The dish on eight bronze winners of the Best Asian Restaurant awards
The bronze category winners of the inaugural Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants list were announced yesterday. Gold and silver restaurants will be named on March 29. The Straits Times speaks to eight bronze winners
Consistency is key to the continued success of this 43-year-old restaurant, says its chief executive officer, Mr C. Sankaranathan (pictured).
Signature dishes such as the red snapper fish-head curry, which is cooked with more than 20 spices; chicken and prawn masala; and mutton mysore are whipped up by a team of chefs who have been with the restaurant for more than two decades.
These popular dishes are the brainchild of Mr Sankaranathan's father, Mr Chellappan, who founded the restaurant in 1974 in Cuff Road, a stone's throw away from its current flagship outlet in Race Course Road.
Inspired by the buzz surrounding the launch of the Apollo 11 spaceship that sent the first man to the Moon in 1969, Mr Chellappan, who hailed from Chettinad in South India, named his 17-seat restaurant after the spaceship in the hopes that his business would soar like it .
Mr Sankaranathan, 45, started helping out in the restaurant at the age of seven. He manned the cashier, collecting money and writing the earnings in a notebook. He went on to learn "the A to Zs of running a restaurant", from cooking to making deliveries for catering orders. He took over the running of the restaurant when he turned 24.
"I saw the hard work and passion that my father put in to build up the restaurant and it is something that we cannot give up," he says.
He opened a 300-seat outlet in Little India Arcade in 2007 and started a fusion Indian restaurant, Apolo Bistro, in the same building in April last year. New dishes include tandoori crab and pomfret in green chilli sauce.
Next year, his restaurants will undergo a "longoverdue revamp" to freshen up their interiors. He is also planning to introduce automation in the cooking process.
"We have to keep up with the times as youngsters like to explore new food places," he says. "We have to provide good food and update our ambience."
On the restaurant's bronze accolade at the Best Asian Restaurants awards, he says: "I am happy for all the support that our customers have given us over the years."
Sabai Fine Thai On The Bay
Established in 2004, Sabai is what comes to mind when one mentions fine Thai cooking in Singapore.
Its home-style dishes given a sophisticated treatment were what got it noticed by the judges.
The restaurant's founder and owner, Ms Jongkolnee Thoboonme, affectionately known as Ms Noo, says many of her dishes were derived from recipes passed down by her grandmother and mother.
Ms Noo brought Thai royal cuisine to Singapore in 1988 when she founded Thanying Restaurant in Amara Hotel. The Thai national, who is a Singapore permanent resident, left the partnership with the hotel in 2004 to start Sabai.
Talking about the restaurant's spicy pomelo salad with prawns, chicken, roasted coconut, grounded peanuts, chilli jam and sweet sauce, she says: "Roasted coconut is usually not found in such a dish, but I use it because I am following the old recipe from my grandmother."
Another notable dish is its red curry with roasted duck, coconut cream, sweet basil leaves and seasonal fresh fruit. The Straits Times food critic Wong Ah Yoke described the dish as having "a nice balance of spiciness and sweetness".
On winning the award, Ms Noo says: "I am very happy and proud. It is always good to receive recognition for our hard work."
But she is not one to rest on her laurels, she adds: "Of course, I would like to do better next year."
She intends to renovate the restaurant at Collyer Quay before the end of the year, closing it for at least a month to create a more modern look with an open-concept kitchen.
She also plans to include more descriptions of the dishes in the menu and train her wait staff to communicate the stories behind the food to diners.
She says: "Nowadays, people don't come to our restaurant just to fill their stomachs. They also want an experience and to know the story behind our food."
Hong Kong-born chef Tonny Chan (pictured) has been described as a "master of Cantonese cuisine".
But the owner of Tonny Restaurant in Geylang had worked his way up, starting as an apprentice at age 17 in various Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong.
In 1989, he came to Singapore to work in East Ocean Restaurant when it first opened in People's Park Complex.
Over the last 30 years, he has also worked in Singapore restaurants Victoria City Restaurant, Sha Tin Kitchen and Grand Hong Kong Restaurant before he opened his own restaurant in Joo Chiat Road in 2010.
Known for its affordable familystyle dishes, Tonny Restaurant moved to its current premises in 2012.
Chef Chan, 55, says: "I saw the results in the newspaper and was very surprised.
"We are a small restaurant and did not think we would get this accolade. I am certainly encouraged and hope to do better in the future.
"For now, I have not planned anything new, but I am always trying to experiment and innovate to create new dishes."
The chef, a Singaporean, is known for his original dishes made with special ingredients.
His restaurant's best-selling dish is crispy yam with truffle oil, introduced in 2011.
Another star dish, called Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon ($9), consists of scallops, egg white and fish roe, and he has sold more than 30,000 servings, he says.
It is this combination of modern and traditional elements in his cooking that won him praise from the judges.
On creating new dishes, he says: "You really need a lot of trial and error.
"I have to try many times before I get the right balance."
Hua Yu Wee Seafood Restaurant
The last of the seafood restaurants left standing in Upper East Coast Road, it is still at its original location in a colonial bungalow, where it has been for more than 50 years.
The area used to be a vibrant enclave for beach-side dining, with other restaurants such as Long Beach Seafood and Palm Beach Seafood.
In a review of the eatery in 2013, Hua Yu Wee was rated four stars by Straits Times Life editor Tan Hsueh Yun, who enjoyed its black pepper crab with an "aromatic and strong" black pepper sauce, salt and pepper crayfish, as well as sweet steamed prawns.
In May last year, the restaurant was branded a landmark in the new Bedok Heritage Trail, which explores the area's past before land reclamation works began.
It was also recognised in last November's list of Heritage Heroes Awards, which highlights time-honoured eateries that preserve local culinary traditions.
The annual list is put out by Slow Food (Singapore), a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving heritage dishes and ingredients, and celebrating food culture and traditions.
An article from the now-defunct newspaper New Nation in 1972 also lauds Hua Yu Wee's "excellent food and charming character".
Clearly, that old-school charm has not changed.
The Famous Kitchen
Tucked away in Sembawang Road near Nee Soon Camp, The Famous Kitchen is, despite its name, not on the radar of many foodies. But its innovative dishes have won it a spot in the bronze category.
The old-school restaurant is known among its fans for its signature dishes, such as crystal chicken, salt-baked flower crab, lobster beehoon (pictured), sour vegetable steamed fish and KL Hokkien noodle.
The menu also has dishes that are a throwback to colonial days, such as colonial beef shank, says Mr Jeffrey Foo, 56, who runs The Famous Kitchen with his two sisters - Jenny, 59, and Kristine, 51.
That dish is a family recipe from when their late father was a chef in the British barracks in the 1960s.
Mr Foo ran a zi char stall in a coffee shop for five years from 1979, before working for different companies in various Asian countries for about 20 years.
He handled the procurement of raw materials, such as seafood and spices, which he says has helped him come up with new dishes.
When he returned to Singapore in 2007, he started an eatery, Teochew Kitchen, in Changi Village. Two years later, when the restaurant moved to Upper Thomson Road, the name was changed to The Famous Kitchen.
He says: "We did not just specialise in Teochew cuisine, but in Cantonese and local dishes too. So, we re-registered the name as The Famous Kitchen."
It has been at its current premises in Sembawang for six years.
Mr Foo travels frequently to get ideas for dishes.
New on the menu is a dish of poached pork belly with garlic sauce (suan ni bai rou) and he is testing out a roast chicken recipe.
He says: "You always need to do something new because regulars will ask for it. But you still have to serve traditional food.
"It's all about combining tradition and innovation to continue in the business."
Unlike most Malay eateries, which are no-frills with quick and casual service, Mamanda takes the cuisine to a fine-dining level. Housed in a regal yellow 173-year-old mansion in the heart of Kampong Glam, the restaurant serves authentic Malay cuisine in a sophisticated setting.
On garnering the bronze accolade at the Best Asian Restaurants awards, Mamanda's director, Mr Zulkarnine Hafiz, 49, says: "We are very surprised to receive this award as we started only five years ago. But we have put in a lot of effort to take Malay cuisine to the next level."
To elevate the food, he says, more premium ingredients are used, such as using red snapper in place of ikan kuning.
Waiters are also trained to explain the spices and herbs used in the dishes to diners.
The restaurant's signature dishes include ikan assam pedas (sour and spicy fish), ayam lemak chilli padi (chicken in spicy coconut gravy) and nasi ambeng, a celebratory platter comprising a cone of rice with various meat and vegetable dishes.
Besides local favourites, the restaurant also branched into showcasing food from Malaysia three years ago. Dishes include nasi dagang (rice steamed in coconut milk, fish curry and pickled vegetables) from Terengganu and serawa durian, a glutinous rice dish drenched in durian pudding.
To ensure food consistency, Mr Zulkarnine adds that every ingredient in each dish is measured and the chefs use equipment such as a sous vide machine for precise cooking.
The restaurant is started by two friends, Mr Zulkarnine and Ms Masmunaha Abdullah, 45, who is the chief executive officer of Mamanda. They also run other restaurants such as Pak Dollah and Fig & Olive.
Drawn by Kampong Glam's rich history, the duo chose to set up the restaurant in Gedung Kuning within the Malay Heritage Centre. Mr Zulkarnine is also keen to use the restaurant as a platform to promote Malay heritage.
The restaurant organises daily heritage trails for participants to learn about Malay cooking. It also provides activities for diners such as trying on a tanjak (a Malay headgear).
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee
Mr Lee Chiang Howe (pictured), the third-generation owner of Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee, received almost 10 text messages from friends yesterday, congratulating him on his bronze prize in the Best Asian Restaurants list.
The 55-year-old says: "I did not expect it. To be honest, although it is good to win an award, it does not affect me too much. At the end of the day, what is most important is that my customers like my food."
The restaurant, a stalwart of traditional Teochew cuisine, has been around since 1969.
Mr Lee's late grandfather, Mr Lee Jee Tee, started it as a zi char stall on the pavement of a coffee shop in Wayang Street. In the 1980s, it was an open-air restaurant at the former Gay World Amusement Park.
In 1993, it opened as a full-fledged Teochew restaurant in Amoy Street and moved to its current premises in 2015.
Known for its abalone dishes, it uses authentic Teochew cooking methods and imports ingredients from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa.
One of its signature dishes is an abalone dish with sea cucumber (pictured), which comes with broccoli.
Mr Lee says: "A lot of effort goes into this dish. The abalone, imported from South Africa, takes about four months to dry and five days to braise. The sea cucumber takes two hours to prepare."
Explaining why almost all his abalone dishes are cooked using dried abalone, he says: "Dried abalone is more delicious and tastier than fresh abalone.
"Our abalone is dried naturally under the shade by wind to condense the protein contained in the abalone. When cooked, the texture in the middle is soft and sticky, similar to soft nougat."
He says he will continue to work hard, regardless of whether he wins any more awards.
"I feel that once we have reached a certain level, we must always continue to do more."
elemen at Millenia Walk
It may be a vegetarian restaurant, but more than 70 per cent of the diners at elemen in Millenia Walk are not vegetarians.
The 110-seat restaurant, which opened in June 2015, offers a mix of Asian and Western dishes, such as pasta, pizza, noodles and rice rolls, with vegetables and mushrooms in place of meat.
Popular dishes include the wild mushroom and white truffle pizza; mushroom risotto with black truffle, sizzling quinoa brown rice; and double-boiled maca soup. The menu changes yearly.
The restaurant's general manager, Mr Andy Kueh, 39, says: "We took ideas from the food in restaurants that served meat, but turned the dishes around by finding ways to replace meat without using mock meat."
Its creative ways of showcasing vegetarian food have earned the restaurant a bronze in the inaugural Best Asian Restaurants awards.
"With a competitive vegetarian restaurant scene here, we are honoured to be the only vegetarian restaurant in the list of Bronze winners," he says. "It is a recognition of our team effort and we will continue to maintain our quality of food."
elemen, which has another outlet in Thomson Plaza, was started by foodcourt operator Koufu, after it saw "a huge potential in serving wholesome food as diners are becoming more health-conscious".
Besides a la carte dishes, it also offers five- and eight-course tasting menus, where diners can choose their courses and enjoy a full- fledged dining experience.
To cater to time-starved corporate executives, elemen has rolled out a special eight-course menu that changes quarterly.
New dishes in the Millenia Walk outlet's special menu include garden truffle risotto with mushrooms, miso soup and edible flowers; and chocolate cake with coconut ice cream and salted-caramel sea-salt sauce.
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