Michelin alternatives: Where to go when starred restaurants are booked out

Here are some eating establishments that are as good, or even better, than the restaurants that received Michelin stars

The Michelin effect has started.

Last Monday, I queued for almost 21/2 hours for a plate of soya sauce chicken at the newly minted one-Michelin-starred hawker stall in Chinatown.

Incidentally, the name of the stall is Liao Fan. The name provided by the Michelin Guide - Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Noodle & Rice - simply describes what the stall sells.

If you do not want to waste time waiting in line or be turned away by restaurants, there are alternative places that you can go to for similar food. Some are not as good as those picked by the Michelin inspectors, but others are. A few, I feel, are even better.

The Liao Fan soya sauce chicken, for example, was very salty and tasted too strongly of spices such as star anise. But it could be because it was poached in a fresh batch of sauce started to meet the sudden spike in sales.

The poaching sauce usually becomes more rounded and sweeter over time when more chicken has been cooked in it.

Can you find better soya sauce chicken? Yes, you can.

Where? Read on.


Local


National Kitchen by Violet Oon at National Gallery Singapore.  PHOTO: NATIONAL KITCHEN

One Michelin star: Candlenut

Alternative: National Kitchen by Violet Oon

Where: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road, City Hall Wing, 02-01, tel: 9834-9935

Open: 11am to 2.30pm, 6 to 9.30pm daily

What to order: Fish Head Curry ($35) and Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($12) This is a beautiful restaurant to entertain visitors to Singapore, with a decor boasting designs that remind me of a wealthy family's home during colonial times.

The menu, too, offers a good introduction to the food from the country's smaller ethnic groups, with a strong focus on the Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan communities.

Violet Oon, who is Peranakan, serves very good traditional Nonya dishes such as Beef Rendang ($23), but also comes up with worthy new creations such as a moreish Buah Keluak Noodle ($24) with the black nut, which is usually used in a chicken stew.

The Fish Head Curry is good too, more piquant than lemak.

But what really takes me back to my childhood days is the Pineapple Upside Down Cake. It is made with a recipe that dates to the 1960s, down to the bright red glace cherry used to decorate it.


Hawkers

Bak chor mee


Seng Kee Mushroom Minced Meat Noodle at Serangoon Garden Market and Food Centre.  ST PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE

One Michelin star: Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle

Alternative: Seng Kee Mushroom Minced Meat Noodle

Where: Serangoon Garden Market & Food Centre, 49A Serangoon Garden Way

Open: 7.30am to 3pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday

What to order: The $9 bowl of noodle soup

I used to like the noodles at Tai Wah Pork Noodle in Hong Lim Food Centre, but when I tried it last week, I was disappointed by the diluted flavours of vinegar and chilli in the watery sauce.

So I'd recommend Seng Kee, a favourite of mine in Serangoon Garden. Unlike Tai Hwa, which is more popular for its dried noodles because of the strong dose of vinegar in the sauce, Seng Kee is better at noodle soups.

Get the $9 bowl, which has pieces of fried fish maw as well as egg drop in the soup, on top of a decent amount of lean pork slices, liver, minced meat and mushroom slivers.

The ingredients give the broth a strong body and plenty of umami. The soup also boasts a distinct flavour of dried sole, which I love.

Soya sauce chicken noodle and rice

National Kitchen by Violet Oon serves a good mix of traditional and contemporary Nonya dishes.
Chiew Kee Noodle House at Upper Cross Street.  ST PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE

One Michelin star: Liao Fan - Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Noodle & Rice

Alternative: Chiew Kee Noodle House

Where: 32 Upper Cross Street

Open: 8am to 7pm daily, closed every other Wednesday

What to order: Soya sauce chicken drumstick noodle ($5) Don't get this stall mixed up with a similar-sounding one called Chew Kee at No. 8 Upper Cross Street, which also sells chicken noodles.

Chiew Kee is better because its chicken is smoother and does not have the soft, mealy texture that turned me off Chew Kee's version.

A plate of chicken noodles starts at $4, but I do not want to risk getting chicken breast meat, a cut I do not like.

So I pay an extra $1 for the drumstick instead.

The meat is smooth and juicy, while the noodles are firm and do not clump up. The sauce is savoury, not salty, and just a little sweet, which is perfect with the egg noodles.

For me, this beats Liao Fan hands down.


Grill


Skirt at W Singapore.  PHOTO: SKIRT

One Michelin star: Cut, Osia

Alternative: Skirt

Where: W Singapore - Sentosa Cove, 21 Ocean Way, tel: 6808-7288

Open: 6 to 11.30pm (Sunday to Thursday), 6pm to midnight (Friday, Saturday, eve of and on public holiday)

What to order: USDA Prime corn-fed Angus ($90), Grilled Mangalica Pork Loin ($55) Skirt has a good range of meats at varying prices, so it is easy to find something to suit your taste and budget.

I would suggest you give the wagyu a miss. Many of them - such as a $198 Saga-gyu from Kyushu, Japan, and a $198 Blackmore MS 9+ from Australia - are tough on the wallet and the fat content is also too much to handle in a 200g piece of meat.

I prefer the better-value USDA Prime corn-fed Angus ($90 for 350g), which is tender and flavourful without oozing fat.

I like the buzzy ambience of the restaurant - it's in the hip W hotel, after all - but there is still privacy as seats are arranged in booths.


Spanish

National Kitchen by Violet Oon serves a good mix of traditional and contemporary Nonya dishes.
Binomio at Craig Road. PHOTO:  BINOMIO

One Michelin star: Alma

Alternative: Binomio

Where: 20 Craig Road, tel: 6557-0547

Open: Noon to 3pm (Monday to Friday), 5.30 to 11.30pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

What to order: Char-grilled Pork Belly With Razor Clams And Cauliflower Puree ($29) and Squid Ink Paella With Clams And Calamari ($70) Binomio is nothing like Alma, to be honest. It is certainly not a fine- dining restaurant and has none of the refined air of the restaurant at Goodwood Park Hotel.

Instead, it is located under a multi-storey carpark in Craig Place and has a noisy tapas bar in front, which is open to passers-by on the sidewalk. The restaurant inside has a more upmarket feel though.

And the food rocks.

Chef-owner Jose Alonso came here with the opening of the now-defunct Santi in Marina Bay Sands and did a stint at Restaurant Andre before striking out on his own in 2012.

Encapsulating the soul of Spanish cuisine, Binomio offers classic tapas and paella that are among the best you can find in town.

If you want fine-dining Spanish food, go to Alma. If you want real Spanish food, Binomio is where you want to be.


French


Raffles Grill at Raffles Hotel.  PHOTO: RAFFLES HOTEL

Three Michelin stars: Joel Robuchon Restaurant

Two Michelin stars: L'atelier de Joel Robuchon, Les Amis, Restaurant Andre, Odette

One Michelin star: Jaan

Alternative: Raffles Grill

Where: Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road, tel: 6412-1816

Open: Noon to 2pm, 7 to 10pm daily

What to order: Saint George's Bay Scallops ($45) and Golden Turbot With Seaweed Jelly And Clam Sauce ($105) The grill room in the Grande Dame hotel has had its ups and downs, as its chef changes like clockwork every two years or so.

But there have been more ups than downs.

Current executive sous chef Mickael Le Calvez, who is from France, has worked in Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Taipei.

His cooking style is modern French with light Asian touches, which feels up to date without being too experimental. His plating is pretty too, showing an attentive eye towards balance and colours.

The restaurant also boasts an excellent wine cellar, with a selection that is among the most impressive in restaurants here.


Modern European


Cure at Keong Saik Road.  PHOTO: CURE

One Michelin star: Beni, Corner House, Rhubarb Le Restaurant, The Kitchen at Bacchanalia

Alternative: Cure

Where: 21 Keong Saik Road, tel: 6221-2189

Open: 6 to 10pm (Monday to Saturday), noon to 2.30pm (Wednesday to Friday)

What to order: Hamachi Ceviche, Carrot Tartar, Ginger Vinegar & Puffed Quinoa ($24) and Grilled Iberico Pork Loin, Smoked Mussels, Cauliflower & Apple ($35) While not as good as some of the restaurants in the Michelin list, Cure comes close with its original take on European cooking. It is also more affordable, with an average bill that easily stays below $150 a person, without drinks.

Chef Andrew Walsh puts together ingredients that seldom appear on a plate together and makes them all work. The menu changes almost every month, but some masterpieces may remain, such as this month's Iberico pork loin with pickled cauliflower.

Although the restaurant has a casual setting in a shophouse, the food is definitely up there with the stars.


Italian


Gattopardo Ristorante di Mare at Tras Street.  PHOTO: RISTORANTE DI MARE

One Michelin star: Terra

Alternative: Gattopardo Ristorante di Mare

Where: 34-36 Tras Street, tel: 6338-5498

Open: Noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Friday), 6.30 to 10.30pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

What to order: Signature Gattopardo Seafood Stew In Terracotta Pot ($42) and Charred Octopus, Sicilian Olives, Sun Dried Tomatoes And Baby Potatoes ($28) This Italian restaurant is one of my favourites. Chef Lino Gauro, who is from the island of Sicily in Italy, is one of the best Western seafood chefs in Singapore.

I find it hard to resist his seafood stew, which comes in a stone pot that keeps everything warm. The stew is filled with mussels, squid and fish in a tomato broth that hits the spot every time.

When I crave a cleaner flavour, I would order the Signature Salt Baked Mediterranean Sea Bass ($78), where the flavour of the fish is not seasoned with anything other than the salt enveloping it. Some olive oil and fresh lemon juice are all that are needed to complete the dish.

The charred octopus is good too, with a smokiness that perfumes the mouth as you chew on it.


Japanese


Hashida Sushi at Mandarin Gallery.  PHOTO: HASHIDA SUSHI

Two Michelin stars: Shoukouwa

One Michelin star: Shinji by Kanesaka (Raffles Hotel and St Regis Singapore), Sushi Ichi, Waku Ghin

Alternative: Hashida Sushi

Where: Mandarin Gallery, 333A Orchard Road, 04-16, tel: 6733-2114

Open: Noon to 3pm, 7 to 10pm (Tuesday to Sunday)

What to order: The restaurant serves omakase menus. At lunch, prices range from $80 to $250 a person and at dinner, it is $350 to $500 a person.

My experiences at Hashida Sushi have always been interesting because chef Kenjiro "Hatch" Hashida not only prepares exquisite traditional sushi, but also comes up with new creations. He also blends his own sauces and seeks out seasonal Japanese ingredients that are rarely seen in restaurants here, including beautiful golden ikura (salmon roe) that he serves when it is available. The chutoro and otoro sushi, which he prepares in front of the diner, is the piece de resistance that I look forward to at every visit. His desserts are very good too. I will never forget the sakura macaron I ate a few years ago because of its subtle, exquisite fragrance and ultra-light texture.


Indian

One Michelin star: Song Of India

Alternative: Rang Mahal

Where: Pan Pacific Singapore, 7 Raffles Boulevard, Level 3, tel: 6333-1788

Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm

What to order: Murg Tikka Masala ($48) and Hot Stone Tandoori Lamb Chops ($60) For me, Rang Mahal has always been one of the top three North Indian restaurants here. It is also the oldest, having opened at the now-defunct Oberoi Imperial hotel in River Valley Road in the 1970s.

But instead of being stuck in the past, it has evolved over the years to stay relevant to modern palates.

Like Song Of India, its cooking is refined and contemporary.

Some dishes - such as tandoori chicken and murg tikka masala (chicken pieces with bell pepper, onion and tomato masala) - stay traditional. But the chef also pushes the boundaries with ingredients such as lobster and scallops, which have appeared on Indian menus only in recent years.

The photogenic plating has also been influenced by Western food styling, but the flavours stay unmistakably Indian.


Chinese

Two Michelin stars: Shisen Hanten

One Michelin star: Crystal Jade Golden Palace, Lei Garden, Putien, Summer Pavilion, Forest

Alternative: Jiang-Nan Chun

Where: 190 Orchard Boulevard, Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, tel: 6831-7220

Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm daily

What to order: Signature Jiang-Nan Chun Peking Duck ($98) and Soft Shell Prawns With Sliced Almond And Crispy Rice ($15) The awardees in this category are such a mixed bag that I would need to come up with a separate alternative for each of them. But if you are looking for class on top of good Chinese cooking, then the Cantonese restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel comes to mind.

Jiang-Nan Chun underwent a renovation this year and now looks a lot more elaborate, with many design elements in the various rooms - a bit too many, some would say.

The menu has been revamped and the Peking duck, which is a new addition, is excellent. It is roasted with mesquite wood, which gives it a nice smokiness.

You get the option of having the duck sliced thin with mostly skin or thick with more meat attached. I prefer it with meat, which adds flavour and balances the fat in the skin.

The duck also comes with sevruga caviar, which is a novelty you can eat separately or with the duck.

Desserts here are more creative than the run-of-the- mill Chinese restaurant options. Check out the The Yoghurt Cream, Mung Beans, Longan, Chia Seed And Sour Plum Granite ($14).


Correction Note: An earlier version of this story said Odette has one Michelin star. This has been corrected.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'No stars but just as good '. Print Edition | Subscribe