The bronze winners of The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants Awards were announced last Tuesday. Twenty-nine restaurants made the list. This is the second year of the awards, which celebrate the best in Asian dining in Singapore, and the winning restaurants are ranked in bronze, silver and gold categories.
Restaurants are judged on the quality of food and service, by a team comprising The Straits Times' Life editor Tan Hsueh Yun, deputy Life editor Wong Ah Yoke and food correspondent Eunice Quek, as well as Lianhe Zaobao food correspondents Marcus Yeo, Ng Chin Chin and Ng Yimin.
The silver and gold winners will be announced at an invitation-only gala reception at the Grand Hyatt Singapore on April 16. The annual awards programme is part of a year-long gourmet festival, Asian Masters. The festival is organised by Sphere Exhibits, a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, and food and beverage consultancy Poulose Associates.
The Sunday Times speaks to three restaurants who made their debut on the list of bronze winners.
When Mr Chetan Kapoor took over Yantra by Hemant Oberoi, he got rid of the pressure cookers in the kitchen. He brought in old-fashioned claypots and installed new tandoori ovens because he wanted to go back to authentic ways of cooking North Indian food.
The 50-year-old restaurant owner, who is from New Delhi, says: "I want to give people an authentic taste of India when they dine at Yantra. I want flavours that go back to the roots of our culture."
He started Myra's - a Mexican and North Indian restaurant - in Singapore in 2008. He now has three outlets here and two in Kuala Lumpur.
But he has no intention of changing Yantra's concept of North Indian fine dining as he feels a responsibility to the restaurant's founders to carry on what they started in 2008.
He took over the restaurant in April last year and immediately went to work. He hired more staff and discussed menu changes with chef Oberoi, who welcomed a greater use of traditional methods of cooking.
For the restaurant's signature Dal Makhani, a North Indian staple, the lentils are cooked for 18 to 24 hours in a pot placed on top of a tandoori oven. Another signature dish, the Lucknavi Gosht Biryani, is made with 28 spices, 18 of which are from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, where Mr Kapoor's wife is from.
The restaurant owner, who is vegetarian and does not drink alcohol, relies on his staff to ensure that standards in food and drink are high. His operations manager, who is also a certified wine specialist, selects bottles for the restaurant's cellar. He was a former manager at Yantra who left before Mr Kapoor took over. Impressed with his service on a previous visit, the new boss looked him up and asked him to return.
Service is as much of a priority as the quality of food and Mr Kapoor sets the tone and leads by example, jumping in to serve customers when the restaurant gets busy.
He makes it a point to visit the restaurant almost daily, despite his busy schedule managing Myra's.
He credits his staff with garnering the bronze award for the restaurant.
"People these days are wellexposed to the food of different cultures, including North Indian cuisine. Chicken tikka may be a common dish that many are familiar with, but when customers eat this at Yantra, I want them to have the feeling that this is a version of chicken tikka that is like no other they have eaten."
Banking on the personal touch
The partnership between Peach Garden founders and general managers Veronica Tan, 60, and Angela Ho, 63, dates back to 1979. That was when they worked together as hostess captains in Sichuan restaurant Mei San at the then Holiday Inn hotel in Scotts Road (now Royal Plaza on Scotts).
They bonded during their three-hour split-shift breaks. They would share a pair of earphones plugged into a Sony Walkman to listen to audio recordings of TVB drama The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, starring Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat, which was showing that year.
Ms Tan recalls: "We couldn't watch the video tapes at work, so a friend recorded the audio on cassette tapes for us. We found it an entertaining way to pass the time between 3pm and 6pm, when the restaurant was closed."
They became fast friends and later worked together at other restaurants, including Goodwood Park Hotel's Min Jiang as well as Liu Xiang Lou at the former Taipan Hotel, and were on the pioneering team of Hua Ting at Orchard Hotel.
"We made it clear to potential employers who approached us that they had to hire us as a pair. We are like a pair of chopsticks - you need two chopsticks to pick up food and eat properly," says Ms Ho.
"It made sense as we shared a common pool of regular customers and we provided the same level of service so we could cover for each other on our days off."
Their friendship got them through tough times when the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis broke out in 2003.
This was just after they took the plunge to open their first two Peach Garden restaurants, in Novena and Bedok.
Their fledgling business survived the drop in business with the help of staff who agreed to take a pay cut, suppliers who granted more time for payment and customers who continued to patronise them.
In 2006, they opened their third restaurant, on the 33rd storey of OCBC Centre in Chulia Street. This was against the advice of concerned long-time customers and naysayers in the industry. They said the financial district was not an ideal location for the restaurant business as the area empties out on weekday evenings and on weekends.
But one of their investors encouraged them to take the space and open a Chinese fine-dining restaurant to attract the corporate crowd. That restaurant has made it to the bronze list of the Best Asian Restaurants Awards for the first time this year.
The restaurant serves its own modern take on Cantonese cuisine, with signature dishes such as Chilled Black Glutinous Rice With Ice Cream In Coconut, Double-boiled Assorted Seafood Soup In Golden Melon and Fried Carrot Cake With XO Sauce.
Personalised service is a draw for customers, especially regulars.
Ms Tan says: "It is tough on our chefs and staff because they have to be ready to accommodate special requests such as preparing dishes that are not on the menu, but they are trained to adapt and be flexible."
Both women promote a culture of inclusiveness at work. All staff, whether in the kitchen or front of the house, receive an equal share of the tips.
Peach Garden was acquired by the Select Group for $10.2 million in 2008, but the two women remain very much involved in the running of the restaurants, right down to selecting the tableware and ingredients.
The award comes as a surprise for Peach Garden, which is gearing up for the launch of its first overseas restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City in a few months. The new outlet will be a Chinese fine-dining restaurant, similar to Peach Garden at OCBC Centre.
Ms Ho says: "When we started, we never thought that we would go on to open more branches. The teamwork of all our staff and support from our customers helped us get here. I am very happy we won this award, which reflects the hard work all the staff have put in."
Putting a fresh spin on Cantonese classics
He worked as an apprentice for nine years before he was allowed to cook for customers.
Executive chef Tang Chi Cheung of Sky View Pavilion remembers that the first dish he cooked for a customer was a plate of fried beef hor fun.
The 65-year-old says in Cantonese: "The apprenticeship was gruelling, but seeing the chefs at work made me interested in learning to cook."
Hailing from Guangdong, he went to Hong Kong at the age of 23 and found his first job as a kitchen apprentice in a Cantonese restaurant, gradually rising through the ranks to become a chef.
He came to Singapore in 1993 and joined Sky View Kitchen at the Singapore Flyer in December 2015. The restaurant opened in February 2016 as a casual dining restaurant, serving Cantonese-style congee, dim sum and noodles. A year later, the management decided to expand the menu to include more Cantonese fare and renamed the restaurant Sky View Pavilion, offering a more upscale dining experience.
With the keen competition in the restaurant scene and many people being familiar with Cantonese cuisine, chef Tang says his challenge is to cook outstanding versions of classic dishes.
"We are not in a central location, so it is important to give our customers the best dining experience we can provide when they visit our restaurant," he says.
He does this by putting his own spin on Cantonese classic dishes, such as sauteed lobster.
Live lobsters are used for the restaurant's Sauteed Boston Lobster With Black Bean. Instead of the commonly used method of coating the lobster in cornflour before deepfrying it, he uses egg and a special mix of seasoned flour to coat the crustacean so it takes on a golden shine and remains crisp when served.
Kampung chicken, which is leaner and more flavourful, is used in another signature dish, Steamed Boneless Chicken With Ham And Vegetables.
"In the past, flavour, colour and serving the food at the right temperature were the criteria for a good dish, but now you also need to make a dish Instagram-worthy," he says.
On the restaurant making the bronze winners' list, he says: "It is not easy to win an award in such a competitive restaurant scene, especially since we are relatively new. We must now put in more effort as I hope we can win again next year."
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