New Singapore restaurants: chefs’ cultural heritage celebrated at four recently opened venues
From Cantonese to Indian, the Lion City is a cultural melting pot when it comes to cuisine. Four new restaurants are showcasing the city’s diversity on their menus, and are helping reshape the dining experience
“People say Singapore is the calm version of Hong Kong, but there are so many dimensions here; it’s so dynamic,” says Vinny Lauria, who has just opened The Guild on a hip shophouse row in Singapore’s Chinatown.
“The food and culture [in Singapore] is mind-blowing – the mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and you add colonialism to it – it’s crazy. It’s so special.”
Hong Kong diners will know Lauria from Posto Pubblico, Stone Nullah Tavern, and Linguini Fini. For The Guild, however, he is working in collaboration with Young Master Ales, the Hong Kong craft beer brewery.
This is Young Master Ales’ first overseas restaurant venture. It is involved in three restaurants in Hong Kong: TAP – The Ale Project in Mong Kok, Second Draft in Tai Hang, and Alvy’s in Kennedy Town. Unlike many beer companies which have a chain of cookie-cutter taprooms, Young Master Ales has chosen to create unique concepts for each of their outlets, working with different chefs each time.
“Singapore’s diners and drinkers, just like Hong Kong’s, are increasingly seeking the genuine and thoughtful work of passionate, small-scale producers, and that’s a perfect setting for us,” says Rohit Dugar, founder of Young Master Ales.
Lauria says The Guild is about “celebrating smaller craftsmen and craftsmanship in our worldof hospitality. The Guild is a place with people that protect the craft”.
Apart from an artisanal beverage menu of beers, cocktails and wines, The Guild showcases Lauria’s style of cooking. He has Italian-American training, and relies heavily on local produce. “You’ve got to cook with what you have. I believe food tastes the best that way, but there’s a need to be delicate,” he says. “You need to make sure you respect the ingredient for how it was traditionally used, otherwise you’d end up with some kind of confused fusion.”
As in Hong Kong, sourcing locally in Singapore is a challenge, but Lauria has managed to find farms to supply everything from organic vegetables to oysters and frogs.
The frogs are used for a couple of dishes on The Guild’s menu, one being the “marrow bruschetta”, inspired by New York restaurant Blue Ribbon’s legendary dish of bone marrow and oxtail. Instead of bone marrow, Lauria uses frog hasma, the fatty tissue surrounding a frog’s Fallopian tubes, most commonly found in Chinese desserts.
Novel interpretations of Singaporean flavours can also be found at Magic Square, a year-long pop-up that opened on Portsdown Road in early May. Restaurateur Ken Loon Tan assembled a team of three local chefs – Desmond Shen, Marcus Leow and Abel Su – to run the pop-up. They are all under the age of 30, but have experience in fine dining in Singapore and abroad.
“Desmond is Chinese with a Malay godfather, Marcus is Peranakan, and Abel is Chinese,” he says, referring to a few of the ethnic groups in Singapore. Their heritage might be reflected in the cuisine, he says, but he doesn’t want it to be deliberate. “I want [the cuisine that] comes out subconsciously. The food should trigger memories for Singaporeans, and not be just be a twist on something.”
Shen, Leow and Su will take turns running the kitchen as head chef, a month at a time, but even within each month, the nine-course degustation menu is constantly being tweaked. In May, Shen’s menu featured such ingredients as huadiao wine, used in a savoury zabaglione, and a rose apple dessert served with a pink guava granita, sour plum crème fraîche and chilli salt.
Tan feels that a lot of Singapore’s high-end cuisine is dictated by foreign chefs rather than local ones, and he wants to change that. “Watching [Shen] grow, and somehow knowing that he might never get a chance to run his own restaurant and cook what he believes in, [that made me want to support him]. After doing it on my own with [my own venues] – Klee, The Naked Finn and Nekkid – and making tonnes of mistakes along the way, I just want to pay it forward.”
Located in a stylish, minimalist, warehouse-like space, Magic Square came together in a matter of weeks, thanks to Tan’s connections. “I want to support young talent, and very luckily a lot of sponsors feel this way, too,” he says.
They ranged from DBS Bank, which sponsored the point-of-sale system, to local indoor farm Farm Delight, whose vertical garden set-up at Magic Square provides the chefs with their herbs and vegetables, to Miele, which supplied almost all the pop-up restaurant’s equipment free of charge. “They’re truly amazing,” Tan says.
When the year is up, the restaurant, which is set near conserved colonial barracks, will be redeveloped by its landlord. Tan says he is developing new restaurant projects in Hong Kong, Singapore and on “an Indonesian resort island”. “Maybe at the end of this pop-up, I can put each of [the chefs] in one of these projects,” he says.
In the centre of the city, Woo Wai-leong has just opened the doors to Restaurant Ibid. “We officially opened on the 28th of April, for feng shui reasons,” the winner of the first season of MasterChef Asia, says, referring to the auspicious date.
A lawyer by training, Woo had never been superstitious, but it seems fitting that opening his restaurant has brought out his Chinese side, as he describes his food as “Nanyang-style, contemporary Chinese”.
“[The word] Nanyang was first used by a group of Singaporean artists [who] had all travelled the world and trained in different disciplines, [from] Chinese-style painting to French-style watercolour and New American.
“They came back to Singapore, painting subject matter that was very unlike what they were trained to do. You can no longer paint the mountains of China, you can no longer paint the chateaux of France. You [instead] paint the river of Singapore, or the tropical jungles on the islands.”
“We look at an east Asian basket of ingredients, we take on elements of traditional Chinese medicine, and we take on very Asian sauces, [such as] fermented red bean curd, and red rice wine lees. We make our own soy milk to use in our own porridges and ice creams. It’s not east, it’s not west, it’s Nanyang, and it’s ours.”
Like the artists he describes, Woo worked in restaurants around the world, eventually taking his food to pop-ups around Singapore, as well as Sydney and Hong Kong. Some of the dishes developed back then, such as his beef short rib made with black fungus, angelica root and Chinese pear, have stayed in his repertoire.
The restaurant’s name comes from the abbreviation of the Latin word, ibidem, which means “in the same source”. Woo says he chose the name to express “the sources from whence I came”.
“My dad really wanted to learn more about his ancestral heritage. He would always travel to Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong. It has inspired me to learn more about the cuisines of my sources”.
Also drawing on his cultural background is chef and food writer David Yip. The restaurateur, who owned the now-closed Singaporean restaurant Shiok in Hong Kong, has recently opened Circa 1912 in Shaw Centre, just off Orchard Road.
Yip is of Indonesian-Cantonese-Shanghainese descent, and grew up between Jakarta, Singapore, New York and London. Despite this, the food at Circa 1912 draws mostly from the kitchen of his father’s home in Jakarta – highly refined Cantonese food from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Xu Jingye, Yip’s consultant chef from Foshan in China, says: “There are two golden eras of Cantonese cuisine: the 1920s, after China recovered from the fall of the Qing dynasty, and 1980s, after China opened up to the rest of the world.”
Yip comes from a privileged family, and he has fond memories of learning to cook alongside his family’s chefs. “The cooks were instructed to make elaborate dishes, as if the masters were afraid they’d have too much free time,” Yip says jokingly.
One such dish is a deep-fried crab “ravioli”. The crabmeat is encased in paper-thin slices of pork fat. Deep-frying renders the fat, leaving an incredibly crisp outer shell. There are also dishes that will be familiar to Hong Kong gourmands, including gold coin chicken, a dish of barbecued liver that contains no chicken.
“I would say 80 per cent of the dishes are very new to Singaporeans, but not exactly new to Hongkongers or diehard Cantonese [gourmands]. People in Singapore would say, ‘My god, this is the first time [I’ve seen this]’. But actually [in Singapore], in the 1960s, which is when I grew up, we had certain dishes [that are now on Circa 1912’s menu],” Yip says.
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“This was when there were many chefs who had just come from Hong Kong and were well trained. But subsequently, most of [Singapore’s] top chefs are from Malaysia, and they mostly do wok dishes, like street food. The [restaurant] names will sound very posh, but the technique is very ‘street food’ – they’ll hate me for saying that,” says Yip.
The Cantonese palate is more subtle than Singaporeans are used to, he says, but he’s sticking to his ways. “I told Xu that I cannot compromise [flavour] because I’m doing my family recipes. I don’t care if people like it or not. I will just serve how we did it.”
55 Keong Saik Road, #01-01, Singapore, tel: +65 6224 1262, facebook.com/TheGuildSingapore
5B Portsdown Road, #01-02, Singapore, tel: +65 8181 0102, magicsquare.sg
18 North Canal Road, Singapore, tel: +65 9151 8698, restaurantibid.com
03-07/11 Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, Singapore, tel: +65 6836 3070