FEA­TURE TRULY GREAT RESTAU­RANTS

To stand out has never been tougher in our com­pet­i­tive din­ing scene and in­creas­ingly con­nected world

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - BY SIM EE WAUN

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

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