American food faces revival as diners hit town
This story originally appeared in The Sunday Times on Sept 30.
A wave of diners and restaurants offering American-style fare has entered the local market.
At least five, including ventures by Singaporeans as well as one by an experienced food and beverage group, have opened recently.
Expect well-charred steaks, juicy burgers, slaw and fries and a lot more.
Food at these new diners now runs the gamut from lobster rolls and gumbo, a stew from the southern state of Louisiana, to pot pies and ribs in a smokey hickory sauce.
Modern diner and ribs restaurant Morganfield's and seafood diner Boston Seafood Shack both started operating at the new Star Vista mall in Buona Vista a fortnight ago.
Also two weeks old is Suprette, a kitschy and quirky diner at the recently opened boutique hotel Kam Leng in Jalan Besar.
BJ's American Diner in Balestier Road, by the founder of American hawker chain Botak Jones, Bernie Utchenik, opened in April this year.
There is also the month-old casual Cajun seafood eatery, The Cajun Kings, in Jalan Riang in Braddell Heights Estate.
American fare has been a perennial favourite here, hitting its stride in the 1990s with Hard Rock Cafe and diner-cum-rib joints Tony Roma's and Dan Ryan's opening in the Orchard Road area.
The trend in the early 1990s even prompted local players to start up home-grown chains, such as Billy Bombers and nydc - New York Dessert Cafe.
Both opened their first outlets here in 1995. Billy Bombers now has six outlets islandwide while nydc has five.
Since then, however, growth of American diners and restaurants has slowed, save for a handful of chains including Applebee's and Chili's setting up shop here over the last couple of years.
But the scene is changing fast with the influx of new American eateries.
Some are notably more upmarket, such as Ruth's Chris Steak House, which opened at the Marina Mandarin Singapore last month.
Its steaks are priced between $85 and $205 each.
More restaurants are also in the works.
Chef-owner Travis Masiero has plans for a yet-to-be-named New York-esque seafood restaurant in the CBD area.
This will be his second restaurant after the upscale Luke's Oyster Bar & Chop House in Gemmil Lane off Club Street, well-known for its steaks and oysters, as well as its New England lobster rolls and clam chowder.
Newcomers Morganfield's and The Cajun Kings are already eyeing expansion opportunities in food enclave neighbourhoods and malls.
Meanwhile, at least one stalwart says the increasing competition is a good thing.
Ms Wang Whee Min, 41, general manager, group retail of lifestyle products and service enterprise company SUTL Group, which owns the nydc chain, says: "It provides consumers with choices and stimulates creativity among food and beverage establishments."
THE CAJUN KINGS
Nestled in the Braddell Heights housing estate near Serangoon stands a new Cajun seafood eatery, The Cajun Kings.
The casual restaurant, which took over the space previously occupied by Australian bistro Jules Cafe & Bar, opened last month. It is next door to Wimbly Lu cafe.
Run by friends and business partners Melvin Chen, 31, Marcus Kok, 30 and Andrei Soen, 26, it cost about $300,000 to set up.
Mr Soen, who trained at the International Culinary Center in California, helms the kitchen. Mr Chen, a former television producer, and Mr Kok, who had a marketing role and used to work the front-of-house at his family's restaurants in California, work the floor, doing everything from taking orders to delivering food to clearing tables.
Cousins Mr Kok and Mr Soen have experience running their family's Singaporean and seafood restaurants in California that ran until the mid- to late noughties. Their family has since sold the restaurants.
The Singaporean trio wanted to start a cosy, unpretentious eatery - a place where diners could tuck into hearty fare without worrying about getting their hands dirty.
So, riding on the increasingly popular trend of Cajun fare on the West coast of the United States, they decided to work on a similar concept here.
The cuisine, which comes from the Southern part of the United States and can be found in places such as Louisiana, uses spices such as cayenne pepper and paprika in its preparation.
But how did they know a Cajun seafood concept would take off here? Instinct, perhaps.
Mr Chen says: "We knew we could replicate and improve on what was being done in the States, in the blind belief that people in Singapore would accept it."
So far, business at the eatery has been brisk.
The Cajun Kings serves items such as crab ($12 for 100g), Boston lobster ($14 for 100g) and Manila clams ($8 for 100g), cooked with various seasonings including the King's Mix, the restaurant's special mix of lemon pepper, garlic butter and Cajun spices.
Other delights include buttermilk frog's legs ($15), pork crackling ($7) and gumbo ($11) filled with andouille sausage and chicken.
The partners are already hunting for new spaces to grow their business, but say they will likely give malls a miss as they are more attracted to quirky neighbourhoods.
Where: 15-1 Jalan Riang, tel: 6284-4426
Open: 3 to 10pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
BOSTON SEAFOOD SHACK
A trip to Boston to suss out seafood supplies resulted in The Boston Seafood Shack - Creative Eateries' first American diner.
The local food and beverage group's chief executive Anthony Wong had travelled to the city in the United States earlier this year. He was so inspired by what he found there that he came up with the concept, now open at The Star Vista mall in Buona Vista.
Creative Eateries is behind 15 other restaurant concepts, including Thai restaurant Bangkok Jam, Japanese restaurants Tajimaya and Shabuya, Western bistro-restaurant Vineyard at Hort Park and Italian restaurant Al Dente Trattoria.
A spokesman for the group says: "We invented Boston Seafood Shack because we wanted to bring the magic of the Boston harbour to Singapore and offer fresh and premium seafood in a casual setting, to our customers."
The seafood at Boston Seafood Shack comes from Australia and the US.
She adds: "With a good supply chain of fresh, imported seafood, we could not help but feel that fast seafood would be the next big thing."
By integrating the seafood concept with the easily identifiable classic American diner, the group feels it will fill a gap in the current market.
To cope with the manpower shortage in the food and beverage industry, the group also decided to make the 120-seater restaurant a self-service one. Here, diners have to queue and pay for the meals upfront. A buzzer will sound when the food is ready for collection. The group says the self-service concept helps to keep prices down.
Tuck into items such as a lobster roll ($15, above left), made with fresh, chilled lobster, a grilled salmon burger ($10) and Atlantic cod pasta ($13.50).
It also serves clam chowder ($5, above right), lobster bisque ($5.50) and fish and chips with a choice of barramundi, snapper, cod or catch-of-the-day (from $9.50) a serving.
Where: The Star Vista, 1 Vista Exchange Green, 01-16
Open: 11am to 10pm (Mondays to Thursdays), 11am to 11pm, (Fridays and Saturdays); 8am to 10pm (Sundays)
Jalan Besar is the latest up-and-coming neighbourhood in town, what with the opening of speciality coffee cafe Chye Seng Huat Hardware in Tyrwhitt Road.
Caffeine-shy hipsters now have another option in the area: Suprette, a small and hip diner-cafe on the ground floor of new boutique hotel Kam Leng, just a stone's throw away along Jalan Besar.
By day, the 30-seater eatery offers diners a respite from the busy thoroughfare. By night, it is a refuge from the pubs and bars in the surrounding streets.
The restaurant's name is emblazoned on the wall, each letter illuminated with a crimson back-light, reminiscent of a new-age diner.
Designed by architectural and interior design consultancy Fuur Associates, the eatery opened about a fortnight ago.
Set up by Mr Varian Lim, a partner at live music venue and Asian disco Tab at Orchard Hotel, and Mr Peter Tan, general manager of Tab - with other, silent partners - the venture cost about $150,000.
The partners like the idea of hole-in-the-wall eateries, as opposed to larger dining spaces in malls.
The aim, Mr Tan says, is to keep the menu small and wholesome, and do each dish well.
For now, the lunch menu has six items, including a chicken pot pie - a hearty chicken stew with carrots, peas, potatoes topped with crisp, golden-brown pastry ($14) - and a smoked turkey sandwich ($14).
Other food items include the signature The Suprette Burger ($19), a beef patty with gruyere cheese served with fries, that can be topped with additional items such as bacon, foie gras, mushroom and avocado. For breakfast, there is a corned beef hash ($14) and ricotta pancakes ($14).
Mr Tan says: "We fell in love with the space. The idea here is to serve comfort food in an environment where people can come to relax and enjoy themselves."
Where: Kam Leng Hotel, 383 Jalan Besar, lobby level
Open: Breakfast, 7.30 to 10.30am, Lunch, 11.30am to 2.30pm. From Monday, it will also serve tea & coffee at 2.30 to 5pm, and dinner from 6 to 10.30pm, daily
BJ'S AMERICAN DINER
Mr Bernie Utchenik, the founder of Western hawker chain Botak Jones, now runs a full-fledged American diner.
The open-kitchen diner, which occupies a 1,400 sq ft space on the ground floor of a conservation shophouse along Balestier Road, opened in April this year.
Mr Utchenik, 60, runs it with his wife, Zee, 50. The couple are now minority shareholders of BJ Foods, which owns the Botak Jones chain and the new diner is their main business.
Detroit-born Singaporean Utchenik says: "Business has been promising and growing month on month."
Of his choice to start a new diner, he adds: "I'm 60 and the running of a company with so many outlets with my name on it became unwieldy and a little too much for me. My wife and I were looking for something simpler as we head into our golden years."
The walls of the casual diner are lined with items that range from old jazz festival posters from New Orleans to Harley- Davidson memorabilia.
Food wise, expect nothing short of hearty, good ol' American fare.
Mr Utchenik tries to use better quality ingredients too, including wild-caught salmon.
The steaks here are marinated and tenderised in-house with the diner's $7,000 tenderiser-machine. A USDA-certified Black Angus prime steak costs $46, while a New Zealand ribeye is priced at $20.
Other items on the menu include Louisiana-style chicken gumbo (from $5 a serving), a tender and juicy honey baked half-chicken (available on Wednesdays only, $18, above) served with sweet sauteed peppers, and a cheese steak sandwich (from $9.50) - finely sliced beef in a tasty cheese sauce served on ciabatta.
Where: 312 Balestier Road, at the corner of Kim Keat Road
Open: 11.30am to 11.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays). Closed on Mondays. Last order for food is at 11pm.
Info: Call 6252-6225. Go to www.bjbalestier.com or its Facebook page.
Anyone for Sticky Bones?
That is the affectionate, trademarked term used to refer to the pork ribs at two-week-old modern diner Morganfield's at The Star Vista in Buona Vista.
The ribs are the Malaysia-based chain's signature dish. This is its first outlet in Singapore.
The pork ribs used here are from Brazil and are baked for more than 31/2 hours in a convection oven.
Marinades include a Hickory wood-smoked barbecue sauce, Tuscan- baked style with spicy tomato sauce and a smoked peppercorn version. A half slab is priced at $24.90 a serving, while a full-slab costs $36.90.
The Singapore franchise is owned and run by Australian-Chinese partners Jo-Di Ng and Kevin Chung, both 34, who have been friends since their secondary school days in Sydney.
Both used to hold jobs in Singapore - Mr Ng moved here seven years ago and Mr Chung, two years ago - up until a few months ago, when they quit to set up Morganfield's. Mr Ng used to work in marketing and business development for a global fast-moving consumer goods company, while Mr Chung was an IT professional with a construction company.
The 4,500 sq ft restaurant, which can seat about 180 people, cost $1 million to set up.
The duo recognise that ribs are a "well-known commodity" here, but with Morganfield's, they hope to offer a fresh approach to the old American diner concept that includes flashing neon lights and cheesy banquette seats.
While the interior of the restaurant is both modern and chic, it evokes a somewhat rustic charm thanks to its use of recycled timber.
The restaurant also serves a variety of other American-style fare including steaks and pork and lamb chops. There is also seafood, poultry and burgers such as the Smokehouse bacon cheese burger ($22.90) - a home-made pork or beef patty, grilled and glazed with Hickory barbecue sauce, topped with cheddar cheese, caramelised onions and crispy pork bacon.
Expect to spend about $15 to $20 for lunch and about $35 to $40 for dinner.
Where: The Star Vista, 1 Vista Exchange Green, 02-23
Open: 11am to 10.30pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 11am to midnight (Fridays and Saturdays)
Info: For reservations, call 6694-3635. Go to www.morganfields.com