You can enter Bugis through the Gloucester Road entrance but the way through the main foyer of the Bailey Hotels’ re-vamped bar, smart, old school, classic, carries more occasion, a pleasing formality and a hint of expectation. The restaurant itself is long and thin with dark, mahogany-type wooden flooring.
Nods to Asian culture are scattered along the walls; Yoshitomo Nara-like, cutesie pie cartoon girls, bamboo bird cages (quite possibly also an art installation), a couple of walls swathed in monochromatic, floral-inspired wallpaper. The high ceilings, the intricate cornicing and the two centrepiece chandeliers suggest more of an antiquated Western feeling, imbuing the overall space with an effective cross-cultural ambience.
In thrall to Sober October, we eschew any cocktail or wine list and head straight for a bottle of sparkling water which we mix with cranberry juice. Like many contemporary restaurants, Bugis has started to favour small and sharing plates so rather than doing all the hard work ourselves, we opt for the ‘Taste of Bugis’ which offers up nine plates and requires two persons, minimum, to share. That said, how can anyone avoid a Crispy Aromatic Duck for pre-start starters? It’s impossible. We don’t even try and go with that first.
The young waitress makes a confident spectacle as she practically dissects the duck from its bone, leaving little to waste. The meat is succulent without being greasy but, perhaps more enticingly, has a lot of crunch to it, a lot of crispiness. The pancakes are on the more glutinous side (rather than floury) and thus provide a useful cohesivity for the other ingredients. The plum sauce is rich, fresh and plentiful as are the strips of spring onion and cucumber so that each self-made pancake is brimming with texture and healthy flavour. A fine example of its kind and a great way to start.
Although ‘The Taste of Bugis’ menu suggests each course comes separately, the first three come as one like in many a traditional appetiser plate: Crispy Fried Salt and Pepper Squid with Chilli, Sesame Prawn Toast and Corn-fed Chicken Satay Skewers. Much like the Aromatic Duck, each is simple but effective. There’s way more prawn than toast, the squid is delicate but the batter is crisp and the chilli gives it a fiery kick, the chicken on the skewers is chunky and the peanut sauce is crunchy, flavoursome and also ample in portion.
Next up is Fresh Crab Meat Sweet Corn Soup and it’s a winner! The white crab comes in a chunk of stringy pieces in the middle of the soup. It tastes sublime. It’s incredibly delicate, subtle to the point of being almost too subtle. Mix it up with the soup and its charm will almost certainly be overwhelmed which would be a shame. Whether this is the right way to consume or not, who knows, but we eat half the crab alone, of itself, before mixing the remainder with the Corn Soup and indeed, its essence does get lost. Nonetheless, there’s an impressive and easy fluidity to the soup which, presumably, comes as much from egg whites and tastes homemade and light. The egg ribbons add a fragile texture to the dish as do, of course, the sweetcorn niblets.
Keeping the sea theme, a Steamed Giant Diver Scallop follows. It’s presented in a flat, white sea shell and with a rich Black Bean Sauce. Decorated with spring onions and flavoured with slices of red chilli, the sauce is an unusual combination of comforting but spicy. The Scallop collapses into chunks and, ironically, tastes almost earthy, meaty. Not as meaty though, as the Sizzling Angus Beef which also comes in a Black Bean Sauce but this time is flavoured with Black Pepper and mini mushrooms, served with impressively light and fluffy Vegetable (mainly carrots and peas) Rice. Perhaps the biggest compliment to the beef is to describe it not as tasting like the beef in Chinatown but more as if it’s straight out of an expensive steakhouse. And of course, the black bean sauce is a bonus, the Asian twist, if you will, not one that discourages the meat but rather compliments it with a slightly different identity.
The dishes have been served fast and furious but the meal has still taken a few hours to consume. As our tablecloth is lifted, and our cutlery taken away for dessert, the calmness of the restaurant gently asserts itself. Atmospheric electronica plays but the ceilings and the speakers are so high as to not intrude on conversation. No-one shouts. The hustle and bustle of a typical restaurant is somehow subsumed into the space. The restaurant feels easy, laid back, grown up, even, but not stuffy or, indeed, stodgy.
For dessert, we’re presented with Fresh Mango Coconut Cream and Tapioca Pearls. It’s a cool, exotic way to finish the meal, light but not insubstantial. There’s slithers of grapefruit with the mango and both burst forth with fruity flashes, more acidic than the calming coconut but it’s the Tapioca Pearls, not so common in London (outside of the non-comparable Bubble Tea), which provide a beguiling texture to the exotic mixture of flavours.
All in all, Bugis succeeds, not in reinventing the wheel, but offering up traditional, Asian dishes with fresh ingredients that taste of what they’re supposed to taste; no mean feat these days.
Address: 140 Gloucester Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 4QH