Singapore: Local Chefs Not Outshined by Celebrity Newcomers

  • FiftyThree chef Michael Han putting the final touches on one of his signature creations: glazed new potatoes with duckweed, wild garlic flowers, Parmesan emulsion, and a

    FiftyThree chef Michael Han putting the final touches on one of his signature creations: glazed new potatoes with duckweed, wild garlic flowers, Parmesan emulsion, and a "soil" of ground hazelnuts and coffee, served on a stone

  • An appetizer platter at Sky on 57 offers a quartet of Justin Quek’s

    An appetizer platter at Sky on 57 offers a quartet of Justin Quek’s "Franco-Asian" specialties, including a yuzu-dressed oyster and foie gras xiao long bao.

  • Chef Malcolm Lee at Candlenut Kitchen.

    Chef Malcolm Lee at Candlenut Kitchen.

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Above: Singapore native Michael Han at work.

The playground du jour for global celebrity chefs, Singapore today has more culinary confidence than ever. Yet if boldface-name restaurants have put the Lion City squarely on the fine-dining map, it will be their local counterparts that keep it there

By Leisa Tyler
Photography by Morgan & Owens

Perhaps only in Singapore can you eat your way across Asia in a day. Armed with a good appetite, you can start with a flaky Pakistani murtabak, swoop down to Little India for masala dosa, devour a lunchtime bowl of piping-hot Hokkien noodles with a side order of dim sum, and save space for a dinner of Indonesian nasi padang or beef rendang.

But for all the multicultural flavors of this food-mad city-state’s hawker centers and coffee shops, it’s fine dining that is grabbing all the attention these days. Invigorated by a handful of international star chefs who have opened outposts at Singapore’s massive, casino-driven “integrated resorts,” the culinary landscape here is changing fast, with a lineup of establishments that is nothing less than extraordinary.

It began in mid-2010 at Marina Bay Sands. The first celebrity-chef opening, in May, was Santi by Catalan maestro Santi Santamaria, whose tenure here was tragically cut short by a heart attack 10 months later. The 80-seat restaurant and its adjoining tapas bar dish up hearty Spanish fare–think pork jowl with oysters and blood oranges–in convivial, stylish surrounds. Next up, and just next door, came Guy Savoy’s first Asian venture, serving the celebrated Parisian chef’s signature nouvelle cuisine. Then in July, Japanese-born Tetsuya Wakuda, from Sydney’s acclaimed Tetsuya’s opened Waku Ghin. While the decor here is on the austere side–guests are seated in bare, wood-paneled rooms–the food set new standards in Singapore, with outstanding (if pricey) dishes like creamy sea urchin served with raw shrimp and caviar, and thin slices of seared Wagyu beef with scallions, raw egg, and searing-hot wasabi.

Earlier this year, the trio was joined by yet another raft of bold-face names: Daniel Boulud, whose casual db Bistro Moderne serves refined bistro fare in a jazzy modern space; Mario Batali, the Italian-American former Iron Chef and restaurateur, with Osteria Mozza; Wolfgang Puck, whose fun but fabulously overpriced steakhouse CUT has forever spoiled me for lesser beef; and Justin Quek, a Singapore-born chef who returned home after years in Taiwan and Shanghai to open Sky on 57, a bustling mid-priced dining room on Marina Bay Sand’s crowning Sky Park. Quek’s menu–he dubs it Franco-Asian–is polished and well executed, with dishes such as foie gras xiao long bao and suckling pig with a yuzu pepper sauce. The wine list is impressive and the service savvy, though the real star of the show here may be the sweeping view across the city.

Singapore restaurants: Sky on 57 appetizers

Appetizers at Sky on 57.

And then there’s Resorts World Sentosa, a gaming and entertainment complex on Singapore’s Sentosa Island. Here, Chinois by Susur Lee and Kunio Kokuoka’s eponymous kaiseki place have just been joined by two restaurants from French super-chef Joël Robuchon, he of the 25 Michelin stars. By any standards, this makes for a dazzling culinary constellation.

“The two integrated resorts have completely transformed Singapore’s dining scene,” Justin Quek informs me one morning over coffee at Sky on 57. “They’ve made it more vibrant; they’ve put it on the map.”

Tony Lai, the assistant CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board, concurs. “The dining scene here has ex-ploded,” he tells me during a casual lunch at Willin Low’s Wild Rocket, a smart diner on Mount Emily that is helmed by one of the city’s most promising homegrown talents. “But it’s not just the celeb chefs, it’s the local guys, too. The celeb chefs have given Singapore confidence; they have set a benchmark for dining experiences. Now the locals are stepping up their game to meet it.”

One local at the vanguard of Singapore’s rise to culinary greatness is Ignatius Chan. A vivacious sommelier with a knack for pairing foods, Chan first hit the spotlight in 1994 when, joined by Justin Quek in the kitchen, he started Les Amis, an elegant, classical French restaurant on Scotts Road. Les Amis quickly became the city’s standard-bearer for culinary excellence.

Early in the new millennium, the two men decided to go their separate ways: Quek to Taiwan, and Chan, together with his wife Janice, to open a shoebox-size restaurant at the Regent Hotel called Iggy’s. Charming but plain, with a scattering of tables tucked into windowless cubbyholes and shelves crammed with cookery books (most signed by their authors), Iggy’s was never going to win awards for its decor. But the food quickly won a loyal following; delicate and fresh, with a blend of contemporary European techniques and Japanese influences, it was invariably sensational.

Five years after its debut, Iggy’s achieved international acclaim when it slipped into the 45th slot in the 2009 S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, an annual list compiled from the votes of more than 800 restaurant professionals worldwide. It was the first time a Singaporean restaurant had made it onto the then eight-year-old roster. Last year, Iggy’s did even better, leaping to number 28 on the list and to first place (for the second time in three years) in the Asia-wide Miele Guide, which canvasses its votes from the public.

In September 2010, Chan and his team moved from the Regent to a swish new 40-seat space on the third floor of the Hilton Singapore, smack on Orchard Road. “It’s given us a new lease of life,” Chan tells me one day in mid-March this year. We are sitting in Iggy’s new lobby, a smart space highlighted by a painting of two plump musicians by the late Jean-Louis Toutain, and sipping sparkling Japanese sake, a drink that Chan recently discovered on his travels. It’s an unusual beverage, and I cannot decide whether I like it or loathe it until it is teamed with Chan’s latest creation: slow-cooked oysters wrapped in seawater jelly and presented on a bed of pickled cucumber, mascarpone, and chopped wakame. Then I cannot get enough of it.

“Marina Bay Sands is setting the tone, the benchmark for restaurants now,” Chan says. “But it’s innovative chefs like André Chiang who are changing the face of the city. With them, maybe one day Singapore can become another San Sebastián,” referring to the Basque beach town in northern Spain that ranks among Europe’s top foodie destinations.

Tall and with a permanently pensive expression, Taiwan-born André Chiang arrived in Singapore in 2008 after working in the Parisian kitchens of Joël Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire. He took the helm of Jaan, a long-standing restaurant on the 70th floor of the Swissôtel on Stamford Road, and gave it a much-needed overhaul, creating dishes like “Forgotten Vegetables” that showcased 24 rare and artisanal varieties pieced together like an enchanted forest. Last year, his efforts garnered the restaurant–renamed Jaan par André–its own spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Singapore restaurants: Candlenut Kitchen chef Malcolm Lee

Chef Malcolm Lee at Candlenut Kitchen.

By the time Chiang collected his award in London, however, he had already decided to part ways with Swissôtel and start his own place. “I wanted to create a destination restaurant. A place with character, a place you would find nowhere else but here,” he recalls.

Restaurant André, which opened last October at the New Majestic Hotel in Chinatown, certainly has character. Hushed and intimate, it has only 30 seats (not counting the private dining room downstairs) and only one degustation menu, which, much to the consternation of some patrons, isn’t revealed until it hits your plate.

Chiang is foremost an artist. Everything you feel, see, touch, smell, and eat here has been carefully conceived and curated by the chef, from the hand-molded pottery and porcelain antler chandeliers, to the booklet of poems and sketches waiting on your table, one excerpt from which reads, “I dreamt about owning a small place, like a little house, with a small kitchen, one that feeds only a handful of people. A place that sees me pushing the boundaries of my mind … [where the ] cuisine is sophisticated and filled with emotion, elegant and sometimes simple …”

Or not so simple. Chiang’s meals revolve around what he calls “octaphilosophy”: eight characteristics that the chef believes make a gastronomic experience complete: Unique, Texture, Memory, Pure, Terroir, Salt, South, and Artisan. At my dinner, for example, the Salt element is an oyster wrapped in sea grapes with the colliding foam of a Granny Smith apple, while Texture is represented by a fish krupuk with green-pea risotto. It’s high-concept stuff that is as delectable as it is hard to define.

There’s also a touch of the theatrical at chef Michael Han’s FiftyThree, a diminutive dining room that opened in 2009 under the auspices of the Les Amis Group. Han, a native Singaporean, was 22 years old and in his first year of law school in continued on pg. 126 the UK when he spent his pocket money on a £50 lunch at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s molecular marvel in London. “It changed my perception of food,” recounts Han, who left law for the kitchen soon afterward, and landed stints with two other masters of molecular gastronomy: Adoni Aduriz at Mugaritz in San Sebastián and René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s Noma.

While it occupies an old Chinese shophouse on Armenian Street, FiftyThree clearly takes its cues from Noma, with exposed brick walls, blond-wood tables, stone serving plates, and an arty molecular menu. The evening I dine there, the menu begins with a soft and creamy mud crab with Chinese gooseberries that taste like mandarin oranges, followed by black-garlic pork belly, which hits all the right buttons. The beetroot-and-apple dessert extravaganza–accessorized by a maroon beetroot “moss” formed with nitrous oxide in a microwave–is both fun and whimsical. And it’s impossible not to love the postprandial G&T, an atomic-charged gin and tonic condensed into a jelly tablet that you pop on your tongue; as it dissolves, it becomes more intense by the second.

Though my meals so far have been, on the whole, exceptional, it seems a shame that except for Justin Quek’s Sky on 57, most of Singapore’s fancy new establishments serve European–or at best Japanese-inspired–food, with ingredients imported from outside of Asia. Singapore has one of the most vibrant food cultures in the world, and too few restaurants make use of it.

One chef trying to buck the trend is the aforementioned Willin Low. At Wild Rocket, the former lawyer cooks what he calls “Mod Sin”: contemporary cuisine inspired by Singapore’s myriad of hawker dishes. Some of this works brilliantly, like a pairing of black rice with raw salmon and a sweet mirin dressing; but the “laksa” pesto with angel hair pasta, while tasty, is missing the zestiness of the dish that inspired it. Still, Wild Rocket ticks all the boxes for service and presentation, and at very affordable prices. Low also gets points for supporting local farmers, from whom he sources the majority of his vegetables (though it would be nice to see the Chilean sea bass on his menu replaced by a less-threated species of fish).

Taking local cuisine one step further is Malcolm Lee. Having graduated at the top of his class at Singapore’s premiere culinary institute, At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy, Lee could have walked into a job at any number of established fine-dining restaurants in Singapore. Instead, last December, he opened a small but very authentic Peranakan diner called Candlenut Kitchen.

“Most young chefs want to cook in Western restaurants,” says Lee, a modest 26-year-old, after the lunchtime rush. “They think Peranakan food is too old-fashioned.”

A name given to the descendants of 15th-and 16th-century Chinese who migrated to Java and Malaya and integrated into the local cultures, the Peranakan remain a vital element in Singaporean society, though their food–a heady blend of southern Chinese cooking styles with spicy Malay and Indonesian ingredients–is slowly disappearing.

With his mother working in the kitchen and his grandmother in charge of quality control, Lee delivers Peranakan specialties that are now largely restricted to the home. There are kueh pie tee (crispy tarts stuffed with pork belly and turnip) and a wonderfully aromatic ayam buah keluak–a chicken curry made with pungent keluak nuts. These nuts, originating from Indonesia, are poisonous when picked, so they have to be soaked overnight before being gutted, ground, mixed with minced prawn, restuffed, and finally stewed into a curry. It’s a time-consuming process, but Lee is adamant about not taking shortcuts.

“My aim is to refine Peranakan food, to make it into a fine-dining experience,” he says. “I’d like to see it become glamorous, maybe even cool.”

When that happens, I have little doubt that Singapore’s food scene will transform itself once again.

THE DETAILS:
SINGAPORE RESTAURANTS

Candlenut Kitchen
25 Neil Rd.; 65/6226-2506

FiftyThree
53 Armenian St.; 65/6334-5535

Iggy’s
3/F, Hilton Singapore, 581 Orchard Rd.; 65/6732-2234

Restaurant André
41 Bukit Pasoh Rd.; 65/6534-8880

Sky on 57
Sands SkyPark, Marina Bay Sands Tower 1, 10 Bayfront Ave.; 65/6688-8857

Wild Rocket
10A Upper Wilkie Rd.; 65/6339-9448

Originally appeared in the June/July 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Singapore’s New Flavor”)

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