ON THE SHOUL­DERS OF GIANTS

Many decades in the mak­ing, our glit­ter­ing restau­rant scene did not ar­rive without first stand­ing on the backs of these culi­nary stal­warts and other no­ta­bles who have come and gone

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS SIM EE WAUN

Cel­e­brat­ing Singapore’s culi­nary stal­warts and other no­ta­bles who have come and gone

Much has been said about Singapore's glit­ter­ing restau­rant scene. It boasts Miche­lin stars, celebrity chefs both local and for­eign, en­vi­able culi­nary stan­dards that earned us the cham­pi­onship at the Ika Hoga culi­nary Olympics, and a heav­ing body of fan­tas­tic din­ing op­tions which eclipse that of many other cities. But those who have been around the block would know that all this didn't just burst onto the world stage like the Big Bang. Its suc­cess was built on the backs of a hum­bler sce­nario, when life was not as af­flu­ent, the restau­rant and gen­eral food scene not as vi­brant. But there was a real hunger for knowl­edge, a thirst to ex­per­i­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence, to take risks and sac­ri­fices for it, and a deeply rooted drive to bring our fledg­ling food scene to a higher level. It was a shared vi­sion that many in­di­vid­ual restau­ra­teurs, chefs, culi­nary ed­u­ca­tors and stu­dents then were com­mit­ted to, and they were strain­ing on their leashes, so to speak.

Al­most 30 years on, and the hard work has all paid off. While many restau­rants have faded from cen­tre stage for var­i­ous rea­sons, some stal­warts have re­mained, weath­er­ing changes in trends and tastes, eco­nomic down­turns and other chal­lenges, to emerge still top of their game. No mean feat, they con­tinue to win well-de­served ac­claim in­clud­ing in our Singapore's Top Restau­rants 2017/2018 this year.

SHIN­ING OLD VET­ER­ANS

Among the old­est restau­rants in Singapore are Long Beach Seafood restau­rant, opened in 1946, and Palm Beach Seafood restau­rant which started busi­ness 10 years later. Gen­er­a­tions of Sin­ga­pore­ans have flocked to them for their Singapore seafood cui­sine, to the ex­tent that they are now part of the na­tion's col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. The two restau­rants started life along the beach at the bend of Up­per East Coast Road when kam­pongs, co­conut trees and sail­boat races still dom­i­nated the land­scape. Din­ing was mostly al fresco, and the laid back am­bi­ence cou­pled with great tast­ing local seafood turned this style of din­ing into a pop­u­lar fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence lo­cally.

Over the years, the es­tab­lish­ments have laid claim to two of the most fa­mous culi­nary in­ven­tions of Singapore: Long Beach claims to have cre­ated the pi­quant black pep­per crab; and Palm Beach, the chilli crab, Singapore's culi­nary flag bearer. Much of the restau­rants' pop­u­lar­ity lay in old school favourites like sam­bal mus­sels, deep-fried caramelised baby squid, and yam bas­ket with scal­lops and veg­eta­bles. While the restau­rants re­main stal­warts, in more re­cent times, they have evolved to court the in­ter­est of yet an­other gen­er­a­tion of cus­tomers. Long Beach is now known also for its pre­mium seafood like geo­duck and white jade crab, while Palm Beach has given its menu a con­tem­po­rary spin with Sri Lankan crabs grilled in a Josper, with parmesan and mozzarella, and abalone with foie gras. They have also re­lo­cated to more cen­tral ar­eas—with Palm Beach at One Fuller­ton and Long Beach at Dempsey.

INDIAN FINE DIN­ING

As Singapore slowly be­came more af­flu­ent, smart or fine din­ing restau­rants be­gan to emerge. There weren't many, and most would be Euro­pean style 'grills', a legacy from the colo­nial days. Among the very early pioneers of Asian fine din­ing was Rang Ma­hal.

With over 45 years in the busi­ness, it is now one of the old­est fine din­ing restau­rants in Singapore, and not just for Indian cui­sine. It first started in the Oberoi Im­pe­rial Ho­tel in 1971 in white washed splen­dour, and soon be­came a go-to for dig­ni­taries and con­nois­seurs. Even af­ter it moved to its cur­rent premises in Pan Pa­cific Singapore in 2001, Rang Ma­hal had al­ways been a dig­ni­fied pres­ence, con­sis­tently dish­ing out stel­lar north Indian cui­sine. Din­ing at Rang Ma­hal had al­ways been a whole ex­pe­ri­ence: start­ing from its at­mo­spher­i­cally dim en­trance­way, it opens into an up­lift­ing, ele­gant space from where guests are tan­ta­lised with ex­cel­lent food and im­pec­ca­bly gra­cious ser­vice. It had been the bench­mark by which many clas­sic, fine din­ing restau­rants—par­tic­u­larly Indian es­tab­lish­ments—mea­sured them­selves, and still do today.

While that elegance and soul re­mains con­stant, Rang Ma­hal stays on top of the game by adapt­ing to chang­ing tastes yet stay­ing true to its fun­da­men­tals. Says man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Ritu Jhun­jh­nuwala, "With new en­trants con­tin­u­ously de­liv­er­ing on trends, ex­otic cuisines and new ap­proaches, Rang Ma­hal has con­tin­ued to de­liver on au­then­tic­ity whilst of­fer­ing a healthy ap­proach to the cui­sine and us­ing dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents not typ­i­cally found in Indian cuisines.”

Re­cently, it ap­pointed award-win­ning vet­eran chef Milind So­vani, for­merly of Song of India, as cor­po­rate chef to steer its restau­rant on­wards. Mean­while, some signature dishes from Rang Ma­hal's early days can still be had 45 years on. They in­clude tan­doori lamb chop, spinach in­fused with Ka­sundi mus­tard, chicken tikka masala and ras malai, a dessert of cot­tage cheese dumpling in sweet­ened milk. Other old-time favourites are still avail­able on re­quest, she prom­ises.

For those who re­mem­ber, Omar Khayyam was pos­si­bly Rang Ma­hal's main com­peti­tor in those early days. While it closed decades

ago, Tan­door restau­rant at Hol­i­day Inn Singapore Or­chard City Cen­tre emerged in 1985, and be­came the other go-to restau­rant for fine Indian flavours. It re­mains so today, serv­ing up ex­cel­lent north Indian fare from its base­ment lo­ca­tion. Its open kitchen from where din­ers can watch chefs work­ing the tan­door, has been a main­stay even af­ter its mas­sive ren­o­va­tion in 2013. Within the light, con­tem­po­rary clean lines of its cur­rent set­ting, ac­cented by in­tri­cate eth­nic de­tails, its old signature dishes re­main: the mouth-wa­ter­ing khusk tan­doori raan, a leg of lamb served in an unc­tu­ous sauce spiced with rum, car­damom, cumin, pep­per­corn and bay leaf; tan­doori malai lob­sters and tan­doori jhinga or prawns; all nicely washed down with an ex­cel­lent cup of masala tea to end.

Tan­door had long been a cham­pion of re­gional Indian cui­sine. By mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion be­tween re­gional Indian cuisines, it has done much to raise the pub­lic's un­der­stand­ing of the di­ver­sity of Indian food. For in­stance, it ran a suc­cess­ful Pun­jab Thali pro­mo­tion ear­lier this year, af­ter which the culi­nary team con­cep­tu­alised the Hy­der­abadi Thali com­pris­ing five cour­ses fea­tur­ing "the deca­dent flavours of Hy­der­abad".

Ak­shay Dal­wani, di­rec­tor of food and bev­er­age, and Sub­ha­sis Ghosh the as­sis­tant F&B man­ager, ex­plains: "[Tan­door's] menu re­flects the culi­nary di­ver­sity of re­gions

in­clud­ing coastal ar­eas like Goa, Luc­know, Man­ga­lore and Pun­jab. Each dish is care­fully hand­crafted by our chefs us­ing clas­sic recipes and time-hon­oured meth­ods, which date back in time across India’s rich his­tory."

CHI­NESE EVO­LU­TION

In the early days, Chi­nese restau­rants were mainly tra­di­tional, red-cladded, noisy din­ing halls. The more elab­o­rate would have dragons and phoenixes dec­o­rat­ing their in­te­ri­ors. Songstresses belt­ing out Hokkien love songs for Sun­day dim sum lunch was de rigueur, as was the copious use of MSG. But as the coun­try be­came wealth­ier and cus­tomers slowly be­came more dis­cern­ing, Chi­nese restau­rants be­gan to change. The 1980s saw the grad­ual emer­gence of new age Chi­nese restau­rants—more ele­gant, un­der­stated and re­fined in both set­ting and cui­sine.

Li Bai at Sher­a­ton Tow­ers Singapore is one of them. The Can­tonese restau­rant made waves with its re­fined cui­sine and ser­vice, ele­gant set­ting, del­i­cate chi­naware and jade-tipped chop­sticks. Be­yond great food, Li Bai's for­mula for longevity is to pam­per its cus­tomers with a high level of per­son­al­i­sa­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the ho­tel's food and bev­er­age di­rec­tor Andy Chan, ex­ec­u­tive chef Chung Yiu Ming goes out of his way to cre­ate and cu­rate spe­cial off-menu dishes for reg­u­lar guests. "Li Bai's man­agers have also been with the restau­rant for years and are very fa­mil­iar with reg­u­lar guests’ pref­er­ences, cre­at­ing a sense of fa­mil­iar­ity when these reg­u­lar guests re­turn, [know­ing that] their pref­er­ences are not for­got­ten." Then again, over 30 years on, some of its signature dishes from day one re­main—sliced duck with fresh mango; dou­ble-boiled whole win­ter melon with diced shrimp, con­poy and crab­meat; and baked for­tune chicken.

Min Jiang at Good­wood Park Ho­tel is an­other one of these early new age Chi­nese restau­rants. It be­gan life in the Park­lane wing of the ho­tel in 1982 to­gether with Gar­den Seafood restau­rant, and quickly be­came pop­u­lar, win­ning awards for both its food and ser­vice. While Gar­den Seafood has long gone, Min Jiang con­tin­ues to serve dim sum, Sichuan and Can­tonese fare in its cur­rent lo­ca­tion within the main ho­tel.

In 2006, this old stal­wart found a sec­ond wind and ex­panded with a branch at One North in Rochester Park, and later an­other in Lon­don. Many of the old favourites from the restau­rant's first days re­main on the menu as sig­na­tures—its hot and sour soup, cam­phor tea smoked duck, dong po pork and Sichuan red bean pan­cake. But to keep things in­ter­est­ing, Min Jiang of­ten holds "new food pro­mo­tions" to showcase their in­no­va­tive­ness, such as one which fea­tured cooking on hot peb­bles, a tech­nique that orig­i­nated in Beijing. It was the first to bring this style of cooking into Singapore.

While not as old, Can­tonese restau­rants Wah Lok at the Carl­ton Ho­tel and Hua Ting Restau­rant at the Or­chard Ho­tel are also in­sti­tu­tions here. Open since 1988, Wah Lok is still syn­ony­mous with great dim sum, pack­ing in a full house lit­er­ally ev­ery Sun­day lunch. Mean­while, 25-yearold Hua Ting made its rep­u­ta­tion on the strength of master chef Chan Kwok's clas­sic cooking; af­ter which his pro­tege chef Lap Fai took over. To keep things fresh, the restau­rant has just closed for an ex­ten­sive ren­o­va­tion, promis­ing to open in early De­cem­ber with "com­pletely new in­te­ri­ors". Be­fore the doors shut, though, the restau­rant held a one-night only nos­tal­gic feast of its best­sellers, in­clud­ing crispy roasted duck, emer­ald bean­curd, live prawns XO sauce mee pok and almond cream with gluti­nous rice ball. These, as well as its other sig­na­tures, will re­turn af­ter the ren­o­va­tions.

ON THE WESTERN FRONT

No talk about cel­e­brated fine din­ing restau­rants in Singapore can omit Les Amis, the quintessen­tial French fine din­ing tem­ple lo­cated at Shaw Tow­ers. Set up in 1994 by four friends—who have to date kept a dis­creet low pro­file—Les Amis is syn­ony­mous with highly re­fined French din­ing and an al­most re­li­gious fo­cus on good wines, mainly French. The restau­rant’s for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion lies in the un­com­pro­mis­ing stan­dards it de­mands of it­self right from its very be­gin­ning, from the food and wine it serves to the ser­vice and qual­ity of staff.

Many of the in­dus­try’s top pro­fes­sion­als cut their teeth here, in­clud­ing local lu­mi­nar­ies chef Justin Quek and restau­ra­teur Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Chan. Even now, top prac­ti­tion­ers like pas­try chef Ch­eryl Koh, named top pas­try chef of Asia in 2016 by Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants, and ex­ec­u­tive chef Sebastien Lepinoy con­tinue to up­hold the restau­rant’s ex­act­ing stan­dards.

Ev­ery­thing is top notch here, right down to the de­tails: it is one of the rare restau­rants in the world to serve the ex­clu­sive Le Pon­clet but­ter, made from free roam­ing, near ex­tinct Celtic cat­tle from Brit­tany. To se­cure their sup­plies, chef Lepinoy had to send his CV to the sup­plier to as­sure them “of the stan­dard of qual­ity he up­holds in the restau­rant”. Les Amis'

en­cy­clopaedic wine list, boast­ing a mas­sive 3,000-plus bot­tles and among the most ex­ten­sive in Asia, has al­ways been among the top in the world, con­sis­tently sweep­ing up awards both local and in­ter­na­tional. While it has been around for over 23 years, it con­tin­ues to stay a for­mi­da­ble in­dus­try leader from which many other fine din­ing restau­rants no doubt peg their stan­dards.

Helmed by the hus­band and wife team of chef-owner Em­manuel Stroobant and Ed­ina Hong, Saint Pierre has been known for its mod­ern French fare with Asian in­flu­ences since it opened its doors in 2000. While a baby com­pared to the likes of Rang Ma­hal and Palm Beach, it has, in its rel­a­tive youth, made a huge im­pact on our din­ing scene. If there was one thing that Saint Pierre has demon­strated in all its 17 years in busi­ness is that bespoke fare, an ex­quis­ite din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and gen­uinely good-value pric­ing can go hand in hand. One of its first moves in its ear­li­est menus, for in­stance, was of­fer­ing a spe­cial foie gras menu of around eight foie gras dishes at very rea­son­able prices. "We try to give back a little more than what we charge so that our guests can see the value in our of­fer­ings. Stick­ing true to what [we] are—value for money and be­ing highly adap­tive to meet the de­mands of our guests—and not over-promis­ing or un­der­de­liv­er­ing is prob­a­bly the rea­sons con­tribut­ing to Saint Pierre’s longevity in Singapore," says Hong, the di­rec­tor of the Em­man­ual Stroobant Group.

At the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, Singapore's pool­side, Dolce Vita is a chic, con­tem­po­rary Ital­ian restau­rant of 13 years. When it first opened, it stunned many as one of the most pretty restau­rants in town. Since then, it has gone through sev­eral changes in looks, yet it re­tains its orig­i­nal vibe of a breezy yet re­fined style, helped along by its charm­ing lo­ca­tion on the fifth floor with a great view of the city sky­line. "Since its in­cep­tion, us­ing the finest and fresh­est in­gre­di­ents flown in from Italy to cre­ate taste­ful dishes pre­sented in a con­tem­po­rary way has al­ways been one of the hall­marks of the restau­rant," says the ho­tel's di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Usha Brock­mann. All this is un­der­pinned by its con­stantly re­freshed menus and great ser­vice.

Al­most all the restau­rants here have ex­pressed that in our dy­namic, ex­hil­a­rat­ing restau­rant scene today, change is the only con­stant. But Singapore's cur­rent food scene did not ar­rive at its en­vi­able po­si­tion without hav­ing first stood on the shoul­ders of giants. In­deed, many have gone, and a few have sur­vived the re­lent­less test of time. But they have all con­trib­uted to land­ing us where we are now. Brock­mann sums it up per­fectly.

"How do you think Singapore has earned it­self a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a gourmet des­ti­na­tion? It is surely not the do­ing of a hand­ful of restau­rants but a con­tri­bu­tion of many. Just like how a dish is made up of sev­eral com­po­nents to cre­ate a cer­tain flavour, many restau­rants have con­trib­uted to the in­dus­try in one way or an­other, big or small. It is hard to dis­cern how much of a con­tri­bu­tion one restau­rant has made, when the scene is in­flu­enced by many."

Left Long Beach's black pep­per crab

Be­low Chefs hard at work at Tan­door's show stoves

From top

left The very well-loved Les Amis clas­sic, cold an­gel hair pasta with caviar and black truf­fle; Chef Justin Quek cut his teeth in the kitchens of Les Amis

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.