Eugenia and Karl of Table at 7 on cooking for high-society bigwigs, the tapas trend, and the best days to dine out.
It’s not what you’d expect at all. Eugenia Ong is of Indonesian Chinese stock and Karl Dobler comes from Austria, but you won’t find fusion food at Table At 7, their restaurant on Mohamed Sultan Road.
“This is all authentic Indonesian, just made with premium ingredients,” says Ong, gesturing at one of the restaurant’s specialties, slow-braised wagyu oxtail rendang. Ong, whose family ran the Jawa Timur Indonesian Restaurant here in the 1970s, tells me that all the spices she uses are specially brought in from Indonesia. Nothing comes in powdered form and everything, from coriander to turmeric, is ground up by hand.
Entrees and mains in the menu are divided into two parts: Karl’s and Eugenia’s. Dobler specialises in modern European dishes, such as seared foie gras and roasted suckling pig, while Eugenia serves up Indonesian delights such as Pepes style chargrilled black cod.
The duo, who met about eight years ago while running their own catering businesses, started Table At 7 in 2010. It’s since become the go-to place to eat or cater from with high-society ladies, Chief Justices, CEOs and even the ambassadorial set. Table At 7 has been the official caterer for the Norwegian embassy for about five years now, and, more recently, the Swedish embassy. The Norwegian ambassador, His Excellency Tormod C. Endresen, is one of Ong’s favourite customers. “He always comes into the kitchen to thank the staff,” she tells me. “And he even helps to clear up after functions!” To meet the privacy needs of its top-drawer clientele, the restaurant has a private dining room which seats up to 16 on the second floor, complete with its own bar and – but of course – a private entrance.
Both Dobler and Ong love their tipple, so wine pairings frequently crop up at Table At 7. The next one is timed to coincide with the white asparagus season – from May 11 to 23, expect a special white asparagus menu, which Dobler tells me goes perfectly with Silvaner, a white wine from Alsace and Germany.
Over coffee, brandy and chocolate, I ply Ong and Dobler with questions.
What do you love best about being in the restaurant business?
Ong: My passion is creating and cooking Indonesian dishes. And I’m a people person. Being in this industry enables me to showcase my gifts and share with friends and foodies the exquisite and unique taste of Indonesia.
Dobler: To showcase the skills of cooking and service that I have gained all these years. It is great to be able to interact with the customers you cook for, even better if they become regulars and even friends. We have made so many good sincere friends through our work. You know what they say: good food, good wine, good friends, good times.
What’s your favourite hawker/local dish? Where’s the best place to go for it?
Ong: Char koay teow, especially with cockles! The wok-hei and smoky aroma is so good. The best one I have had in Singapore is the one at Zion Road Hawker Centre.
Dobler: I like Laksa. And I feel that the Prima Taste instant laksa prepared at home is the best!
What food trends are making their way to Singapore, and what’s your take on them?
Ong: Tapas and small plates are trending now, mainly Spanish cuisine. I feel that the local market has become too saturated with tapas places that lack authenticity and charge exorbitantly for a food experience that’s far from unique.
Dobler: It has become increasingly trendy to eat in tapas and bistro establishments; modern Asian tapas dishes are also popular. Small plates do give customers an opportunity to sample many different items on the menu, but the downside in Singapore is that the prices are too high and unjustified for the good tapas places, thus it ends up being more expensive than some fine dining places!
Who would you like to cook for, given a chance? What would you cook?
Ong: Anthony Bourdain. He has tasted all kinds of cuisines from all parts of the world, and I’d be honoured if he came to taste my version of Fine Indonesian cuisine. I would cook authentic Indonesian street foods from Surabaya, my hometown in Indonesia. The highlight would be tahu campur, which actually translates to mixed tofu, but in actual fact it is a broth of beef tendons and trimmings, noodles, cubed tofu, bean sprout, lettuce and tapioca cake, served with special shrimp chilli paste, sweet sauce and topped with kampong keropok. Everything blends together in the rich broth with the numerous spices to give a truly unique and heavenly experience in your mouth.
Dobler: Ferran Adria, of (the now-defunct) elBulli. I feel that although he cooks a plethora of modern food molecular style, I believe that he would still appreciate good classic dishes like my home-made blood sausage!
What’s the hardest dish you’ve ever learned to prepare?
Ong: I was still a young teenager when I first learnt to cook ayam kodok (Dutch influenced chicken dish normally served during Christmas as a substitute to roast turkey). The process included the delicate de-skinning of a whole chicken without breaking the skin! Next, I had to stitch the cut skin together like a jacket and then fill the chicken skin jacket with a stuffing of minced meat, smoked ham, sausages, seasonings and spices. The whole time, I’d have to make sure that the stuffed chicken still looked like a chicken! The whole stuffed chicken is then steamed and subsequently deep fried. This Dutch-Indonesian dish is served with broccoli, potatoes and fresh tomato puree jus.
Dobler: The hardest dish to cook, I feel, is a perfectly roasted lamb on a spit roast. Managing the temperature and the fire to ensure that the lamb is cooked and remains juicy on the inside is a very challenging process.
What are the best days to dine out?
Ong and Dobler: Mondays and Tuesday. Service is more relaxed and you’ll get more attention. Also, chefs would be able to meet up with customers in between courses and even whip out specials (off the menu) on the spot.
Table At 7 is at 7 Mohamed Sultan Road (6836-6362).