FEATURE TRULY GREAT RESTAURANTS
To stand out has never been tougher in our competitive dining scene and increasingly connected world
To stand out has never been tougher in our competitive dining scene and increasingly connected world
There are lots of good restaurants around. In fact, there are lots of excellent restaurants around. But few truly stand out. Not because they are lacking, but because as diners, we are terribly spoilt for choice with the plethora of high quality restaurants within easy reach. How often have we gone out for a meal, hailed it as excellent, only to forget what we ate there a few days later? Or have trouble recalling its name a month down the road?
To truly stand out has never been tougher in this increasingly connected world. Competition at the top is no longer local, and audiences and the judgments and comparisons they make play out on a global arena. In the major capital cities of the world where the best restaurants tend to cluster, diners are incredibly informed, sophisticated and—to make things harder for restaurateurs and chefs—not easily impressed.
To distinguish themselves, restaurants have to push the envelope further than before… but that’s where things can go wrong. Remember the molecular restaurant with golden wheelchairs for seats out in Clarke Quay? In its misguided quest for excellence, it was a flash in the pan, remembered for all the wrong reasons.
In this day and age where we are addicted to lists of ‘bests’ in the world or the region and such like, the question of what truly makes a great restaurant begs to be considered. And we’re talking about establishments that are heads and shoulders above the rest. More than just good, more than excellent, but truly outstanding…and I mean out-in-orbit outstanding.
Many factors are involved and have to work together perfectly time and time again.
To be a truly great restaurant, it goes without saying that good food—the most basic fundamental of a restaurant’s existence—must be a given. Excellent cooking and top notch ingredients have to be there. There should also be a sensitivity in the use of ingredients and the make-up of the menu. Says chef Gunther Hubrechsen of fine dining restaurant Gunther’s Modern French Cuisine, “The hallmarks of a truly excellent menu are the freshness, quality and exception of your ingredients but the most important thing is that the menu has to be balanced.”
For instance, does it make sense to use an ingredient in such a way, or serve it at such a time of the year? Is the menu coherent and stand up to scrutiny? Does it use lemon as a principal ingredient in the last three courses of a degustation? Is the same garnish of fluorescent pink rose petals used too often in a tasting menu? These occurred in two award-winning restaurants in town which shall remain unnamed. Is the kitchen solidly grounded in its philosophy, be it authentic traditional fare or innovative cuisine? Does it interpret it well?
Hand in hand with excellent food must be excellent service. For a great restaurant understands that it is the entire customer experience, down to
the last detail, that matters. “Personalised service, the authenticity of the cuisine, and an elevated dining ambience are indicators of a great restaurant. Customers seek out the authenticity of the cuisine and the experience that the restaurant delivers, regardless of it service class,” says Lewis Quinn, director of food & beverage at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore.
“A restaurant is an experience,” states Ignatius “Iggy” Chan, owner of the renowned Iggy’s and one of Singapore’s most experienced restaurateurs. “Bad service can affect how good food tastes to a diner.” What’s more, it will certainly not bring a customer back, and the chef’s best efforts in the kitchen will come to naught.
“A truly great restaurant anticipates the needs of every diner in an effortless way—the result of both expertise and experience,” says Chan. And this is done from the moment the customer engages the restaurant in a phone call or online to reserve a table, until they depart after their meal. A great restaurant also never keeps a guest waiting. “Diners who are on time should not be kept waiting and if they are, there should be a holding area in fine dining restaurants to ensure they are served drinks and nibbles,” says seasoned connoisseur and Conseiller Gastronomique Honoraire of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, Dr Henry Wong. Your glass is always topped up without you asking for it; a quick look round will get a waiter quickly to your table. Service is never rushed but unobtrusively prompt, and cutlery quickly replaced, amongst a long list of other ‘must-dos’. A little too OCD? Well, that is what distinguishes top grade wagyu from Prime.
Then there is knowledge and EQ, oft-overlooked qualities in restaurant service that customers appreciate, but rarely encounter. Used together, they make magic for both restaurant and customer. Anticipating a customer’s needs with good EQ, knowledgeable staff who can provide insightful and relevant information to diners will no doubt elevate their restaurant experience. “At the French Laundry and Tetsuya’s, staff are trained to explain the details of the ingredients, sauces and taste of every course,
and the order in which they are to be consumed for the ultimate gustatory experience. They are also trained to explain the chef’s philosophy, the seasonal offerings, why the flavours of the different wines meticulously paired enhance the dining experience. Such preamble from cheerful and knowledgeable staff heightens the gustatory expectation of the diner, from admiring the masterful presentation to tasting the work of art,” says Dr Wong.
At a recent dinner at Chinese fine dining restaurant Cassia, the waiter could explain how the processing of tea leaves for one blend differed from another, and how that in turn affected the beverage’s ultimate flavours. What this reflected was passion, commitment and a superior level of service. What’s more, the staff of Cassia were quick to attend to an elderly diner, keeping pace with her as she navigated the stairs, making conversation with her, then bringing her a cushion to lean on as she was seated at the table. All this while, they were never condescending, but perfectly gracious and welcoming. And no, they did not forget to ask beforehand if the guest would like to take the lift down instead. You can bet that these little touches will be remembered, and the guest and her family will definitely return. Exemplary EQ is the magic ingredient that makes diners feel special and which distinguish a restaurant.
One thing people remember above all is how they were made to feel while dining in restaurants— whether they were cocooned in a warm, fuzzy and welcoming experience, which will ensure a repeat visit, or if they were on the receiving end of curt, condescending or callous service. The latter perhaps lingers longest in people’s memory and makes for good conversation fodder.
Says chef Hubreschen, “A truly great restaurant does not have to be fine dining, but it must give you memories that make you crave to return. It could be a bistrot, fine dining or family restaurant. The most important is the quality of the food, the experience and service that will give you a unique experience that you will not forget.” In other words, the feel good factor.
Another challenge to being great is consistency. “Can they consistently maintain and deliver in terms of their culinary offerings, service standards, cleanliness, décor and other criteria? Are the chefs creative enough to change the menu often to attract return customers?” Dr Wong offers.
Repeat that tens of times over a single meal service and repeat that day after day for years
and decades. It is no mean feat to maintain stellar standards consistently over the long term in every aspect. Yet it is what a great restaurant must do. “This is difficult, but it is what keeps them in business for a long time. It’s also what makes truly great restaurants so rare,” says Chan.
A great restaurant is much more than the sum of its parts, and everything has to play out perfectly in concert.
BEYOND FOOD AND SERVICE
Then, a great restaurant takes things beyond the fundamentals of peerless food and service standards, and far beyond its four walls. In listing out the hallmarks of a great restaurant, Chan gives food for thought.
“A great restaurant changes the mindset of how people eat. The greatest ones make their impact felt around the world and over time. They don’t just influence chefs. They revolutionise human behaviour,” he says. “The ideas and techniques developed at El Bulli, for example, have sparked product innovations and even had an impact on the way we process food commercially. It has changed the way diners expect to be entertained at the table.
While juggling that, he adds that great restaurants have to remain relevant over time. “Great restaurants run for a decade, three decades, or even a century. To be able to do this, they evolve even as they remain true to their fundamentals,” he says. That pertains to its cuisine—dishes and concepts have to evolve to keep up with changing tastes. But the restaurant itself and what it stands for has to evolve too. In this day and age, that could mean taking on social responsibility and appreciating the part it plays in the greater scheme of things.
For instance, to be in the running for greatness, a restaurant should be respectable—for instance, to be informed enough to get its ingredients from sustainable sources, not serve endangered species of fish or get its beef from farms that threaten rainforests. It does not have to be an environmental warrior, but it has to be ethical in its practices. These days, chefs and restaurateurs cannot afford to be ignorant about issues outside the kitchen. People expect restaurants to be aware of how their industry plays a part in the bigger issues like the environment, and sustainability, food waste and poverty. Do they churn out great amounts of uneaten food? Do they then throw it away or are they contributors to food banks or charities? Are they still brandishing oneuse plastic? These are issues of the 21st century which great restaurants have to plug into in order to remain relevant.
Social awareness plays a part too. A great restaurant is inclusive, so that should manifest in well-thought, disabled-friendly premises in the form of lifts, ramps, furniture arrangements and amenities that allow wheelchair access. No, it does not have to be a charity, but a great restaurant recognises that its diners can come in all forms. Beyond that, does it nurture younger culinarians? Does it support the growth of its own industry? Or is it driven solely by profits and perhaps celebrity? Is the restaurant ethical in its overall conduct?
It is a long list, cynics may say. Are we expecting it to be Superman and save the world too? No indeed, but the quality of greatness—not just good, nor even excellent—does not come cheap or easily. We should be casting our eyes on front and back of house, and the indelible values that motivate the restaurant; not just whether its latest dish looks good on Instagram, or whether—as in the sad tale of Salt Bae—it is an internet sensation. For a restaurant to be great, standards on every front must be high and stand to scrutiny every time.
“Dining out should be an enjoyable experience. The enhancement of this experience is the ultimate litmus test and is reflected not just in the number of covers but the number of return diners,” says Dr Wong.
Fratelli Trattoria, one of the restaurants featured inSingapore’s Top Restaurants 2018/2019
Odette at National Gallery Singapore