived corporate diction. Starbucks calling its employees “partners”? Playing wannabe-hipster music? Attempting to imbue its outlets with some kind of corporate-manufactured identity? Everything about coffee chains pisses me off, and it’s such a shame that they're are so rampant, but I guess the lack of a coffee culture here provides fertile breeding ground for them.
People who don't know better queuing for a Starbucks... I know you're from China, but even so, really guys? (Photo credits to www.sino-us.com)

Imagine my surprise then, when Starbucks finally disappeared from my estate, following the renovation of Eastpoint. Not only that, but Grasso Coffee sprouted up along the row of HDB shops soon after! In my mind, the chances of both of that happening one after another were right next to Singaporeans learning how to appreciate fine coffee, or maybe that of small authentic ramen shops suddenly opening up all over the island.

By itself, Grasso’s a tiny shop operating from a single shop unit. Its location is rather obscure as well, nestled within the typical HDB estate shops that are seen everywhere, and out of the way of the common high human traffic areas. It’s somewhere only a resident would know about, and is practically invisible to a newcomer to Simei.

The entire place has a very minimalist theme to it. Take a look at the walls for instance –they’re just covered with two rather simple wallpaper designs. Seatingwise, there are only two tables with two chairs each, and a counter bar, allowing a maximum of 6 people to sit at any one time. There really isn’t much to comment about the shop’s interior, and by reading this alone, it’s entirely natural to think that Grasso is a plain, boring shop. That cannot be any further from the truth though, and it must be said that the owners have made the full use of the little space available to them, signifying a very well thought-out design.
This photograph thoroughly captures Grasso's cozy, intimate environment
Grasso has laughed in the face of its spatial limitations, by creating a very homely, welcoming atmosphere instead of feeling cramped or claustrophobic. The general vibe of the cafe is the type of warmth and familiarity that the proverbial third places develop in their patrons. Many of the customers in Grasso look familiar, and that’s no surprise, because this small, humble cafe has managed to attract a steady customer base over the few months it has been open. Although its crowds will never reach that of KOI’s, and there will never be a need for Grasso to issue out queue numbers, it doesn’t need to, simply because it wasn’t intended for such runaway success that comes with fads like bubble tea in the first place. It’s just a simple cafe that keeps its head down and does what it does best –serving good quality coffee (which I will come to later). Indeed, Grasso has provided Simei with a third place, somewhere that residents can meet up over a coffee in a relaxed, low-key environment, a nice getaway from the stresses of the outside world. With its laidback attributes and warm, inviting environment, Grasso is, at the heart of it, a place that feels quintessentially unSingaporean.

My favourite drink from Grasso -its iced latte 

Grasso serves typical cafe fare, with an assortment of drinks, sandwiches and pastries. My favourite drink here is the iced latté, which has a brew that is noticeably milder and less strong than other cafes. This isn’t to say that it’s flat however, because it’s very well-complemented with the milk used, creating a very smooth, clean taste, akin to a classic men’s dress watch. I feel that it’s a drink that fits into our coffee landscape very aptly, as most locals aren’t used to the strong-tasting brews of traditional espresso. In my book, I’d prefer a latté that’s a bit stronger while still retaining the same smooth quality, but this sits just fine with me.


Grasso also serves some very interesting ice blends, with beverages like English toffeenut and banana choccoffee amongst them, which cannot be found anywhere else. Generally speaking, I avoid ice blended coffees as I personally believe that their very nature –just a shot or two of espresso, masked by heavy flavourings –detract from the main gist of coffee. However, on the few occasions I’ve tried the ice blends, they taste pretty good. Whenever possible, they use fresh ingredients instead of simply using syrups as substitutes, which makes for natural-tasting ice blends (however natural a flavoured ice blended drink can taste). Grasso clearly takes a leaf out of the book of popular coffee chains by having these youth-targeted menu options. I don’t like the idea of ice blended drinks masquerading as coffee sources (they are, but they aren’t true to the roots of coffee, which I take issue with), I won’t criticize them for it because here, they’re simply catering for the youth market segment. Furthermore, the ice blended drink options are creative and original, and add a nice dash of colour to the menu. I suppose as long as young people are introduced to coffee, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in, but they just shouldn’t mistakenly think that syrup-flavoured ice-blended drinks with a smidgen of coffee constitutes coffee at all, and should gradually progress to more mature forms of coffee.
Grasso's coffee ice blends

Grasso's non-coffee ice blends
Apart from these Western-influenced genres, Grasso also serves more local drinks like kopi-O, teh-O and Milo, to name a few. I haven’t tried these yet, but it’s good to see them having a place on the menu, which I haven’t seen any other cafe do. By doing this, it ensures that every market segment is catered for, allowing anyone to enjoy a cup of Grasso.

Grasso's food options  (taken at night so some items had run out of stock)
Grasso’s range of food items are mostly made in-store, which means the customer can be assured of freshness, which translates into better-tasting food as well. I particularly love the sandwiches, especially the chicken mayonnaise one. It may not look like anything special, but boy, it pairs well with the coffee and knowing that it was made at the same location on the same day makes me feel a whole lot more secure than eating a preservative-laden version from a coffee chain. The other pastries are almost undoubtedly outsourced to a bakery, but that’s unavoidable considering Grasso’s lack of a kitchen. They’re appetising though, and taste much better than expected.

A close up of one of Grasso's delectable sandwiches
This is one aspect where Grasso really shines. The prices are so ridiculously cheap that it’s a joke! You can search for a $3.50 quality latte, or a $2 muffin, or a $1.80 sandwich, but it will probably be near-impossible to find any other cafe selling such reasonably-priced menu options. I reckon it’s a really shrewd move on the part of Grasso’s owners, with their beyond-reasonable pricing catering perfectly to the needs of HDB dwellers around the area. Ice blends necessitate higher prices, simply because they signal to the seller that a customer wants something more special than normal coffee and is willing to pay for that treat. Even so, the prices of Grasso’s ice blend options are competitive, and I’d say are very worthwhile for the creative, but more importantly, freshly-made beverages you get, some of which are unique to this cafe.

In addition, Grasso also provides a loyalty card which allows you to get a free drink for every 5 purchases of $5 and above, making it even more value-for-money.

Beyond the homely atmosphere, beyond the food and drinks that aren’t tainted with preservatives, at the crux of it, Grasso is just a simple, humble cafe, but one that crucially, holds true to its values and doesn’t have any pretensions whatsoever. In a delusionally ideal world, Singapore should be populated with small cafes like this, just like how it should be populated with loads of ramen shops whose hipster-looking Japanese owner-chefs have connections to the Yakuza. That will never happen though, but it’s a nice dream to have, and one that cafes like Grasso keep alive, no matter how faintly. I don't know whether I'd be better off not having this dream at all as there can be no disappointment without first having hope, in which case quaint little cafes like Grasso would be just a cruel joke that God enjoys playing on me. I do know however that if that's the case, Grasso makes for a very enjoyable, nice-tasting joke.

Grasso isn’t the perfect cafe, and there are definitely many more that are better than it. It also isn’t a place where I’d go out of my way to make a pilgrimage. However, it doesn’t have to be any of those, and I'm entirely satisfied with it being the familiar, comfortable place it is. What’s most important to me, and I suspect, to the rest of the residents in Simei, is that it doesn’t lose sight its identity as Simei estate’s beloved cafe. That’s enough to make it an overwhelming success in our hearts.

Have you had anything from here before? What was your experience like? We're interested -do share with us in the comments below!

Quality & Taste(75%)
Good quality coffee and finger food that is incredibly fresh
Value (15%)
You'd be hard-pressed to find another cafe with such prices
Ambience & others (10%)
Lovely ambience for its size, and could score even higher if it were bigger
A real gem of a cafe that's incredibly hard to come by in Singapore!

Block 248 Simei Street 3 #01-132

Operating hours:
7:30am to 10pm daily

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