EAST MEETS BEST

Susan Kuro­sawa talks to three tal­ented Oz chefs who call Sin­ga­pore home

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

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

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