A month of anticipation over which restaurants would make it to the inaugural Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants list culminated at the awards ceremony last Wednesday.
Held at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore, it was a night of feasting and celebration for the winning chefs and players from the food and beverage industry who attended the event.
A total of 54 restaurants made the cut – with three honoured in the Gold, 21 in the Silver and 30 in the Bronze categories.
The list represented a diverse spectrum of the finest Asian dining in Singapore, from modern Chinese restaurant VLV (Gold award) at Clarke Quay to Japanese restaurant Ki-sho (Silver) in Scotts Road and Indian restaurant Samy’s Curry (Bronze) in Dempsey Hill.
Special personality awards were also given out. VLV’s executive head chef Martin Foo, 50, received the Chef of the Year award, while Imperial Treasure restaurant group’s founder Alfred Leung, 63, was lauded with the Lifetime Acheivement award.
The awards are part of the year-long Asian Masters gourmet extravaganza, which is organised by Sphere Exhibits, a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, and food and beverage consultancy Poulose Associates. It featured a series of events such as whisky- and champagne-pairing dinners last month and continues with monthly dining promotions which run until February next year.
The judging panel for the annual awards comprised The Straits Times Life editor Tan Hsueh Yun, Life deputy editor Wong Ah Yoke, Lianhe Zaobao food correspondent Marcus Yeo and Ms Ng Yimin, a correspondent at the Chinese paper. The panel members dined incognito at the establishments, using quality of food and service to determine the winners from a shortlist of 80 Asian restaurants here.in Singapore.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
Culinary doyenne Violet Oon is widely recognised for her expertise in Nonya cuisine and Singapore dishes.
Still, despite having opened and closed several food ventures in the 1990s before becoming a food consultant, Ms Oon, 67, has not received any major awards for her restaurants until recently.
She chuckles when asked about her restaurant National Kitchen by Violet Oon at National Gallery Singapore snagging Silver in the Best Asian Restaurants Awards.
“I’m competitive – with myself,” she says.
She has flown Singapore’s flag as a food and beverage consultant in key national events such as the 2006 IMF World Bank Conference and the 2009 Apec Meeting in Singapore.
As chef de mission, she led Singapore’s team of chefs at the World of Flavors Conference and Festival (2004, 2007 and 2009) held by the Culinary Institute of America.
Such opportunities, she notes, are the “awards” she gets.
“It shows that people trust you,” she says.
Her restaurant Violet Oon’s Kitchen received a boost two years ago from a tie-up with Mr Manoj Murjani, 47, chairman of Group MMM, an investments and acquisitions group that focuses on developing lifestyle, hospitality and food and beverage companies and brands.
The five-year-old Bukit Timah outlet was renovated and rebranded as Violet Oon Singapore, and National Kitchen opened in 2015. In February, a third eatery – Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill – opened in Clarke Quay.
Ms Oon also credits her two children – son Yiming Tay, 35, and daughter Su-Lyn Tay, 40 – for driving the business successfully.
“It is not easy to be cooking in the kitchen and also running the business. The restaurants that manage to thrive are those that corporatise. If not, you cannot do this forever, it is too tiring,” she says.
Referring to VLV’s executive head chef Martin Foo, who looks younger than his 50 years, she adds: “He still looks so young and trendy and very zen.
“Chefs like him know how to pace themselves and conserve energy for the long run.”
On last Wednesday’s Best Asian Restaurants Awards ceremony, she says: “It gives a sense of camaraderie among chefs of Asian cuisine celebrating our culinary heritage, which is, after all, our roots.
“It was great to meet chefs such as Wild Rocket’s Willin Low and Malcolm Lee of Candlenut restaurant.
“It was even more wonderful to see Spring Court similarly honoured. My parents had their wedding there in 1947 when it was at the then Great World. It was lovely to have Spring Court’s chef honoured alongside the young and trendy ones.”
He may have run into stumbling blocks in his career path as a chef and restaurateur, but Ang Song Kang, better known as Chef Kang of his eponymous restaurant in Mackenzie Road, is never fazed.
The 53-year-old Singaporean started out working at restaurants such as Lei Garden. He opened his first casual eatery, Canton Wok, in Havelock Road in 2002.
It moved to Serangoon and then to Joo Chiat before closing down in 2009.
That year, he filed for bankruptcy after a failed business venture in China.
At the time, the father of two children, aged 23 and 18, told The Sunday Times that he was determined to persevere and open a restaurant again.
He got back on his feet by working at Five Star Tours’ Canton Kitchen in People’s Park Complex for one year.
In 2011, he opened Canton Recipes House in Parc Sovereign Hotel in Albert Street. It closed three years later and he took a break before opening his current restaurant in Mackenzie Road in 2015.
For his persistence over the years while maintaining the standard of his cooking, Ang received the Silver award at the Best Asian Restaurants Awards ceremony.
The soft-spoken chef says he rarely attends such events, but expresses gratitude for the recognition.
He says in Mandarin: “Last time, people just focused on Western food. Now the standard of Chinese restaurants in Singapore is getting higher and everyone wants to improve.”
He travels every two months or so to Guangzhou and Hong Kong to buy ingredients and get inspiration.
Diners at his restaurant would do well to listen when he gives his recommendations, many of which are off-menu items.
Popular dishes include ridged loofah with egg white, simmered rice noodles in superior chowder and braised ee-fu noodles with crayfish.
Besides him, there is only one other cook in the kitchen, who is in his 40s and has been working with him for many years.
The lack of manpower leaves him with no choice but to close the restaurant when he is feeling unwell.
He is undergoing treatment for cancer, which he has been battling for the past six years.
He does not elaborate on his condition, only saying that it is “complicated, but under control”.
On the difficulty of recruiting people to work in the kitchen, he says it is a misconception that Chinese chefs do not impart their knowledge to young chefs.
He says: “We’re not scared that you learn from us. We’re more scared that you don’t want to learn.”
For the past 14 years, the chefs and managers of Indian fine-dining restaurant Rang Mahal in Pan Pacific Singapore have been getting together twice a week to eat.
But this is no casual gathering for the staff to break bread.
Instead, the dozen-strong team taste a rotating line-up of dishes from the menu, during which everything from the flavours to the presentation are critiqued.
Mr Eric Tan, 66, director of Rang Mahal Restaurants, says: “During these meetings, we exchange feedback as well as brainstorm ideas for new dishes. This ensures our staff fully understand the food.”
These meetings are integral to maintaining the quality of food and service in Rang Mahal, which started in 1971 and is the one of the oldest North Indian restaurants here.
On it being the only Indian restaurant to clinch a Silver award at the Best Asian Restaurants Awards, Mr Tan says: “We are happy that we have been recognised.”
The restaurant started business at the now-defunct Oberoi Imperial Hotel in Jalan Rumbia, which was owned by Singapore-based property developer The Hind Group, run by the Jhunjhnuwala family.
The group still runs Rang Mahal Restaurants, which include a casual Indian restaurant, Table by Rang Mahal, in Naumi Hotel that started in 2013.
Rang Mahal moved to the Pan Pacific Singapore in 2000 after the Oberoi Imperial Hotel was demolished.
Over the years, it has gained a strong following among executives and government officials, says Mr Tan, who was been with the restaurant since 2003.
The Hind Group also owns boutique hotels Naumi in Seah Street and Naumi Liora in Keong Saik Road.
Rang Mahal is renowned for its signature Indian dishes such as tandoori lamb chop, tandoor salmon and chicken tikka masala.
But it has evolved over the years to keep up with the dynamic local dining scene.
It was one of the first Indian restaurants here to serve scallop and lobster eight years ago.
And to cater to diners who are increasingly health-conscious, the restaurant uses less oil for its curries and heart-friendly avocado oil for dishes such as smoked bharta (clove-smoked aubergine) and kasundi palak (smooth spinach puree infused with kasundi mustard).
It introduced a quinoa upma in 2013. The dish has since been replaced with pearl millet and corn risotto with sprouted green lentils in its latest menu revamp 11/2 months ago.
Other unusual dishes include Roquefort kulcha (bread stuffed with blue cheese and drizzled with truffle oil) and cucumber and wasabi raita.
Mr Tan says: “We are always trying new dishes to interest diners.”
Peranakan restaurant Candlenut may have made its name with modern touches on the classic cuisine, but now chef-owner Malcolm Lee, 33, wants to go back to the basics.
After his one-Michelin-starred restaurant moved to lifestyle enclave Como Dempsey from Dorsett Residences in New Bridge Road in November last year, he started exploring “the more traditional and rustic nature of the cuisine”.
He is keen on researching old-school Peranakan dishes and making food, such as achar and kueh pie tee shells, from scratch.
He has also introduced more types of kueh, such as kueh salat and kueh bingka, both made in-house and served with ice cream.
He says: “Making kueh is tough. Our focus is on perfecting the flavours and textures just like how the French approach their croissants – by paying close attention to details and holding the food in high regard and pride.
“We are a Peranakan restaurant. We should be able to do traditional dishes well.”
Other old-school dishes that he plans to roll out include a Nonyastyle Hokkien mee, which is a long-lost family recipe.
On his new direction, he says: “Without knowing about the history behind the food, it will not have soul. Without telling stories though food, it becomes less significant.”
However, he is not abandoning Western cooking methods, such as sous vide, entirely.
Instead, he wants to balance them with traditional cooking techniques such as wok-frying or using a charcoal stove.
This can be seen in upcoming dishes on the a la carte menu, such as grilled Iberico pork with achar and pork ribs slow-cooked with buah keluak and slathered with sambal-infused buah keluak.
Candlenut’s popular dishes include buah keluak fried rice with sunny-side up egg, wok-fried king tiger prawns with gula melaka coconut sauce and grilled red lion snapper fillet with sambal and charred garlic chives.
On the restaurant’s one-Michelinstar rating, chef Lee says his priority is to hold on to it rather than aim for another star.
He says: “We don’t need to give ourselves too much pressure.”
On Candlenut’s Silver accolade at the Best Asian Restaurant Awards, he says: “I am happy there is such an award which celebrates the diversity of food in Singapore.
“Hopefully, this win can create more awareness of heritage cuisines and shine the spotlight on lesser-known ones such as dialect cuisines.”
Diners at omakase restaurant Ki-sho in Scotts Road simply could not get enough of its shoyu and pickled daikon. So last year, head chef Kazuhiro Hamamoto, 37, started bottling them.
They have been so well received that the restaurant plans to launch an eponymous line of condiments such as shoyu, fish sauce and ponzu sauce. The sauces will be available by the third quarter of this year at the restaurant.
It is this kind of personalised service that allows Ki-sho, which means “aristocratic craftsmanship” in Japanese, to stand out from other Japanese fine-dining restaurants, says its operations manager, Mr Steven Wong, 38.
He adds that most of the diners, whom he and the chef know by name, make reservations by texting them.
Started in July 2012, the 40-seat Ki-sho is housed in a two-storey colonial bungalow and consists of a sushi bar, sake bar and private dining rooms.
Heading the restaurant is chef Hamamoto, who used to work at Waku Ghin in Marina Bay Sands and is from Kyoto.
Ingredients for the omakase menu are flown in from Japan four times a week.
In season now are hotaru ika (firefly squid) and white asparagus from Kagawa prefecture.
Ki-sho’s popular dishes include Hokkaido uni with oscietra caviar and Toriyama wagyu roll with sushi rice, Aichi shoyu egg yolk and Hokkaido uni.
On the second level is Kakure sake bar, which serves more than 50 labels of sake, including the restaurant’s brand, Ki-sho Junmai Daiginjo Nakadori.
Ki-sho is run by the TCC Group, which also operates eateries such as The Connoisseur Concerto cafe chain, The House of Robert Timms cafe chain, Italian restaurant Buona Terra in Scotts Road and restaurantbar Kuvo in Orchard Road.
•For more stories on Asian Masters, go to str.sg/4n3
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