For someone who didn’t grow up eating durian, I surprisingly tolerate its pungent odour and even fully enjoy its sweet and creamy flavor profiles. Mind you, I had never tasted fresh durian until moving to Singapore last year. Growing up in Vancouver, we only got our hands on small packs of frozen durian at the Asian grocery stores from time to time.
Since my arrival to this tiny red dot, I’ve purchased a few durian varietals ranging from Mao Shan Wang to D13, and even made my way to a traditional durian fruit stand in Paya Lebar. These were all new experiences for me, and ones I can’t seem to get enough of.
When 99 Old Trees invited the Native team to visit its new location in Chinatown (a stone’s throw away from Outram Park MRT’s Exit H), I didn’t hesitate to confirm our attendance.
The popular durian establishment recently relocated from its Owen Road home, and now occupies a corner shophouse along Teo Hong Road in the historic and tourist-friendly neighborhood. I entered through its side entrance, where I got a full view of an expansive mural depicting a durian orchard and roadside durian sellers. There’s even an alfresco area for guests to enjoy their fruits and desserts, which I’m told exudes a relaxing vibe in the evening.
As I stepped into the cafe, I was taken aback by its contemporary interior design. The space felt cool and sleek with its cement finishing and clean lines, yet warm and inviting with its rattan furniture, upcycled tree-trunk seats and hand-painted murals on the walls.
Tucked away at the very back of the eatery was an area that doesn’t usually catch my attention at dining establishments: the restrooms. But the facilities here stood out to me, and for good reason.
“I’m very proud of this [the toilets] because I kind of came up with the concept,” explained Kelvin Tan, owner of 99 Old Trees. “I paid special attention to the washing area because whenever we go to a cafe, I judge the place by how clean the toilet is.”
Featuring an emerald green and gray palette, patterned floor tiles, soft lighting, and even a playful neon sign on the mirror that reads “A New World Odour”, Tan certainly knows how to leave a good and lasting impression in the most ordinary of places.
After marveling over the interior and its décor, it was time to sit down and try out its durian treats. For the record, I’ve always preferred eating fresh durian over durian-inspired desserts. If given the choice, I would gravitate to the actual durian fruit rather than its ingredient-inspired counterparts. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I had doubts on whether I would enjoy the durian treats from Stinky, the durian-dessert brand managed by 99 Old Trees.
Firstly, we were offered a Chinese tea from a Chinatown tea merchant the eatery has partnered with. A lot of thought was put into beverage pairings, because durian has a very strong flavor and clashes with many drinks, such as coffee or alcohol.
“Traditionally for durians, the best beverage would be coconuts and cooling water,” said Tan. “But we wanted to introduce something else, so we thought that tea might be a good choice. It happens to go very well.”
To celebrate 99 Old Trees’ new storefront, two new durian treats were launched: the Stinky Roll and the Stinky Bomb. The former is a Swiss roll made with Japanese sponge cake and filled with Mao Shan Wang flesh and French custard cream, while the latter is a crispy choux au craquelin (cream puff crack buns) filled with Mao Shan Wang flesh and light cream.
I tried the Stinky Roll first, which had a fluffy and creamy texture followed by that familiar, sweet taste of fresh durian. Then, I took a bite of the Stinky Bomb, which had a crunchy exterior from its butter-sugar crumbs, and a delicate and creamy interior. The cake nor the choux pastry overpowered the natural taste of the durian fillings—the combinations were executed perfectly. I didn’t expect to enjoy the durian desserts as much as I did, but I was sold after my first few bites.
The last menu item we tried wasn’t a new launch, but a must-try: the Stinky Bowl, a durian mousse made with D24 durian puree, topped with a shot of Mao Shan Wang durian. The temperature and texture reminded me of gelato, and its sweet flavors really hit the spot. If all durian desserts taste this good, then I have been missing out.
The homemade treats at 99 Old Trees are all created by in-house pastry chefs Chiak and Guiling, and it’s evident a lot of planning and testing are required in the kitchen. Tan admits he only knows how to chop the durian, and leaves it to his talented chefs to create the magic. It’s also noteworthy the establishment only offers fresh durians that are delivered daily from Malaysia, mainly from Fook Gor Durian Farm, which has been in operation for 33 years.
Even though this durian establishment is rooted in tradition in some aspects, Tan has added modern touches to his cafe that wouldn’t otherwise be found at other durian stores. He aims to cater to the younger crowd by providing as much durian-related information as possible, staying transparent (price and weight), and making the buying process easy-to-understand.
For those who are new to durian or have never tried the “King of Fruits”, it’s not too late to give it a go. As Tan said, “It’s a fun and cool place man. Durian is a heaty fruit, so we built a cool place for them to counter the heatiness.”
My first visit to 99 Old Trees won’t be my last, not just because its durian desserts are delicious, but because its laidback environment and people-focused culture is truly inviting.