Contemporary Asian is hot in Singapore's dining scene
Celebrity chef Alvin Leung's Forbidden Duck and MasterChef Woo Wai Leong's Restaurant Ibid are among the many Asian and modern Chinese restaurants popping up in Singapore. The Sunday Times checks them out
Asian is the flavour of the month, with the opening of a slew of new restaurants - many of which are best described as modern Chinese.
High-profile ones include Madame Fan in Beach Road and Forbidden Duck by celebrity chef Alvin Leung at Marina Bay Link Mall.
Local chefs are also paying homage to their roots - with MasterChef Asia winner Woo Wai Leong's Restaurant Ibid in North Canal Road and Circa 1912 by food consultant and chef David Yip.
All these add to the more than 20 new restaurants and casual eateries which have opened since last month.
And more are in the pipeline.
There has also been a spate of brands from overseas opening here, including Took Lae Dee from Thailand and one-Michelin-starred Qi - House of Sichuan from Hong Kong.
According to information from analytics platform Handshakes and the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, 409 restaurants have opened so far this year, while 269 have closed.
If the pace of restaurants opening is kept up for the rest of the year, it could well surpass last year's total of 1,084 - which itself was almost double the number in 2016.
But there have been closures too.
Asian restaurants that were casualties this year include Japanese-French restaurant Me@OUE in Collyer Quay; Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant at Capitol Piazza; and modern Asian restaurants Fat Lulu's in River Valley Road and Restaurant Ards in Duxton Road.
Chefs and restaurateurs say that Asian cuisine has been evolving over the years - from adopting modern interiors to cooking methods and plating. All this while staying true to authentic flavours.
Circa 1912's co-founder David Yip says: "The trend for Chinese cuisine is split into two. Younger chefs take a more modern approach with some Western influence, while the older ones still emphasise traditional taste.
"And we cannot neglect the importance of China, especially when its cuisine is 'in' right now. There is so much to explore."
Those bringing in overseas concepts also need to pay attention to how the brand is translated for diners here.
London-based restaurateur Alan Yau, 56, who is behind Madame Fan, says: "In London, my projects were primarily dictated by the market, so the Westernised essence of the brand was important to their success. In Singapore, with a mainly Chinese clientele, it is about whether you can define the product layering to be special enough - and consistent enough - to make it a success.
"I wanted a spirited but authentic take on traditional Chinese food, without it veering into fusion cuisine or pandering to a generic Pan-Asian idea of food which I do not believe in."
Despite the slew of modern Asian restaurants, Blue Lotus Concepts International managing director Ricky Ng, who recently opened casual chicken-centric restaurant Chicken Story at Savourworld, is still planning to launch a fine-dining Chinese concept with French-style gueridon or trolley service.
He is also tweaking his menu at Blue Lotus Kitchen + Bar in Alexandra to include more Asian dishes, due to customer demand, as "people associate the Blue Lotus brand with Asian food".
On the spate of new modern Asian restaurants, he says: "Over the last couple of years, we've seen many Japanese and Western restaurants opening. For Chinese food, people still go to the older brands. It's time for new Asian concepts to come up. It takes the market to the next level."
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Hong Kong's 'demon chef' ready for Singapore
It has taken a decade for Hong Kong's "demon chef" Alvin Leung to open a restaurant in Singapore - a country he considers his "favourite destination".
The straight-talking chef says: "Singapore has been ready for 10 years. But was I ready to come? It has taken me 10 years and that's because I know Singaporeans are not going to suck up anything you give them. They have high standards and I don't want to come and disappoint everyone if I'm not ready."
He is the man behind the three-Michelin-star Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, which has branches in Shanghai and London.
He launched Cantonese restaurant Forbidden Duck in Hong Kong last December, as well as casual Korean chain Bibs n Hops and Spanish tapas restaurant Plato86.
Forbidden Duck's Singapore outpost opened last Thursday, and Leung - a MasterChef Canada judge and television show host - does not rule out opening branches of his flagship brand here too.
Duck, of course, is the key ingredient in many dishes here and the restaurant serves two styles of roast duck - the signature Peking roast duck ($48 for half, $78 for whole) and a three-hour slow-roasted duck ($88) with pink, tender and juicy meat. The slow-roasted duck comes with steamed buns flavoured with calamansi and hoisin sauce with calamansi, garlic, sugar and smoked sea salt.
Other duck-centric highlights include seafood rice in aromatic duck soup ($32) and steamed black truffle and duck tongue dumpling, a dim sum item available for lunch.
For variety, order the Iberico pork char siu ($30) and sweet and sour pork with lychee, rose and hawthorn ($23).
While the menu is mostly similar to the one in Hong Kong, Leung also has dishes with a Singapore twist, such as laksa-style duck served in lettuce cups, and Sri Lanka crab in white pepper broth ($98).
He also puts a cheeky spin on the classic cereal prawns dish, which he does not fancy as he finds it "too dry". Instead of using the usual cereal, he adds fruit-flavoured Froot Loops instead.
On the evolution of Chinese cuisine, Leung says: "Chinese cuisine exists everywhere and, with modern Chinese restaurants coming up, people are paying more attention and not taking it for granted.
"It is not just regarded as comfort food. There is a lot more to Chinese cuisine that we need to pay attention to, such as the kind of starch used to create different textures for dim sum skin."
Where: 02-02 Marina Bay Link Mall, 8A Marina Boulevard
Open: 11am to 3pm, 6 to 10pm (weekdays only and May 13); open daily from May 19
Halal cafe Two Hana and sandwich kiosk Seoul In A Sandwich are launching at Century Square.
A fine-dining concept at Capitol Piazza by the owners of popular seafood restaurant Famous Kitchen in Sembawang Road.
OPENING LATER THIS YEAR
Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer
The New York-based restaurant opening at Marina Bay Sands will offer signature craft burgers and milkshakes.
The famous cha chaan teng from Hong Kong is set to open at Clarke Quay.
The Lo & Behold Group's first Japanese restaurant at 15 Mohamed Sultan Road.
JustIN and Chinoiserie
Local chef Justin Quek's new restaurants at Marina Bay Sands.
The English House
British celebrity chef Marco Pierre White's restaurant at 28 Mohamed Sultan Road.
Culinary researcher dishes up forgotten Chinese classics
Take a step back in time at Circa 1912, a new restaurant which brings back classic Chinese dishes seldom served nowadays.
Run by co-founder David Yip, 58 - a chef, culinary researcher and food consultant - the menu champions Lingnan cuisine. Mr Yip explains that Lingnan, which is not a familiar term in Singapore, pre-dates Cantonese cuisine. It also encompasses Hakka and Teochew cultures.
The 1912 in the restaurant's name, he adds, refers to the year the Qing Dynasty collapsed and marks the start of an era of decadence in China.
He adds: "I love to eat and cook and these are dishes that I grew up eating. I've collected and recorded all these recipes over the years, and in my travels to China, I've done research with chefs and people in the industry on the dishes."
He has roped in the help of culinary consultant Xu Jingye, 33, a chef from Foshan in Guangdong, as well as the former head chef of Dragon Phoenix restaurant to run the kitchen.
Circa 1912's dishes may look deceptively simple and nondescript - Mr Yip is not a fan of fancy plating for social media - but each highlights refined cooking and skills.
He says: "Our dishes look very simple, but we want diners to understand that it is refined. We hope to educate them in the art of eating and to understand the subtlety in our food."
The traditional sweet and sour Iberico pork ($38), for example, comes crisp and perfectly glazed in the sauce. The sour flavour in the sauce, says Mr Yip, is achieved with hawthorn, the original ingredient for the dish, instead of tomato gravy.
Deep-fried superior stock and pig's brain ($28 for eight pieces) are a must-try. The soup does not come in a bowl - instead, the rich stock has a crispy fried exterior in a diamond shape.
Another showcase of the chefs' skills is the pan-fried fish roll with greens ($38), where the fish is sliced thinly and used to wrap Jinhua ham and greens. Here, cooking time is critical as the fish is cooked to 70 to 80 per cent and, by the time it reaches diners, it is just right, says chef Xu. The Jinhua ham is cured in sugar for a week to remove its extreme saltiness.
Sourcing for ingredients to achieve the "retro flavour" can be challenging, says Mr Yip. So he tries to make his own condiments where possible.
On opening Circa 1912, he adds: "When you're in your 20s and 30s, you tend to like eating Western cuisine. But when you hit your 40s, you become super retro. You worry that you will never get to taste what you ate as a kid again.
"Now I, along with diners, get to relive my childhood memories."
Where: 03-07/11 Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 10pm daily
Info: Call 9242-9046
MasterChef blends East and West in Nanyang-style cuisine
After he won the inaugural season of MasterChef Asia in 2015, many people expected lawyer-in-training turned chef Woo Wai Leong to open a restaurant as he has been active with pop-up events and chef collaborations.
Last Saturday, he finally opened Restaurant Ibid in North Canal Road, a 54-seater specialising in what he calls Nanyang-style cuisine.
The term is meant to reflect the geography of South-east Asia and its diasporic Chinese population, as well as the blend of East and West in his cooking. The 30-year-old says that many chefs from his generation would have Western influences in their food.
His contemporary Chinese cuisine gets its inspiration from Chinese ingredients or dishes. Think angelica root cooked with beef short rib, black garlic, black fungus and dehydrated Asian pear; and spring onion shaobing (flatbread) with yeasted butter and laksa leaves. And for dessert, there is soya bean ice cream with toasted sesame, Sarawak pepper and almond - inspired by tau huay (soya beancurd).
Lunch (from May 14) features an a la carte selection of mains, sharing plates and desserts. For dinner, there are set menus of four ($78), six ($88) and eight ($118) courses.
Woo says: "Chefs are becoming more experimental, not in a scientific way, but in exploring their roots. They are looking at heritage, culture and geography. Restaurant Ibid is neither fully Western nor Eastern - I don't have woks and no one is yelling in Cantonese. We are a young team taking on a subject matter that may seem somewhat foreign to us, but shouldn't be."
Where: 18 North Canal Road
Open: 6.30 to 10.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
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