SINGAPORE - (SOSHIOK) The IndoChine group may have closed its doors last year at the iconic Asian Civilisations Museum at Empress Place by the Singapore River, but now, not one but two new concepts have sprouted up in another unique location - the newly reopened Suntec City Sky Garden.
Arn Nan - which means Redman in the Teochew dialect, is an alfresco bar and bistro, where diners can enjoy a tipple and unwind while overlooking Suntec City's Fountain of Wealth.
Its neighbouring restaurant Saint Ma, where we were hosted to lunch, typifies the group's restaurants with its visually-arresting design.
According to a representative from the group, the name is a play on the term "surname Ma" in Chinese, referring to IndoChine's founder, Laos-born entrepreneur Mr Michael Ma, 48.
The Baroque-style furniture of coloured marble tables and stainless steel armchairs come together with red chandeliers in trademark IndoChine style.
Opened since late August, the cosy open-air restaurant is nestled in the revamped Suntec City Sky Garden, which houses a few other stand-alone dining establishments.
We imagine it'll be nice spot to chill out after a long day on a cool balmy night, but on the afternoon we visited, the haze had not abated, which marred the experience a little.
When thinking about food from the Indochina region, 'subdued' and 'healthy' are probably not the first words that come to mind.
The menu at Saint Ma itself is a hodge-podge of Asian, Western and fusion dishes with a bent towards 'nutraceutical' cuisine - a term borrowed to describe their approach to using ingredients with 'health-giving' benefits.
And it speaks volumes when one of the group's mainstays on its menu for the past 20 years is the refreshing House Salad ($20), boasting strips of chicken and watercress in a Laotian egg dressing, an item that is also available at Saint Ma.
While the term 'fusion food' itself may seem like a tired concept, Saint Ma demonstrates there are still surprises to be had.
The tangy but tasty Norwegian Salmon Tartare ($16), for example, is an Asian twist on the steak tartare. It features a blend of Western ingredients and Asian spices, including a special addition - fragrant toasted rice powder, a common ingredient in many Thai-Laotian recipes.
According to IndoChine's General Manager Mr Jeremy Lim, it is one of the restaurant's signature dishes and is a light, healthy dish that "you can have as a meal in itself" if you're feeling just slightly peckish.
Most of the dishes and sauces at the restaurant have their origins in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, and while they may look fiery at first glance, they are quite light on the palate. Fans of heavily spiced and seasoned dishes will be disappointed.
One example is the Ancient Laos Larb ($24), a spicy cooked meat salad popular in Laos and northern Thailand. Here, minced chicken is infused with herbs and lemon juice, and topped with pine nuts. The muted flavours in Saint Ma's take on the traditional dish may not sit well with purists though.
According to Saint Ma's culinary assistant manager Bernard Tan, the spiciness of the dish has been toned down to cater to local tastebuds. However, customers are welcome to dictate their preferred heat level.
The standout dish for me had to be the Rice Paper, Betel Leaves and Seared Seabass ($16).
A thick sliver of pan-seared seabass fillet is tossed in a tangy sauce redolent of fish sauce, shallots, basil and lime, before being wrapped with betel leaves and rice paper. While I had expected the betel leaf - known to have healing properties according to ancient Ayurvedic medicine - to leave a bitter aftertaste, there was little in terms of flavour. But the greens lent a freshness to the dish and provided a nice contrast in texture to the chewy rice paper.
Other must-tries would have to be the Vietnamese Luc Lac ($28), sauteed grass-fed Australian beef cubes with melted butter served on a hot-plate. Though more Western than Asian in taste, it is hard to go wrong with well-marinated and tender beef - just make sure it doesn't sit too long on the hot skillet, which may render the beef tough to the chew.
Also worthy of a mention is IndoChine's version of Vietnamese Pho Bo (or beef noodles soup) which we were given a taste of. It is not on the menu at Saint Ma, but available at IndoChine's other restaurants at Club Street, Singapore Polo Club and Holland Village. And theirs is one of the best renditions I've tried in Singapore, with a robust stock, home-made bouncy beef balls and absolutely tender slices of Australian beef rump, the cut used on the day we visited.
Getting to the Sky Garden
The Sky Garden is situated at the North Wing of Suntec City, between Towers 1 and 5.
Visitors may enter from the level 1 outdoor plaza, next to Tower 5, where an escalator brings visitors directly to the Sky Garden, or from the Convention Centre on Level 3. Alternatively, there is also a direct access from level 3 of the mall (North Wing).