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
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."
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."
Below Chefs hard at work at Tandoor's show stoves
Left Long Beach's black pepper crab
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