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Restaurants revamp to stay relevant

Restaurants are sprucing up their interiors and revamping their menus to boost business as well as up their game

Change is the only constant in the highly competitive dining scene here. Over the past three months, at least five restaurants have revamped their menus and spruced up their interiors.

Restaurant owners say these refurbishment works are long overdue. For example, Swee Kee Eating House in Amoy Street, which is famed for its sliced fish noodles, has undergone its first renovation in 21 years.

And Bistro Du Vin's two outlets, in Shaw Centre and Zion Road, have undergone their first major renovations since the brand started eight years ago.

Also, some restaurants are feeling the heat from the weakened economy. Bistro Du Vin's director, Mr Philippe Pau, 54, says business has dropped by 12 to 15 per cent over the past two years as diners get more budget-conscious.

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He says: "We hope a revamp will revitalise our business and create some buzz to attract new customers."

For other restaurants, the launch of the Michelin Guide last year is a strong impetus to enhance dining experiences.

Cantonese restaurant Jade in The Fullerton Hotel Singapore had its first major facelift in nine years in March this year. The 120-seat restaurant sharpened its Cantonese identity with a menu revamp and added more Chinese elements to its decor.

The hotel's Chinese executive chef Leong Chee Yeng, 50, says in Mandarin: "Having the Michelin Guide in Singapore has motivated the team to work harder and remain competitive in the dining scene. It is about time we receive a dose of good pressure."


Whole Earth

Where: 76 Peck Seah Street

Open: 11.30am to 3pm; 5.30 to 10pm, daily

Info: Call 6221- 6583 or go to www.wholeearth.com.sg

Peranakan-Thai vegetarian eatery Whole Earth in Peck Seah Street used to be a no-frills cafeteria.

But after a two-month renovation, the 70-seat eatery, which reopened last week, is now an industrial-chic restaurant.

Turquoise wooden panels line the walls while industrial-style light fixtures hang above grey booth seats. To reduce echo in the spacious restaurant, the ceiling is fitted with acoustic panels and noise-absorbing curtains drape the walls.

Co-owner Phyllis Ong, 40, says the co-owners spent more than $500,000 renovating the 14-year- old restaurant, which has been at its Tanjong Pagar location for the past eight years.

She says: "With the opening of the nearby Tanjong Pagar Centre, we are seeing more corporate diners. Our previous space was too casual and not appropriate for business meals."

Being recognised with a Bib Gourmand accolade in the inaugural Singapore Michelin Guide last year was another push factor.

Ms Ong says: "We needed to make up for the lack of ambience."

The owners are also moving Whole Earth away from being known as a vegetarian restaurant.

"In Asia, a vegetarian restaurant is often seen as an eatery that serves mock meat," Ms Ong says. "This mindset has limited our pool of customers."

Instead, they describe the cuisine served in their restaurant as a "plant-based" one that centres on vegetables, legumes and grains.

About 15 per cent of its menu is new, with dishes such as Tofu with Pumpkin Puree ($18) and Steamed Stuffed Shiitake Mushrooms ($25). Popular dishes from before include Assam Pedas Vegetables ($18) and Thai Sweet And Sour Delight ($18).

Come next month, Mediterranean dishes, such as moussaka, marinara pasta and pizzette, will be rolled out. " We want to showcase the potential of vegetables in more creative ways," says Ms Ong.

And to cope with the labour crunch, they bought kitchen equipment that will lighten their work.

There are also plans to replace the current monochromatic mural on the restaurant's shophouse facade with a "vibrant old-meets-new" mural by local artist Anwar Rafie.


Jade Restaurant


The room dividers in Jade Restaurant were inspired by the gelatine birds created by chef Leong Chee Yeng as centrepieces for dishes. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Where: Level 1, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, 1 Fullerton Square

Open: 11.30am to 3pm; 6.30 to 11pm, daily

Info: Call 6877-8911 or go to www.fullertonhotels.com

For more than two decades, chef Leong Chee Yeng has been using gelatine to craft ornate food centrepieces such as a bird perched on a tree.

And this decoration piece went on to become the inspiration for the revamp of the Chinese restaurant, Jade, where he works.

The 50-year-old, who is the Chinese executive chef of The Fullerton Hotel and The Fullerton Bay Hotel, says in Mandarin: "It is an honour to have my artwork as an inspiration to a restaurant that I have spent close to a decade working in."

Jade, which underwent its first major touch-up in nine years, reopened last month after a two-week refurbishment.

The designers were inspired by chef Leong's bird sculpture and covered the restaurant's six towering dividers with a chinoiserie-style teal wallpaper printed with drawings of bird species such as kingfishers and lories perched on branches.

These dividers carve out the restaurant's reception and private dining areas.

The 120-seat restaurant now boasts a muted teal palette. It used to have a darker colour scheme dominated by gold and dark brown.

Teal is also used in its lattice-print carpet, chair upholstery and customised peacock-designed plates. The hotel spent a six-figure sum on the restaurant's facelift.

Chef Leong, who is from Kuala Lumpur but has worked in Singapore for 29 years, says the revamp of the interiors is akin to the transition from autumn to spring.

"The new interiors evoke spring, with flowers blossoming and birds chirping," he says.

Also adorning the restaurant are 18 hand-painted vases and sculptures by the chef, who is a hobbyist ceramic artist. He has been making them for the past 26 years.

The new decor strengthens the restaurant's Cantonese identity, he says.

This slant is also reflected in the revamped menu. Headlining the menu is a collection of Jade's eight signature dishes, They pay homage to a Tang Dynasty couplet that refers to tucking into a feast of eight treasures to convey one's well wishes.

Some of these dishes have been given an upgrade. For example, Japanese wagyu ($23 a person) is used instead of American beef in a dish of tenderloin sauteed with black pepper sauce and garlic. And Boston lobster egg noodles ($39 a person) are poached instead of stir-fried for a more intense infusion of flavours with X.O. sauce, giving it an extra kick.

Chef Leong has also added six new dishes, such as barbecued lemongrass lamb ribs ($23 a person) and pistachio muah chee ($8 for two pieces).

But he also took out 30 per cent of the old dishes, which allows him to showcase his food more concisely, he says.


Bistro Du Vin


Bistro Du Vin's group executive chef Laurent Brouard (left) and director Philippe Pau. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Where: 01-14 Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, and 56 Zion Road

Open: Noon to 2pm; 6.30 to 10pm, daily

Info: Call 6733-7763 (Shaw Centre) or 6836-6313 (Zion Road) or go to www.bistroduvin.com.sg

French restaurant Bistro Du Vin is returning to its French roots after its first major revamp since it opened in 2009.

For the first time in eight years, it has a French chef helming the kitchen - chef Laurent Brouard, 43, who has more than 25 years of experience cooking in French restaurants in London, Japan and, most recently, Hong Kong.

He takes over from former head chef Michael Suyanto from Indonesia, who left in October last year.

Brouard wants Bistro Du Vin to focus on classic French dishes in a "no-nonsense" manner.

He says: "I want to let traditional French cuisine and ingredients shine without distraction from the sides and garnishes."

About 70 per cent of the menu comprises new dishes or those tweaked by him.

New dishes include Moules Frites (Normandy mussels served with French fries made of Agria potatoes, $30) and Tarte De Sardines ($22), Brittany sardines, tomatoes and basil on a warm tart.

More in-house items such as foie gras, fig and smoked duck terrine are in the pipeline.

Also new is the omakase-style menu, Faites Confiance Au Chef (French for "trust the chef").

Diners can choose two to four courses (from $58) created based on their preferences and in-season produce. There are also more weekly specials, which rotate every two to three days to "add more elements of surprise".

The Les Amis Group, which owns the two Bistro Du Vin restaurants, closed them for two weeks last month to spruce up the interiors at a cost of about $180,000.

They now sport a clean-cut and contemporary look. Gone are rustic burgundy-hued walls and wooden facade.

In their place are pared-down white and grey walls and banquettes.

There are fewer French-themed posters and memorabilia on the walls, with the same items put up at both outlets for a consistent look.


Audace


Audace's executive chef Jeremy Gillon wants diners to discover new tastes and sensations through his food. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Where: Wanderlust Hotel, 2 Dickson Road

Open: 7.30am to 11pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays

Info: Call 6298-1188 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/AudaceSG

Rustic French restaurant Cocotte in Wanderlust Hotel in Little India may have closed, but it has been replaced by another French outfit, Audace, which opened four days ago.

Cocotte closed in January this year after its head chef Anthony Yeoh left hospitality group Unlisted Collection, which ran the restaurant. He is now group executive chef of Artichoke and Bird Bird.

Audace, a new 50-seat restaurant and bar, comes from the word audacity, and its executive chef Jeremy Gillon wants diners to make bold choices at the dining table.

The 35-year-old Frenchman says: "I want diners to come in not knowing what to eat, and discover new tastes and sensations through our food."

His menu, which centres on French bistro fare with a contemporary touch, is heavily influenced by in-season ingredients.

The lunch and dinner set menus (from $28 to $98 a person) change three to four times a week.

Chef Gillon takes a vegetables-first approach when designing dishes. "Cooking around meat limits the cooking techniques that I can use, but vegetables can be cooked in more ways to produce a myriad of textures and flavours to pair with the meat or fish."

Take one of his signature dishes, Pork Beetroots ($38), for example. The pork belly is slow-cooked in a beetroot marinade that is infused with lemongrass and star anise.

"Cooking beetroot in different ways, from reducing it to a syrup to roasting it, produces a range of flavours from sweet to bitter," he says.

Other highlights in the set lunch menu include baked sea bass with mashed broccoli and 12-hour poached chicken with pumpkin and pomelo.

The restaurant also has an all-day menu, which includes breakfast and afternoon tea, as well as tipples and bar bites.

Chef Gillon is assembling an international ingredients list. He plans to import oysters and caviar from Vietnam and herbs from northern Thailand and the French Alps.

He also counts the nearby Tekka Market as a regular source of local ingredients such as ikan bilis and pomelo.

He is no stranger to the Singapore food scene. He was the executive French consulting chef for Me@OUE restaurant, which serves French, Japanese and Chinese cuisines. At the same time, he was also executive chef at French restaurant L'Epicurien in Le Montana hotel in Val Thorens in the French Alps. He spent the past four years shuttling between Singapore and France every six months.

Chef Gillon, who moved here for good last month, says: "I love exploring the wet markets here. It is like being a kid in a toy shop."


Swee Kee Eating House


Swee Kee Eating House's marketing director Cedric Tang wants to make fish soup a national dish. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Where: 96 Amoy Street

Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 10pm daily

Info: Call 6224-9920 or go to www.facebook.com/SweeKeeEatingHouse

After 21 years in Amoy Street, Swee Kee Eating House - known for its signature sliced fish noodles in a robust broth - has undergone its first major revamp.

The casual 90-seat eatery reopened on March 13 after about a month of renovations, which included an overhaul of the kitchenand a fresh coat of paint accentuating the red beams on the ceiling.

Mr Cedric Tang, 32, who is from the third-generation in this family business and handles marketing for the brand, says: "The space used to look old-school. Now it's more modern, while retaining a homely feel.

"We're in the age of Instagram, so the restaurant has to look nice as well."

Fans of Swee Kee will be relieved to know that the menu remains unchanged. It still serves popular items such as its sliced fish noodle soup (from $7.50); sliced fish hor fun with bean sprouts ($10.50); prawn paste chicken ($8 or $15.50); and sweet and sour pork ($18.50).

Mr Tang adds that the alcohol menu will be expanded.

The eatery's name has been tweaked, reverting to its original name - Swee Kee Eating House - when it was located at Chin Chew Street in Chinatown in the 1950s.

The name was changed to Swee Kee (Ka-Soh) Fish Head Noodle House when it moved to its current premises in Amoy Street.

Swee Kee Eating House dates back to 1939, when it was founded by Mr Tang's grandfather Tang Kwong Swee at the Great World Amusement Park.

When it moved to a shophouse in Chin Chew Street, the Swee Kee brand was established. By then, it was already known for its fish head noodles using toman (snakehead fish), as well as zi char dishes.

Zi char eatery Ka-Soh, at Singapore General Hospital's Alumni Medical Centre in College Road, is Swee Kee's sister outlet.

It was started in 1997 by Mr Tang's father and second-generation owner Tang Tat Cheong, 63. It also has branches in Kuala Lumpur and Surabaya, Indonesia.

Explaining why Swee Kee went back to its old name, Mr Tang says: "Many people are confused between the Ka-Soh at Amoy Street and SGH. Many end up making reservations for the wrong location."

Following Swee Kee's revamp, changes may also be afoot for the Bib Gourmand-listed Ka-Soh.

Its lease is up in the second half of this year and Mr Tang says he is "exploring options" for a new location.

As he takes the Swee Kee brand forward, he hopes that the humble fish soup will one day be recognised as a "truly Singaporean" dish.

He says: "It's sad that fish soup is not usually considered a Singapore dish. My goal is to elevate its status into a dish that Singaporeans will call their own."

Eunice Quek

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Eateries get a facelift'. Print Edition | Subscribe