SINGAPORE - Bangkok-based Indian celebrity chef Gaggan Anand is opening his Mexican-Indian restaurant Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh in Singapore on Oct 24.
The first Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh, a casual eatery decked out in bright colours and neon lights, opened in the Ekkamai area in Bangkok in March 2020, two weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Thailand. It was a hit, serving dishes that marry Mexican and Indian flavours, themed on a fictitious story about a Mexican girl and an Indian boy who meet and fall in love.
Their romance is told, comics-style, in a printed book that also includes the menu. The 50 or so dishes are organised under headings like “Love At First Bite”, I Need You Now... More Than Words Can Say” and “For Wedding And Maybe A Funeral”. Popular items include Spiced Crunchy Okra, Pork Vindaloo Gringa Tacos and Gaggan’s Crab Curry.
In Singapore, the restaurant is a collaboration with Proper Concepts Collective, which owns brands like The Feather Blade, a steakhouse in Tanjong Pagar Road, and handroll bar Rappu and Goho, a kaiseki eatery and bar, both on Duxton Road. The new restaurant will be located in Craig Road, taking over Mezcla, a Japanese-Mexican taco and tequila bar that Proper Concepts Collective closed to make room for it.
Chef Anand, 44, is known for his high-end Gaggan Anand Restaurant, which pushes the boundaries in cooking techniques and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to fine dining. He was in Singapore for a pop-up of the restaurant at the Mandala Club from November 2021 to June 2022 and was looking to expand his restaurant concepts here when he met Mr Leong Sheen Jet, the managing director of Proper Concepts Collective, by chance at the Maxi coffee bar in Duxton Road in late 2021.
But the busy chef managed to find time to drop in at Rappu with his director of operations Vladimir Kojic only in June. Two days later, he made a formal proposal to Proper Concepts Collective to open Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh in Singapore together.
Says Chef Anand, who reveals he had considered going into business with a bigger partner before that: “You don’t have to be with the big shots. Sometimes, it’s about the passion and we saw that in these young people. We also saw the product at Rappu and how smart they are. They are making restaurant food without a stove, just four rice cookers. I run so many restaurants and I can’t understand how they do it.”
Mr Leong, 30, says Chef Anand had floated the idea of opening Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh together the night he visited Rappu, but he did not take it seriously then. “My first thought was that he was joking. But two days later, he reached out again and we had a more serious talk and decided to take things forward.”
He added: “I had been a fan of what Gaggan has done even before I started my restaurants. We share the same DNA, except he is more refined and experimental while we focus more on the middle market. Gaggan is a rebel but we also like to go against the grain in our concepts, like serving sushi with R&B music and having only a single main cut of steak at The Feather Blade.”
Chef Anand says he was also impressed by Mr Leong’s “work ethic” and his warm relationship with his team, which included taking nine of them for lunch in June at his Mandala Club pop-up, which was priced at $288 a person. “Most of the staff may not understand the food but he’s spending top money for them to eat there. We have common ideas and we will invest in people.”
Mr Leong has a slightly different memory of that lunch. He says: “Gaggan was the only chef for whom my team collectively said, let’s go. Many of them were young and admired what he had done. I saw that it was the right fit.”
The 40-seat Singapore restaurant will not be a clone of the one in Bangkok. The story of the fictitious Mexican-Indian couple continues to play out with them moving to Singapore . The ambience is more sedate, though the bright colours are present in design elements. The menu is also trimmed to about 25 items and some dishes are tweaked to suit the Singaporean palate. Average spending is estimated to be around $60 to $80 for lunch and up to $100 for dinner, inclusive of beverages.
While Chef Anand will be sending a chef from Bangkok to helm the kitchen and his management team will fly to Singapore regularly, the operations are left to his partners here. A kitchen team from Singapore has already been sent to Bangkok for training.
Says Mr Leong: “We decide whether the dishes are the right fit for Singapore. For example, I told Gaggan that although his chicken tikka masala is very good, the average Singaporean will ask if it’s worth paying so much for the dish. That’s why we will keep dishes like crab curry which is something you can’t get in a coffee shop.”
Chef Anand says he was only interested in a joint venture and not a franchise. He adds: “The worst that can happen is we lose face together. But if we don’t, we make money.”
Ms. Maria and Mr. Singh Singapore is located at 43 Craig Road. From Oct 24, it opens for lunch from Fridays to Sundays and dinner from Wednesdays to Sundays. Reservations can be made at https://str.sg/wHq5