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Eating with the chef
61 Tras Street Tel: 6224-4188
Opens: Tues to Sat, 5pm - 12am
DINING at Chef's Table is like being invited to chef Stephan Zoisl's own home. Not only is he involved in every aspect of it - from the music, to the furniture in the dining area, to the portraits of people who've inspired him hanging in the bathroom - his five set menus always feature food that he personally feels like cooking for that day.
"Happy chefs cook happy food, which means good tasting food," says the 34-year-old Austrian-born chef. "Cooking has moods, that's why an omakase menu works for a chef. What I have, I'm going to work with it, and we can serve the most interesting food we can do because there is no restriction."
Just like any good host, the highlight of his restaurant is the 12-seater chef's table, which works as a centrepiece right in front of the open kitchen. This means diners at the table have a clear, unobstructed view of the chefs at work, and are within conversational distance so Chef Zoisl can easily interact with them.
"We've had this place for almost three years (before Chef's Table), and we always did cooking classes and private dinners. It was always interesting to interact with people. So with this table I can talk with people, interact with them, and serve them the food," he says.
In fact, he even encourages his diners to walk into the kitchen when the restaurant is less busy, and make casual conversation about his food or equipment. You can even check out the fridge if you feel like it - he won't stop you. Says chef Zoisl: "If you want to see how things are done, go into the kitchen. Nobody's going to kick you out. If you want to see what my products are and where they come from, go ahead. There's no hiding anything. It's very casual."
Aside from his set menus, chef Zoisl also has an a la carte menu of dishes that are close to his heart, such as his favourite sandwich New York Nights (S$16) with beef pastrami, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing; and a salad that his father taught him 17 years ago called Pepi's Salad (S$16)- with Swiss-style charcuterie and cheese, cornichons, banana shallots, julienne of capsicum and sherry vinaigrette.
To go one step further in his quest to make customers feel comfortable at Chef's Table, chef Zoisl declares that he would be happy to try and accommodate any customer's request, even if it means sharing a recipe, or cooking them something off his menu.
"That's the feeling of home. If someone comes in and says I really feel like eating a risotto today, we have a kitchen, and if we have ingredients, it's not a problem. Whatever is possible, we can cook," he says.
Ultimately, it all boils down to him wanting to really hit home with his concept. Explains the chef: "It's all about being different nowadays, and that goes beyond the kitchen. Most people aren't interested in following big brands anymore, it's all about customisation & uniqueness. It's all about the experience you give people, and for me that means the personal touch."
Back door dining
Maggie Joan's (Opens Aug 31)
110 Amoy Street, #01-01 Tel: 6221-5564
Opens for dinner Mon to Sat, 6pm-11pm; Lunch (from Sept 7) Mon to Fri, noon-2.30pm; Closed on Sun
THE official address for Maggie Joan's may be on Amoy Street, but that's not where you enter. Instead, you have to go around the row of shophouses, duck into a back alley just off Gemmill Lane, and go through a nondescript rusty metal door.
"Just about every restaurant in Singapore has a shop front, so we're trying something different," says co-owner Daniel Ballis who also runs the Moosehead Kitchen & Bar. "When you open the door, the contrast from the alleyway outside kind of draws you in. You get this warm, invited feeling."
It's reminiscent of how Mediterranean restaurants are often found hidden away in alleyways, adds Mr Ballis, who is Greek-Australian. His two business partners are his friend Darren Micallef from Malta, as well as his father Glen, who owns a few restaurants in Russia.
"When I think of Greece, I think of my grandma first," explains Mr Ballis. So it's only fitting that the restaurant was named after his grandmothers Maggie and Joan.
Maggie Joan's is slated to open on Aug 31 for dinner, and lunch service will likely begin on Sept 7. The menu is modern Mediterranean, and was created by the older Mr Ballis along with their head chef Oliver Hyde - former sous chef of Pollen.
Dinner will see an la carte menu with appetisers such as egg with dukkah and saffron mayo (S$6); roast sea bass with pesto sauce and tomatoes (S$28) as a main course, plus sharing platters including a 400g Rangers Valley strip loin with salsa verde (S$88). Lunch on the other hand will be set meals of S$30 for two courses and S$38 for three courses.
Says Mr Daniel Ballis: "We take elements from the Mediterranean - like the idea of using fresh seasonal produce, and doing a lot of stuff in-house. When I think of my grandmother in her kitchen back in Greece, she's always very hands-on making little jars of sauce, preparing her own lamb and all, so those are the sorts of things we're bringing here."
It all came together around April this year, when Mr Ballis and his father were strolling down Amoy Street and came across the empty shop. After peeking in through the window, they found the front door was open so they took a look inside and decided it would make a great restaurant.
"We approached the landlord a week later, and said here's a crazy idea but would you build us a wall down the middle, and let us turn the back half into a restaurant and use the back door as a front entrance, and he said yes," he chuckles.
So out of the entire 4,300 square feet that used to be a Taiwanese porridge restaurant, they took 1,400 sq ft for Maggie Joan's, and about 500 more sq ft for another upcoming concept that they intend to launch down the road.
Says Mr Daniel: "Though food is the central part of a good dining experience, we know there is so much more to that. From the ambience, to music, to service, to the vibe, we feel these elements should align and provide an overall experience that is representative of the concept that you are delivering."
Adds Mr Micallef: "We want to create a bit of an oasis for people, away from the heat and away from the street. And then when you're in there, the service is Mediterranean style - you get a bit of love, you feel like you're part of the family."
Putting the art in artisanal cooking
5th Quarter(Opens in September)
Hotel Vagabond, 39 Syed Alwi Road Tel: 6291-1936
Opens: Tues to Sun, noon-2.30pm, 6pm-10.30pm; Closed on Mon
COME next month, the arts will take centrestage in unexpected territory - the new luxury boutique hotel Hotel Vagabond in Syed Alwi Road.
Not only will there be specially-curated artworks decorating the walls, it will also be the first hotel in Singapore to offer an "Artist in Residence" programme, emphasising writing, photography, and performance art. They will even have an Artist Cocktail Hour every evening at 6pm, where guests can meet and talk with the artists in residence.
"We want guests to feel truly immersed in an artistic and vibrant environment when they visit us," says the hotel's owner, Indian-born luxury real estate developer and boutique hotelier Satinder Garcha.
It's for that reason that he has chosen to collaborate with hospitality group Unlisted Collection, by entrepreneur Loh Lik Peng, to have their latest restaurant 5th Quarter in its premises. He explains: "5th Quarter is not just a plain grill but a charcuterie with a strong artistic bent in terms of how the meats are prepared and cured ... I feel Loh Lik Peng's philosophy is very much in line with that of Garcha Hotels - We both look to work with heritage buildings in historic surroundings, with each concept being unique and fitting the individual personality of the premises."
5th Quarter is a contemporary grill restaurant focusing on cured meats and charcuterie (cold cooked meats), and its executive chef Andrew Nocente describes the concept as one which showcases "lesser-used or lesser-known cuts of meat, as well as techniques that highlight these cuts".
The menu will feature meat cooked on a Josper grill, as well as elements of smoking, curing, and pickling. Although the selection of dishes isn't entirely fixed yet, some examples include a rum-cured pork belly and salt & pepper tripe. The chef will also be making his own charcuterie like salami, salsiccia, lardo, and coppa in-house.
"Charcuterie was the first skill I learned when I was young and living on a farm," says chef Nocente, who used to work at the steakhouse SKIRT at W Singapore. "Once a year we used to butcher a pig and cow, from this we would make charcuterie. I can still remember waking up early slaughtering the beast and my mum cooking the brains and other offal for breakfast. Fresh is best," he recalls.
For Mr Loh, he believes having a strong concept is key an increasingly essential ingredient for a restaurant to survive in today's competitive restaurant scene.
He says: "I think it works as a package. Good food is a basic requirement but you need to also be unique. We want to always add a different dimension to our offerings. Concept, food, service, ambiance are all equally important to the modern restaurant . . . We try to make sure the customer has a good time and can get something from us that he can't get elsewhere. It's really as simple as that."
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Daniel Ballis's father is Glenn Ballis, and Darren Micallef is from the Maldives. Daniel Ballis's father is in fact Glen Ballis, and Darren Micallef is from Malta. The earlier version also incorrectly stated that the restaurant was named after Darren Micallef's grandmother. It is in fact named after both Daniel Ballis's grandmothers. The article has been revised to reflect these.