“My name is Kelvin and I’ll be guiding you today. We’re starting off with cucumber water to cleanse your palate,” declares Kelvin Tan (pictured below). The 35-year-old is the director of 99 Old Trees, a chic durian shop-cum-cafe at Owen Road in heartland Serangoon. We’re perched on a high stool at a clean counter, which he’s presiding over like an omakase chef. But instead of haute sushi, we’re dining on durians.
1 of 16 What’s on the menu
At Kelvin (above)’s durian store which he opened in 2017, one does not simply gnaw on durians by the roadside. Recently, he has started offering a sleek durian ‘omakase’ experience. It’s colloquially named ‘SukaWa’ (‘as I like it’ in Hokkien) after the spirit of Japanese-style omakase, where diners let their chef decide what to serve for their meal.
Each ‘SukaWa’ omakase session can accommodate up to eight diners. It takes place at the shop’s air-conditioned cafe area. You eat durians presented to you in six courses at a counter not unlike a fancy Japanese sushi bar, complete with a printed ‘tasting menu’ listing the durians served. All very atas and almost comically professional, considering that eating durians is often a messy, unglam affair. “We just want people to learn more about the durians they eat,” Kelvin adds earnestly.
2 of 16 Promo price of $48 for the durian omakase
There’s only one omakase session held every day or so depending on demand, and you’ve to make a reservation at least three days in advance. The timing is flexible, but Kelvin reckons: “We mostly hold our omakase sessions in the afternoon, around 3pm to 5pm, ’cos we’re not so swamped during those hours [with customers].” 8days.sg was invited to experience an omakase sesh.
The omakase experience is offered from June 6 to August 31, which is roughly the duration of durian season when the fruit is harvested. One session costs a nett $48 per pax (a promotional price till June 20, after which it’ll be $60 per pax). For that price, you get to try six types of durians, with the final course of Mao Shan Wang durians being free-flow. A durian-based dessert and fresh coconut (to cool you down after ingesting ‘heaty’ durians) are also included in the price.
3 of 16 How it works
Throughout the 45 minutes to an hour-long omakase session, you’re seated at a counter in the cool, comfy cafe, munching on fleshy durian seeds served on proper tableware. While you makan, Kelvin explains about the provenance of each durian cultivar, and other fun facts about the king of fruits. You’re also able to watch durians being split, and plated, before they are handed over to you. Yep, just like posh Japanese omakase meets a durian masterclass.
“No pressure! No pressure! It may look very fancy but you can do whatever you like here,” booms Kelvin, who had left his job as a “sales manager at a paper packaging company” nearly two years ago to become a durian seller.
Why durian seller? According to him: “My friend Michael’s father owns the [22-acre] Fook Gor Durian Farm in Raub, Pahang, and I frequently go there to visit him and eat durians.” Due to his exposure to durian farms, Kelvin became inspired to partner his Malaysian pal to start selling durians in Singapore. Despite being a durian seller for just over a year, Kelvin gives the impression of a seasoned pro. “Last time I only know how to eat durians. I learnt everything else on the job,” he laughs.
99 Old Trees gets most of its Mao Shan Wang and D24 durians from the Fook Gor plantation, as it specialises in growing those cultivars. “We source the rest of our durians from around Malaysia, like Muar, Segamat and Batu Pahat. So what we introduce at our durian omakase depends on what we can get from the durian suppliers that day,” says Kelvin.
4 of 16 Meet ‘Bruno Mars’
While Kelvin has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of durians, he readily admits he’s “not the best at chopping them”. And that’s where his business partner and “professional durian chopper”, Wan Chee Kang (above), 38, steps in. Born to a Chinese dad and Indian mum, Chee Kang hails from Raub, Pahang, where he grew up surrounded by durians. His late father had left him a 11-acre durian plantation, which now supplies 99 Old Trees with D24 durians. Chee Kang had gotten to know Kelvin through their mutual friend Michael Chan, the second-generation owner of Fook Gor Durian Farm in Raub.
Chee Kang, who goes by the nickname ‘Ah Qiang’, also kinda looks like American singer Bruno Mars, complete with the same perfectly-coiffed hairdo. And yep, he has been so often compared to the pop star that Chee Kang posted on Facebook a side-by-side comparison photo of himself next to Bruno. But he apologetically tells us that his English is “not good”. Interestingly, he banters with us in Malaysian-accented Mandarin, and also speaks fluent Cantonese. He picks up a small D1 durian and begins hacking at it with practised ease, before smoothly sliding a durian seed on our plate with his knife. Whoo, 24K magic!
5 of 16 ‘Hidden’ cafe
During our visit on a rainy weekday afternoon, we dutifully sip on chilled minty water (dispensed from two hipster glass jars fancily loaded with peppermint, lemons and cucumbers), and wait for our culinary show to start.
We’ve no idea what kind of omakase experience to expect at a durian shop. At first sight, 99 Old Trees looks like a typical HDB void deck durian stall. Racks of durians hold court at the storefront, as men in the company’s yellow T-shirt uniform swiftly chop and vacuum-pack durians for customers.
But once we push the glass doors to enter the cafe area indoors, we’re transported to a gleaming white space. With air-con. The pong of durians clinging to our clothes is the price to pay for not having to suffer through eating durians al fresco in Singapore’s sweltering heat.
6 of 16 All about the aesthetics
The cafe decor is pretty Instagrammable, we remark. Durian towkay Kelvin explains that he took over the space from defunct cafe Shiberty Bakes, which was opened by blogger-baker Jessica Loh (better known as @shiberty online). Kelvin had kept part of the cafe’s original French-style decor intact, filling bare shelves with quirky, durian-related ornaments like a durian-shaped elephant, and, erm, a whole army of lucky Fortune Cats.
7 of 16 ‘Grammable walls
He also commissioned local art collective Mural Lingo to decorate walls with murals depicting a giant durian tree, and millennial-friendly floral wall art with hidden painted durians nestling among the flowers. Cute.
8 of 16 Durian omakase setting
We’re used to the no-frills style of eating durians: at a grimy, rickety table set up by the roadside, stocked with some plastic gloves and a box of tissues. But at 99 Old Trees’ omakase sesh, there’s actual Japanese-style tableware and a plastic glove laid out precisely at each seat. A white enamel bowl collects consumed durian seeds, while a rectangular sushi serving dish holds your durian.
There’s a dedicated tumbler for water, and a tiny teacup, in which Kelvin ceremoniously pours rather diluted-tasting green tea from a swanky Japanese teapot after each course. There’s also a yellow ice cream stick. “Some people are paiseh to ask for their free-flow Mao Shan Wang, so they can put this stick in a cup to indicate they want more, and we’ll top up their plates accordingly,” chirps Kelvin. All pretty impressive so far. And then, Bruno Mars shows up.
9 of 16 First course: D1 durian
According to Kelvin, this durian is a kampong breed. “They’re not grown commercially, so the quality is not as good. Some kampong breeds are not as well-developed [compared to the commercial cultivars], so the D1’s flesh is a bit on the dry side.”
It’s really nothing much to shout about taste-wise. We say, resist the urge to chiong all the durians served to you at the start, especially the first four courses (you get one to two seed per course). You’ll end up feeling very full and miss out on the good stuff — free-flow Mao Shan Wang — at the end. So pace yourself if you want your $48 worth of durians, and then some. The first few courses, like this D1, are merely offered as ‘lessons’. “You won’t know what good durians taste like unless you’ve tried the bad ones,” quips Kelvin.
10 of 16 Second course: D101 durian
This cultivar from Johor is characterised by its sweet taste and creamy texture. “But we don’t consider this good durian [for eating on its own]. It’s usually used to make desserts,” says Kelvin. Its naturally sourish taste is rather off-putting to us (hence its more common use for desserts, where the flavour can be tweaked by adding sugar). So we merely nibble at it for education’s sake.
11 of 16 Third course: Black Pearl
Another Johor import, this durian is bitter with smaller-than-average seeds. It’s not bad and creamy enough, but doesn’t boast the intense flavour of premium durians. Thank you, next.
Just then, Kelvin signals for us to take a palate-cleansing break. He pours us more hot green tea, and drops a tip that “Bentong ginger in hot water is also good for cleansing your palate”. He promptly replaces our durian-smeared plastic glove with a fresh one whenever it gets too dirty, and it feels kinda VIP. After all, most of the durian sellers we’ve met are grouchy uncles who aren’t at all inclined to freshen up our table.
12 of 16 Fourth course: D13
“Some people refer to the D13 as Red Prawn, but they are different cultivars,” begins durian professor Kelvin. According to him, Red Prawn durians have a sharp, pointed bottom with vivid orange-yellow flesh.
After the lacklustre first three courses, the D13 fares better. Our bright D13 yellow seed yields bittersweet flesh with a buttery texture. We crave for more, but sadly, we’re only given one seed. That leaves us with more tummy space for…
13 of 16 Fifth course: Golden Phoenix
The penultimate course is the Golden Phoenix, which has unassuming, smaller-than-average, pale yellow lumps of durian with small seeds. Despite its soft, watery flesh, each lump packs bitter flavour that’s so potent, it tastes mildly alcoholic, like a cross between the XO and Mao Shan Wang cultivars. Which is why this cultivar is sometimes hawked by unscrupulous durian sellers as Mao Shan Wang. “But the price for Golden Phoenix is generally not that much cheaper than Mao Shan Wang, maybe only by a dollar per kg. It’s a rare cultivar found only in Johor and its harvest period is very short,” says Kelvin. We still like Mao Shan Wang as its flesh is not as watery, but some of our foodie friends prefer this to Mao Shan Wang for its more intensely bitter flavour.
14 of 16 Sixth and final course: Mao Shan Wang
Ah, the finale act that we’ve been waiting for. Bruno ‘Ah Qiang’ Mars cracks open a Grade A MSW from Pahang and loads our plate with an entire shell’s worth of durian — about two seeds.
It’s shiok: mouthfuls of buttery soft, rich, bittersweet flesh with fabulous pungence. We can only hope it’s just as good quality on our next visit unhosted. If you prefer to order the shop’s durians a la carte, you can do so via 99 Old Trees’ website, or drop by their shop. At the time of publication for this story, their MSW price is $17/kg. Kelvin expects the price to drop further to “around $14 or $15/kg for Grade A Mao Shan Wang” in August, when there’s a supply glut.
So how does one tell which grade a MSW durian is? Kelvin says: “The MSWs are sorted into grades A, B, C. A grade durians must weigh at least 1.6kg to 1.8kg each, are round in shape, and don’t suffer from any worm attacks. Grade B, maybe one side of the durian kena worm attack or it’s flat on one side. Grade C, flat and kena worm attack!” Durians that have flat sides generally yield fewer fleshy seeds, while round durians look swollen as they contain more seeds in their shells. Not all flat durians should be condemned, though. Kelvin expounds: “When a durian has fewer seeds, all the flavour is concentrated [in the little bit of flesh it yields].”
Customers get 20 to 30 minutes within the session to gorge on their free-flow durians. But if the session overruns, you get an extra 15 minutes’ grace period to hoover up your unlimited MSW.
15 of 16 Durian dessert
Also included in your omakase session: a glass of chilled D24 durian mousse with durian puree, which is served just before the first durian course. We find it a bit bland, and it fills us up unnecessarily before the main show. But our young Thai coconut, which is also added to the set to cool us down after eating durian, is fresh and sweet.
16 of 16 Bottom line
99 Old Trees’ durian omakase experience is sorta like a durian buffet, except it isn’t: the only free-flow durian you get is Mao Shan Wang (which is the only cultivar worth bingeing on here anyway, in our opinion).
It’s not for folks who just want to get down to business and gorge mindlessly on the pongy fruit. You’ll have to first sit through a ‘durian masterclass’, which is actually fun and educational, and led by jovial, knowledgeable durian sellers (towkay Kelvin splits the hosting duties with his staff). And you get served by a guy who looks like Bruno Mars, though we’re told Chee Kang is only in Singapore from June to August this year, as he’s primarily based at his family’s durian farm in Pahang, Malaysia.
The $48 omakase price (it costs $60 after June 20) is reasonable, but only if you manage to chow down on enough MSW. To get your money’s worth, you need to have a game plan from the start. And that’s limiting yourself from bulking up on the unworthy cultivars, and prepping enough tummy space for the glorious MSW at the end. We’re charmed by the comfy, hipster setting and atas plate ware too.