Pandemic victors: Seeking carb comfort in fried rice, ramen and burgers

(Clockwise from top left) King of Fried Rice's egg fried rice with pork cutlet, OG Lemak's chicken rendang set, Blanco Court Superior Beef Noodles, Burg's Classic Cheese Burger.
(Clockwise from top left) King of Fried Rice's egg fried rice with pork cutlet, OG Lemak's chicken rendang set, Blanco Court Superior Beef Noodles, Burg's Classic Cheese Burger.PHOTOS: JASON QUAH, CHONG JUN LIANG, BLANCO COURT BEEF NOODLES, KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - Burgers, fried chicken, fried rice and ramen.

Chances are you have sought solace in these comfort foods during the pandemic.

And in turn, many food and beverage (F&B) businesses are also banking on these dishes to tide through tough times.

Many high-end restaurant and bar chains pivoted to offering these high-carb options during dine-in bans, as they pack and survive islandwide delivery well.

Last month, Japanese restaurant group Akashi started selling Japanese-style burgers on Oddle.

In June, cocktail bar Jekyll & Hyde rolled out fried chicken brand Curry Fried Chicken and virtual brand Ugly Dumpling, which offers dumplings and fried rice.

Ramen restaurant chain Tsuta, which has four outlets here, also launched handy ramen kits - for people to prepare dine-in quality ramen at home in five minutes.


Tsuta DIY noodle kits. PHOTO: TSUTA

These were originally intended to be temporary solutions to keep their staff employed and businesses going when dining-in was disallowed. But F&B owners continued with these delivery-friendly cuisine concepts as an additional - and ever growing - stream of revenue.

On what diners crave this period, Mr Brian Chua, chief executive of Gourmet Food Holdings, says: "People want three things. Affordability; food that they cannot cook at home by themselves such as burgers and ramen which can be troublesome; and store experience with service - such as hotpot and Korean barbecue."

Next month, he will open Mrs Pho House at Takashimaya Shopping Centre - a more upmarket sister brand to the popular Vietnamese chain Mrs Pho - which will feature Vietnamese charcoal hotpot and barbecue.

He has four Mrs Pho outlets islandwide now, the latest opened at 313 @ Somerset in April.

Over the next two years, he has lined up five to eight new brands, including a Hong Kong cha chaan teng, as well as coffee and bakery concepts.

He is optimistic about the rest of the year.

"We learnt to be flexible and to have many contingency plans. With vaccination rates looking up, I hope that things stabilise from October," he says.

Like Mr Chua, many savvy F&B owners have been forging full steam ahead with expansions and openings since dine-in resumed for the vaccinated on Aug 10.

Other new openings this month include Hong Kong-style eatery Pi Food at 9 Penang Road (formerly known as Park Mall); New York-style pizza joint Proper Slice by pizza restaurant Lucali BYGB at 110 Amoy Street; and restaurant-bar Tipsy Flamingo at Raffles City Shopping Centre.

Tipsy Flamingo, which is under F&B group Tipsy Collective, is a partnership with local celebrity couple Pierre Png and Andrea De Cruz, and showcases lobster rolls, cocktails and local fusion dishes in a beach-themed setting.

Over at Great World City, local pastry chef Janice Wong debuts her ice cream brand Softhaus; while Da Paolo Gastronomia's eighth outlet brings together dishes from its concepts - Panini Italiani, Pizza Bar and Pasta Bar - as well as a gelato counter, a live pizza station and an aperitivo bar.

Next week, steakhouse Bedrock Bar & Grill in Somerset launches its sister outlet Bedrock Origin at Oasia Resort Sentosa on Wednesday; while Italian grill restaurant Griglia Open Fire Italian Kitchen in Craig Road opens its doors on Friday.

Griglia Open Fire Italian Kitchen comes under the umbrella of Food Concepts Group, which also owns Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge and Z Bar - both at the Ocean Financial Centre.


Local pastry chef Janice Wong debuts her ice cream brand Softhaus. PHOTO: SOFTHAUS


Bedrock Origin at Oasia Resort Sentosa. PHOTO: BEDROCK ORIGIN


PHOTO: GRIGLIA OPEN FIRE ITALIAN KITCHEN

There is no let up in action. Chef Julien Royer of the three-Michelin-starred Odette - in collaboration with The Lo & Behold Group - is expected to open a French restaurant called Claudine at Dempsey Hill soon.

The restaurant - named after his mother - takes over the space vacated by the group's popular restaurant, The White Rabbit, which closed in April.

Chef Royer says: "Claudine has been a long time in the making. It was inspired by my mother's cooking that I have held close to my heart for a long time."

Amid the slew of new openings and expansions, business owners are banking on both familiarity and novelty.

In a climate of uncertainty, Akashi's chef-owner Mervin Goh feels that diners will reach for "easy comfort food".

During last year's circuit breaker, he brought back nasi lemak from his now-defunct restaurant chain Grandma's for delivery only. The individual sets, selling for $13.80, took off, then fizzled out because there were cheaper options available out there, he says.

His last Gyoza-Ya outlet - which specialised in gyoza - closed in April due to rental pressures.

He now plans to renovate his flagship Japanese grill restaurant Akanoya Robatayaki at Orchard Rendezvous Hotel, and introduce a new chef who will add a European touch to the food.

He observes: "Last year, people wanted to splurge. Now, it's not that they cannot afford it, but they will order simple, familiar food. Regulars may support you, but fresh concepts can bring in new customers as well."


Rice and noodles


King of Fried Rice's owner Lester Li at his Serangoon North outlet on Aug 24, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

It is 15 outlets and counting for Mr Lester Li, the 24-year-old owner of the popular King of Fried Rice chain. The brand is known for its egg fried rice topped with a generous pork chop slab. Priced at $6.50, it costs half of what is typically charged at mass-market restaurants.

Most of its stalls are located in coffee shops. One is at Ion Orchard's three-month-old eatery Hawkers' Street, while two are at cloud kitchens. The chain expanded rapidly amid the pandemic, opening 13 outlets this year alone.

Mr Li, a former chef at seafood chain Jumbo Group, started his first outlet at Golden Mile Tower in 2018 and opened his second outlet two years later in Sengkang.

When the stalls regularly drew three-hour-long queues through the pandemic, Mr Li decided to go full steam ahead.

The ambitious father of two is on track to open two more outlets next month - in Bukit Batok and Holland Village - and another three by the end of the year. Next year, he plans to grow his fried rice empire to 40 outlets. On weekends, each outlet can sell up to 1,000 plates of fried rice a day.


The brand is known for its egg fried rice topped with a generous pork chop slab. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

It is all about "consistent quality of food that is value for money and convenient", says Mr Li, who notes that many are still working from home and will not venture too far to eat.

Also banking on comfort carbs is Mr Cedric Tang, the third-generation owner of Ka-Soh zichar restaurant, which has outlets at Outram Park and Greenwood Avenue.

The 36-year-old introduced a pork lard-laden fried rice at the beginning of this month, which is available only at the Outram Park outlet.

Sales exceeded his expectations and the dish sold out in the first weekend. So far, he has sold more than 220 portions of the dish.


Pork lard-laden fried rice. PHOTO: KA-SOH

Other popular items include the brand's signature sliced fish soup, prawn paste chicken and deep-fried pork ribs.

These three dishes - born during the heightened alert period when dine-in was banned - will be launched in ready-to-cook frozen versions. Pre-orders open on Sept 9.

Mr Tang says: "There is no need to be overly fancy. People are just looking for comfort food."

Over at Newton Food Centre, chef Shen Tan is also dishing out comfort food.

The 10-day-old OG Lemak - opened in partnership with burger chain Wolf Burgers - serves her famed 11-ingredient, twice- steamed nasi lemak, which takes more than four hours to cook.


Chef Shen Tan (left) and her business partner Ho Song En pose with their food at OG Lemak at Newton Food Centre on Aug 26, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

It marks a return to chef Tan's hawker roots. The 49-year-old ran a stall called Madam Tan's Nasi Lemak at Maxwell Food Centre in 2008.

Her rice is steamed with onions, ginger, lemongrass and pandan leaves, then soaked in coconut milk, water, salt and fenugreek, before being steamed again.

Sets are priced from $7.90, with a choice of crispy chicken, beef rendang, chicken rendang or vegan.


(Clockwise from top right) Chicken rendang, Vegan, OG Lemak and Beef rendang sets from OG Lemak at Newton Food Centre on Aug 26, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

The stall is pending halal certification and there are plans for islandwide delivery.

Chef Tan, who also runs private dining outfit Ownself Make Chef and has a pop-up at Raffles Hotel Singapore selling three noodle dishes till Sept 15, says: "Nasi lemak is comfort food for Singaporeans of all ethnicity, and I wanted to (cater to all) - whether you're vegan or don't eat pork."

Noodles are also popular comfort carbs and some chains are expanding.

Blanco Court Beef Noodles opened its eighth outlet, a 40-seater, at Our Tampines Hub last Monday.


Beef ball noodles. PHOTO: BLANCO COURT BEEF NOODLES

The casual restaurant's signature Superior Beef Noodles (from $10.90) comes with premium-cut beef shank, beef tripe, slice beef, beef balls and beef tendon topped with a rich gravy, or served in a herbal broth brewed over 24 hours with 15 types of herbs and spices.

Other options include the classic sliced beef noodles (from $7.90) and beef ball noodles (from $7.90). Another outlet is slated to open next month at Northpoint City.


Fried chicken

It is hard to resist finger-licking good fried chicken. No surprise, then, that it is one of the top items ordered on delivery platform foodpanda.

The K-drama wave has also set off cravings for Korean fried chicken, with shows like Crash Landing On You featuring the item prominently.

Several fast food chains here have recently introduced new offerings. Sink your teeth into Texas Chicken's salted egg fried chicken (from $10.60 for a two-piece set), which makes its return in conjunction with National Day. It is available till Sept 8.

KFC also has a newly launched BBQ Cheese Zinger burger (from $6.60) with turkey bacon, pickles, barbecue and cheese sauce. More fried chicken burgers will also be rolled out soon, the fast food chain said in a press statement.


The BBQ Cheese Zinger burger. PHOTO: KFC SINGAPORE

Some delivery-only brands also sprouted up during dine-in bans.

Like virtual brand Curry Fried Chicken by cocktail bar Jekyll & Hyde. It launched in June during the heightened alert phase and remains as a pop-up at the bar in Neil Road.

The chicken, coated in curry powder and spices, is priced from $16 for a two-piece set with a side and drink.


The chicken, coated in curry powder and spices, is priced from $16 for a two-piece set with a side and drink. PHOTO: CURRY FRIED CHICKEN

Wildfire Burgers, which closed in 2019 and reopened during last year's circuit breaker at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, offers two popular comfort food items - burgers (from $9) and fried chicken (from $5 for a piece).

Revenue has been growing consistently month on month since the reopening, says co-founder Joanne Toh, 28, who runs the restaurant with her fiance, Mr Shaun Leong, 35.

Next month, a flagship outlet will open at mixed-use development 1557 Keppel. A pastry and dessert concept at Robertson Walk, as well as Nightcar, an "ultra-super premium by-appointment-only" entertainment, dining and bar concept, will follow in October.

By the end of the year, Ms Toh will also roll out K VOX, a delivery-only Korean fried chicken concept that showcases a "fresh take" on the trend. "Comfort food like burgers and fried chicken are loved for their simplicity and versatility," she adds.


Burgers

When dining in was off-limits again during the heightened alert phase last month, Mr Mervin Goh, chef-owner of Japanese restaurant group Akashi, was a desperate man.

Business had suffered badly during previous rounds of dine-in bans and he saw no point in dishing out the same menu at his two restaurants in Paragon mall and Orchard Rendezvous Hotel.

His employees' livelihood was at stake.

The 49-year-old needed a quick fix and decided to offer burgers for takeaway and delivery instead.

He was leveraging his experience with Japanese brand Freshness Burger, which he brought here in 2010. It exited two years later, partly due to rental issues.

"There was no time for anything elaborate. We needed to create a new menu in a few days," he says.

He cobbled together a menu comprising a teriyaki tori burger ($11.80); a carb-centric kintoki-imo burger with a sweet potato patty; and a premium wagyu steak burger (from $48.80).


Business had suffered badly during previous rounds of dine-in bans and Akashi chef-owner Mervin Goh decided to offer burgers for takeaway and delivery instead. PHOTO: AKASHI GROUP

Switching to burgers paid off. It drew a "more than decent" response, Mr Goh says, as well as a new set of customers who learnt about the brand via social media.

Now, the burgers are also available for dine-in at the Paragon outlet from 2.30 to 5.30pm daily.

Mr Goh says: "We'll serve them for as long as possible. We could open a physical shop, but we're not in a hurry."

Chef-restaurateur Willin Low's pivot to burgers is also doing well.

His revived burger brand Burger Bench & Bar (B3) - meant to be a pop-up during the first heightened alert period in May - continues to operate out of his Relish restaurant at Frasers Tower.


Burgers and fries from Burger Bench & Bar. PHOTO: B3

This month, a chilli crab burger ($18.90) and a sambal hijau chicken burger ($16.90) were added to the menu.

The burger bonanza continues over at Gardens by the Bay, where popular American burger chain Shake Shack unveiled its seventh outlet here today (Aug 28). It has opened five outlets here since the pandemic started.

Two limited-edition items - a loaded roasted garlic mushroom burger (from $12.50) and crinkle-cut fries topped with a creamy, roasted garlic mayonnaise ($6.50) - will be sold at the new outlet, then made available at the others from Friday. They are on the menu till Oct 15.


Shake Shack has opened five outlets here since the pandemic started. PHOTO: SHAKE SHACK SINGAPORE

One player who jumped on the burger bandwagon even before the pandemic is home-gown Gourmet Food Holdings, which runs restaurant chains Tsuta and Mrs Pho.

After observing the likes of overseas burger chains Shake Shack and Five Guys muscling into the scene here in recent years, owner Brian Chua, 40, saw an opportunity to offer "quality burgers at a lower price point" and broached a partnership with popular Muslim-owned burger brand Burgs in 2019.

Both of Burgs' founders are trained chefs. Mr Mohd Ridzuan Ayob, 27, is a Shatec graduate who worked at one-Michelin-starred Terra Tokyo Italian; while Mr Muhd Shah Indra Jasni, 29, earned his chops at two-Michelin-starred Saint Pierre and DB Bistro & Oyster Bar.


(From left) Mr Mohd Ridzuan Ayob, Mr Muhd Shah Indra Jasni and Mr Brian Chua. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

The first Burgs outlet opened in 2017 at Golden Mile Food Centre. It closed two years later and the brand later ventured to Punggol, Bukit Batok and Chai Chee.

Its partnership with Gourmet Food Holdings was put on hold because of the pandemic.

Nine days ago, its first fast casual mini restaurant finally opened at the Food Republic foodcourt in 313 @ Somerset. It is pending halal certification.

New menu items at this outlet include marinara beef burger (from $5.90), salmon roll ($11.90) and chicken Coney dog ($6.90) topped with spiced nacho cheese sauce, chilli con carne and sauteed onion.


Burgs offer quality burgers at a lower price point. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Business has been brisk and other malls' landlords have approached them for expansion, says Mr Chua. He now plans to open in other malls and hawker centres.

Mr Chua says: "Even before the pandemic hit, we were looking out for trends that will do well.

"People love burgers and there is a big enough market here...We wanted the first outlet to be in Orchard Road, so that tourists will come in the future too."