Review: Atap Bar - 'The drinks here are created, inspired, and named after all things steeped in Malay culture'
Consider this: how did the painfully young and brazenly courageous come to take over enclaves in Singapore that is steeped in history and brimming with a rich tapestry of culture? What drives retailers and F&B entrepreneurs to throw exorbitant dollars at such quirky locales more often teeming with tourists than the savvy local dismissive of all this newness and novelty?
Because it's so incredibly hip. That's why.
As I made my way up to Atap Bar at 48 Arab Street, I can't help but think that maybe Miley Cyrus (circa 2009) was right all along when she sang 'Ain't about how fast I get there, ain't about what's waiting on the other side. It's the climb.' Shut up, Miley. What do you know about climbing five flights of stairs with a knee condition? Nothing, that's what. But fortunately, the climb was rewarded with a sweeping, albeit humid with a chance of too much perspiration, view of the neighbourhood of Arab Street and Haji Lane.
The little I knew about Atap Bar came from the pictures I saw on Instagram of the youthful hoi polloi cuddled in close quarters, nary a care in the world, their worries literally taken away by the breeze. "What does this place sell? Why is it a bar? Why is it a halal bar? What is going on?" I wondered almost with indelible alarm. Turns out it's just so damn hard to talk about a drink with the same level of poetic nuance as you would a plate of food.
But I shall try, of course.
As often as I can and throughout all my writing, I caution against fresh establishments banking solely on the new and novel. But I reserve such misgivings only to places that embrace newness for the sake of novelty. Think syringes pierced into burgers or lava filling of a cookie lying despondently on a pan waiting for salvation from a scoop of ice cream. But when a place emerges as an answer to address the missing elephant in the proverbial room, I rejoice. That's what Atap Bar feels like, at least after you're done catching your breath. To the best of my recollection, there isn't a place in Singapore that prides itself as a Speakeasy and a liquid concoction haven that is alcohol-free.
Lest you begin to ponder the big question of 'what then is the point', know this: the mission of Atap Bar, although they don't know it yet, is largely aspirational. Here is where you come to experience a certain, ahem, lifestyle of sipping Mimosas, a Manhattan or a Martini (shaken, not stirred please, kind Sir). This is the place to go to where you unwind with friends (or frenemies), to have naughty conversations hunched over each other's company or simply to sit on your own and hoping that cute boy over there, also curiously alone, will notice you and buy you a drink. It's a lifestyle once reserved for lovers of alcohol, now no longer.
Being a bar, of course, Atap is not without its fair share of naysayers. The grammatically pedestrian, dressed in cloaks of religious fervor, scoff at the semantics of the term 'bar' in a place that prides itself as a Halal establishment. If you really wish to play the semantics card, why not take offense to the fact that literally speaking, there's hardly an atap (Malay for roof) to be seen? You cannot pick and choose, honey. I suppose such fervent attention to labels merely serves to amp up unnecessary controversy but truly, what's a little controversy if not simply an exercise in publicity?
The drinks here are created, inspired, and named after all things steeped in Malay culture; no aspect of the Malay civilization or cosmopolitanism is spared. Reading off the menu is akin to having an anthropology historian, well-versed in the Malay Annals, teach us a thing or two about what influenced the culture of a group. Historical references aside, mocktails at Atap are crafted with the precision of architecture or the science of perfumery. Notes are layered to exacting proportions, stacked one on top of the other to conjure a taste profile that develops as the sip is taken.
Take for example the Gamelan (a music instrument): a bright red concoction, floral with spirited acidity helmed in large part by the amalgamation of lemon juice and lavender lemon kombucha. As with traditional cocktails, egg white is added to give the Gamelan a rich, creamy texture and a beautiful foamy cap; a bar technique only known to a mixologist well-versed in both theory and execution.
The mixologist here is Rasull (first name only and also a superstar, like Adele, Beyoncé, Cher) who has built up six years of experience in hotels before joining the Atap team as their Mocktail couturier. The glint in his eye is a trademark of an artisan, eager to explain the alchemy of his creations. His affable charm is characteristic of a sophisticated Speakeasy in New York in the late 60s and perfectly well suited for Atap.
It's hard to miss the enormity of a huge bottle sticking out of a glass in the form of The Gurindam (Malay for 'prose'). That bottle holds the butterscotch bear which, through the magic of science, stays filled until you start to tip it over (carefully now!) and liquid gold pours out of its cavern. The taste here is not complex. There's hardly any need to garner a guess as to how sweet butterscotch beer mixed with vanilla ice cream would taste like. Perhaps the one unexpected lingering note that persists would be that of cinnamon, giving the Gurindam a kick of spice that elevates the drink's creamy and buoyant sweetness.
If we thought that that would be the last of the dramatique, we were sadly mistaken. But first, a caveat: I really did not enjoy Majapahit upon the first sip. And I think I know why. After two consecutive drinks laden with the saccharine, Majapahit seems like the odd sibling in the family who leans more toward theatre in a household passionate about sports. In this line of work, I try my best not to be too taken by the overly theatrical lest my judgment is clouded by pretty things, which it so often is (more than I’d like to admit). It was such torture to not marvel at the execution of burning rosemary, capping it off with a glass dome, and allowing it to infuse with the drink. It’s such a magical combination of the olfactory with taste. Here, the base note is Chai tea, followed by sparkling notes of lemon juice, elucidating the clever play on the word ‘Pahit’ (Malay for bitter). There’s no sweetness here in all the tasting notes, only an aged flavour that will certainly please the sophisticated palate of an individual with lots to peruse about in life.
By all accounts, the Cenderawasih should not work. And to some extent, it doesn’t. Atap’s take on the extremely hip ‘Jofee’ (Juice + Coffee) manifests itself in this short glass of black coffee mixed with organic apple juice and topped with vanilla ice cream, in a bid to balance out the bitterness of the espresso. Coffee by itself has so much body regardless of how thin or weak the shot. It’s a flavour that engulfs any attempt at amalgamation with anything other than sugar or milk. Perhaps that’s why the acidity of the apple juice fails to add any sort of dimension to this drink. Yet, the Cenderawasih works because of the ice-cream. But that’s because I do love me some ice-cream and what problem has ice-cream not been able to solve? Got to factor in that little bit of bias. Otherwise, it’s just a very confusing drink that would probably take more time than I’d like to love.
Like a cliché that has outlived its shine, Atap saved the best for last. An illuminating glass of the grand ole’ Raffles@Geylang Serai arrives with a quiet and unassuming whisper almost daring the consumer to pretend and ignore its existence. But I beg you to stay and take a sip of this meticulously prepared concoction. Part of its success lies in the fresh profile of its ingredients; elderflower pressé (a type of sweetened, carbonated drink), lemongrass paste, mint, lemon juice, and ginger ale. Just reading off the ingredients, one can only imagine the burst of kaleidoscopic freshness helmed largely in part by the mint and ale. Fresh lemongrass paste brings this drink its clean, crisp aroma, with a distinct citrusy lemon aftertaste. Bravo.
Having been in operation for barely four months, Atap Bar still has a long way to go in deciding the kind of clientele it wishes to attract, and thus pivot its marketing toward that demographic. However, even without a clear idea of the marketing path to take, Atap can certainly be proud of its liquid concoctions that has clearly been crafted with creativity and deference to flavours and experimentation. While they tweak their menu, dot their i’s and cross their t’s, it is a worthy trip to take down to 48, Arab Street and partake in a night of firsts; the first halal bar, the first halal bar on a rooftop, and perhaps if you’re truly lucky, a chance encounter with a first love, as you sip on bespoke mocktails talking about everything and absolutely nothing under the brilliant night sky.