EAST MEETS BEST
Susan Kurosawa talks to three talented Oz chefs who call Singapore home
LIKE all great destinations, Singapore is a mixing pot of flavours. It’s a little unexpected, however, to find Australian chefs in charge of the stoves. But a small bunch of talented expatriates have made a big culinary splash and are committed to putting Singapore on the map as a magnet for foodies. This is not to suggest that Singapore doesn’t already have a good reputation for its Chinese, Malaysian and Indian food, it’s just less likely that hip jetsetters would identify it as a finedining mecca, with all the serious attention to contemporary cuisine such a tag implies.
Conde Nast Traveler magazine knows the shots, and has just included Graze on its list of Hot Tables 2007. Victorian-born chef Matthew Lawdorn is gleaming the night I visit, and it’s not just the tropical heat that has brought a shine to proceedings. He’s thrilled Graze has achieved this international recognition, especially as the restaurant was opened just a year ago. Its owner, Singaporean entrepreneur Yenn Wong, is the founder of the Jia boutique hotel group, with its flagship in Hong Kong and properties scheduled for Shanghai and Krabi, Thailand. She has also recently opened Muse Bar at the Singapore National Museum.
Graze’s green and serene setting incorporates an outdoor area with dining pavilions bordered by bamboo and broad-leafed bushes. It sits in a row of converted black-and-white pre-World War II buildings in Rochester Park that have been reborn as bars and restaurants. Wong has dubbed it a ‘‘ house and garden’’ restaurant, which is an apposite tag, and it’s an airy concept that works well on sultry equatorial evenings.
There is indoor dining, too, in a shiny white downstairs space, and an upstairs cigar veranda and attached bar that serves what could well be the best mint margaritas and lychee martinis on the planet.
Vintage black-and-white movies are screened on a courtyard wall — Audrey Hepburn classics during my dinner visit — while patrons loll on daybeds or in wooden tub chairs sipping nifty drinks in a mood of la dolce vita that seems at odds with the popular image of Singapore as staid and boring.
As Graze’s name roundly suggests, the menu is designed for grazing across courses and the Australian produce sourced via Lawdorn’s contacts includes Fanny Bay oysters fried tempura-style, with wasabi mayonnaise and squeezed lime; barramundi roasted with pumpkin and goat’s cheese ravioli, plum salad and chive oil; and wagyu ox cheek, given an Asian makeover with a lacquering of soy sauce and served with coconut rice, and a zingy green papaya and pomelo salad dressed with sour tamarind.
A black-and-white pudding plate, inspired by the building’s chequerboard architecture, is a medley of signature sweets that includes a New York-style cheesecake served with spiced, roasted pineapple and lashings of double cream flown in from Sydney providore Simon Johnson.
Lawdorn has an established connection with the Jia group: before working in Singapore, he was executive sous-chef at Y restaurant in Jia in Hong Kong where menus were developed by Teage Ezard of Melbourne’s Ezard at Adelphi.
Meanwhile, Chris Millar at Poppi in the Legends complex at Fort Canning Park ( Travel&Indulgence , May 26-27), has built a steady clientele for his east-meets-west cuisine, including an inspired menu of tapas-style dishes with a definite oriental twist. Millar refers to his degustation menus as ‘‘ tasting galleries’’ and the range includes a modern Japanese listing, with delicate dishes such as tuna tataki served with shimeji mushrooms or crab and enoki custard with seared king scallops and smoked sea urchin sauce.
Millar urges diners to create their ‘‘ own permutations’’, a flexible concept that has gone down well in Singapore, a city-state that seems at least as trend-obsessed as Sydney.
Millar has worked with celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson in London but is now an experienced Asia hand, clearly enjoying working in a destination with a moneyed middle-class population that eats out with relish and regularity.
At the Shangri-La Singapore, area executive chef Mark Patten describes his task as ‘‘ like running a supertanker’’. He oversees 220 chefs and 80 stewards at a range of specialist kitchens in this big hotel, which is also a favourite with Singaporeans for weddings and formal functions.
Encouraged by the creative cooking of his Maltese grandparents, Patten, a Victorian, started in the kitchens of the Australia Hotel in Melbourne at the tender age of 15 and by 22 was executive chef at Melbourne’s Quarter Sessions. He’s also worked on Queensland’s Hayman Island, at the five-star Hempel Hotel in London, the InterContinental in Hong Kong and the celebrity haunt in Barbados, Sandy Lane, where he has ‘‘ fed everyone from Tiger Woods to Cindy Crawford’’.
Aside from his primary role at the ShangriLa Singapore, Patten provides training support to local sister properties Rasa Sentosa Resort and Traders Hotel.
Far from being cocooned in a five-star hotel with a routine run of restaurants, Patten is hands-on with Line, the Shangri-La Singapore’s award-winning interactive bistro, where the notion of buffet has been elevated beyond recognition to cooking stations whip- ping up dishes from stir-fries to samosas. He brings in Aurora grain-fed lamb from Tasmania, big and briny oysters from Coffin Bay in South Australia, and line-caught fish from the east coast of Australia and New Zealand.
Patten describes his food as ‘‘ Asian with Australian DNA’’ and reckons travellers, particularly those on the road for long stretches, want ‘‘ healthy comfort food’’. But when he gets time off, his tastes are much more local: he heads to the East Coast Parkway’s seafood restaurants, grabs a curry puff or a laksa at one of Singapore’s hawker centres, or opts for ‘‘ excellent Cantonese’’ at the Crystal Jade in the Takashimaya shopping mall on Orchard Road.
He says the Shangri-La group is working with a nutritionist to redefine its menus, with an emphasis on room-service meals for guests who need to shed jetlag and re-energise with light food.
What these three expats love about working in Singapore is its crossroads status and the availability of fresh produce, including myriad leafy Asian vegetables, and herbs and spices, especially from the Chinatown and Little India precincts.
But lest anyone think the cream of our Aussie chefs has had a complete Asian transformation, Lawdorn serves an oldfashioned Aussie trifle at Graze, there are hammocks in the garden and barbecued T-bones and sausages on his menu, though these are likely to have had a brushing of soy, coriander seeds, ginger and garlic. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Qantas.
Qantas is offering a Global Deal sale fare to Singapore (no minimum stay) for $1155 ex Sydney return (check for fares from other ports); for travel between July 16 and September 19 (tickets must be purchased by August 28). More: www.qantas.com.au. www.graze.com.sg www.poppi.com.sg www.shangri-la.com
Expert expats: Australian chefs cooking up a reputation in Singapore, clockwise from bottom left, Christopher Millar; Matt Lawdorn; and Mark Patten; the innovative Graze restaurant