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Australian chefs in Singapore: why the young and ambitious are opening restaurants in Lion City

High-flying chefs looking to earn a coveted Michelin star are moving to the city state, which got its first Michelin guide in 2016. They offer inventive dishes and knowledgeable, laid-back Australian service

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 7:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 7:16am

In a recent interview in Macau, the Michelin Guide’s global head honcho Michael Ellis made a point about Australian chefs working in Singapore: “There are Australian chefs coming exclusively to Singapore because they want to be in the running to get a Michelin star. If you’re a chef and you do get a star, in addition to the great reputation, it’s a game-changer and a life-changer because it means you can attract much more talented chefs around you.”

It’s true that the number of Australian chefs has grown in the Lion City since Michelin started its guide there in 2016. There is no Michelin restaurant guide in Australia and for young, ambitious chefs, there are few better ways to make an impact than by overseeing their own restaurant.

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This has meant the launch of a raft of new places, many of them serving excellent cuisine, generally accompanied by the laid-back but effective and knowledgeable service which characterises much of Australia’s dining scene. Three sit within 10 minutes’ walk of one another in the heart of Chinatown.

To a soundtrack of 1990s hip hop, under funky UFO-like green domed lights, brilliant contemporary Australian-influenced dishes at Blackwattle show how the reputation of Clayton Wells is quickly spreading well beyond his native Sydney.

The award-winning chef – named the hottest chef of 2016 by The Australian – brings serious global props to Chinatown with his time spent at the cooler-than-cool Momofuku Seiobo, not to mention an almost mandatory stint at Copenhagen’s Noma.

Wells is best known in Sydney for Automata, a tasting-menu-only spot that won critical and public acclaim soon after it opened in 2015. , The kitchen is usually run by Joeri Timmermans.

Wells calls his cuisine “elevated comfort dining” and it’s a fair assessment. The food is served in an uncluttered room with design highlights that include an eye-catching aircraft chandelier and soft bottle-green banquettes.

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Unlike at Automata, in Singapore eating à la carte is also an option alongside five- and six-course menus, but to take your own path risks missing out on the almost-perfect symphony of ingredients and textures that Wells and Timmermans oversee.

The 60-seater is open for lunch and dinner, and has an upstairs bar where you can enjoy the full menu or sip exemplary cocktails with smartly chosen bar snacks such as fried Jerusalem artichokes with sunflower seed miso.

This being a little corner of Australia, service by the young team is exemplary. The genuine warmth of their conversation adds to the dining experience, without feeling like they’re sitting with you at the table, as can sometimes be the case. They explain each dish quickly and clearly, before letting you get on to enjoy it.

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Throughout a five course dinner (S$115, US$86), the key impression throughout was balance, even harmony. A stormshell clam came in a fragrant rosemary dashi, with aerated cream. Cape gooseberries and pickled ginger flower broth bought sharp bursts of fruit that worked beautifully with the maritime notes from the kelp and Avruga caviar.

An inky sauce was deep and intense in colour and flavoured with XO and vinegar under perfectly grilled octopus. Perhaps the finest part of the exceptional menu was the grilled beef tri-tip with burnt carrot, wood ear mushroom and a tamari sauce that smacked of umami. Beautifully plated desserts, notably a pumpkin seed sorbet with burnt meringue and dried mandarin, rounded things off in style.

Another recent arrival on the dining scene, The Ottomani, offers a menu and dining room poles apart from Blackwattle. The supper club serves new Middle Eastern cuisine and has a similar feel.

With no bar, drinks are offered from and prepared on a trolley, including an excellent take on a G&T called Türk Kajvesi where the gin was infused with pepper and Turkish coffee, deftly prepared by our affable young Filipino waiter.

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The interiors are flamboyant and romantic, if dimly lit, but the most eye-catching element has to be the kitchen with its extraordinary, one-of-a-kind wood-fired earth pit. It may look like a cross between a tandoor and a campfire, but the unusual design is effective.

Every night before closing, Australian chef Nic Philip and team build a fire that burns down to embers, before the meats for the following night’s dinner are buried inside to roast overnight. It’s labour-intensive and calls to mind the underground lovo ovens of Polynesia, where food is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked slowly.

Choices may include the enticing pork belly with a rub of Turkish coffee, palm sugar and Sichuan pepper, or the excellent lamb shoulder with spiced molasses and sumac gremolata. All that time in the hot coals makes the lamb fall-apart tender, while the gremolata lifts it from the smoke and char in all the right places.

The house-baked bread deserves a special mention. It comes with a sensational smoked date and walnut butter, a Philip classic. Dessert of goat’s milk sorbet was pretty in pink, while the pop of pomegranate and beguiling citrus lift of sumac took the palate somewhere unexpected.

The third chef is softly spoken Rishi Naleendra at Cheek by Jowl, another modern Australian spot. Manuela Toniolo, Naleendra’s wife, is Cheek by Jowl’s manager and sommelier, making the couple a gently dynamic duo who have hospitality and excellent cuisine down to a fine art. Indeed, together they have proven Ellis’ theory, as this year they were awarded their first Michelin star.

In common with many chefs in Australia, Naleendra did a stint at legendary Japanese spot Tetsuya’s.

Toniolo’s cellar features organic and biodynamic wines, in tune with her and Naleendra’s emphasis on sustainability. Each wine on the list also features a drawing of the winemaker, a nice touch.

An oyster under smoked tomato followed by baby gem lettuce with parmesan, macadamia nut and basil were two extra choices from the à la carte menu, just because they sounded so good. The three-course menu (S$78) first brought a stunning dish of Jerusalem artichoke, served along with the vegetable’s crisp skin, shimeji mushrooms and an onion consommé.

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Next was a perfectly executed kangaroo loin with wattleseed, burnt carrots and red onion. Wattleseeds come from Australian acacia trees and have been used by the country’s indigenous population for millennia, often in the form of a bush bread. This sensitivity and sensibility towards unusual, delicious low-impact ingredients is a Naleendra hallmark.

To finish we had burnt pear, hay panna cotta, pear sorbet and salted caramel. The modest description offers great promise, and delivers in spades – much like many of the young Australian culinary immigrants to Singapore.

Blackwattle, 97 Amoy Street, tel: +65 622 422 32;

The Ottomani, 48 Peck Seah Street, tel: +65 9231 9316;

Cheek by Jowl, 21 Boon Tat Street, tel: +65 6221 1911;