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Off the beaten track
LOCATION, location, location. It's the fail-safe mantra of both property buyer and F&B operator when it comes to making their investments pay off. But when the right location comes at too painful a price, some budding chefs/restaurateurs gamble on out-of-the-way locations in the hope that good food and unique ambience will bring in the crowds.
At Ristorante Pietrasanta, chef-owner Loris Massimini listened to his instincts in 2008 when he snapped up a space at Wessex Village Square off Portsdown Road despite its obscure location and almost non-existent walk-in traffic. Now, the restaurant is a cult favourite which is busy even on weeknights and has since spawned two casual pizzerias in suburban Jalan Riang and Upper Thomson.
On the other hand, La Barca - another Italian restaurant in Goodman Arts Centre in Mountbatten - is busy only on weekends and struggles to fill seats on weekdays, which fluctuates between 20 per cent to 60 per cent occupancy. Ownership-wise, it recently changed hands, although the same chef remains.
What is it that makes one restaurant perform better than the other in off-the-beaten track locations?
For Pietrasanta's chef Loris Massimini and his brother Giuseppe, a combination of affordable rent, easy parking and a clientele of mature foodies with looser purse strings have been key to their success. Slow and steady growth is key, says Mr Giuseppe. "92 per cent of our customers are regulars. It's just old school word-of-mouth." He also spends prudently, revealing that the initial investment was S$120,000, which they recouped in four to six months.
On the other hand, La Barca's startup costs totalled S$750,000 because of extensive renovations - the space was previously a food court. The extensive menu may also have driven up food costs - they offer 87 items compared to Pietrasanta's 50, and new co-owner Kevin Cheong intends to streamline the "intimidating" menu. "We're avoiding the pitfalls which the previous shareholders made, which was not looking into the business-side of things."
Executive chef Michele Sorrentino (who was from the one Michelin-starred Antica Trattoria Botteganova in Siena, Italy) says that relying on word of mouth isn't enough. "My previous partner thought that if you have a Michelin-starred chef, you can open a restaurant in the forest and people would come," he quips. "But Singapore is very competitive, my name wasn't promoted, and nobody knows I'm probably the only Michelin-starred chef that actually cooks here."
While off-radar locations appeal to indie operators, there are factors beyond one's control that can undermine one's success. One example is when the chi-chi crowd descends on your quiet locale and turns it into the next hot spot. Skyrocketing rentals follow, driving out the indie operators. One such victim is Gusto Napoli's Justin Seah, who shuttered his Joo Chiat eatery end January because rentals spiked 50 per cent, probably due to the influx of European expats.
Restaurateur Purdey Poon agrees that not every concept is destined to be a dining destination, based on her experience running Infuzi - a French restaurant in Biopolis which finally called it a day after a decade of struggling to stay afloat. Given the demand for more casual options in the area, she converted her 11-year-old business to Peperoni Pizzeria. Says Ms Poon: "It was time for a dynamic change that could draw a brisk lunch crowd and family gatherings at night."
Regardless, newer players such as Alvin Chew and Lee Tiong Leng are not deterred. Their two-month-old eatery PocoLoco offers affordable Italian fare in a HDB setting. The key, they say, is to keep prices down without compromising on quality, so simple, authentic dishes are a must. Pastas go for S$9 to S$12, and aren't limited to run-of-the-mill carbonara or aglio olio.
Meanwhile, chef-owner Chris Fong of Horizon Bistronomy bet on The Punggol Settlement for his first 40-seater in 2014, and further expanded to a 100-seater at Alexandra in 2015. He's avoiding the central region because of competition from the likes of Saveur and Poulet.
While business is brisk, folks in the suburbs don't always appreciate finer fare: "The first two months were crazy, people ate beef with chilli sauce, foie gras with ketchup - everything with ketchup," he recalls.
He has since made some compromises with the menu. Steak tartare is out ("people are scared of raw beef"), local twists are in, and he's found common ground with dishes such as duck confit and pork belly. "You can't go wrong with braised pork - the Chinese know what it is."
Even restaurant groups are looking to the heartlands as test beds for new concepts which they intend to take overseas. For instance, the team behind Etna started new casual eatery iO Italian Osteria at Hillview over a year ago. "The heartlands are less of a risk. If I were to open in Orchard, I'd think twice," says co-owner Anna Borrasi.
Of course, after business has stabilised, the temptation remains for these indie operators to expand to a central location, but Porta Porta's Roziana Baharuddin offers a cautionary tale. Her flagship near Changi Prison has been going strong since 1993, but she closed the Stanley Street outlet after 15 years due to doubled rentals and a weak dinner crowd.
"Don't expand into the CBD unless you have the capital," she warns. "Working so hard and giving your earnings over to rent isn't worth it, especially if your health gets jeopardised."
By Tan Teck Heng and Rachel Loi
Street food, Italian style
iO Italian Osteria
4 Hillview Rise, #02-01 Tel: 6710 7150
Open 10am to 10pm daily
STREET food in South-east Asia usually refers to affordable local fare sold out of pushcarts. However, in Italy, it's a term for dishes that are unique to each of the 20 regions, says Anna Borrasi, who is the group executive chef of Etna Italian Restaurant.
It has one outlet at Upper East Coast Road and another at Duxton; and most recently expanded by opening a new casual eatery named iO Italian Osteria.
The latter's specialty is serving street food from all 20 regions - something no other Italian restaurant in Singapore has done before, says chef Borrasi.
Foodies have been taking to the concept and the crowd speaks for itself as the eatery's 150-odd seats are often packed at lunch and dinner since it opened over a year ago at Hillview Rise.
Some of the dishes the Italian-born chef Borrasi recommends are stuffed traditional Roman schiacciata (S$15) with rocket and parma ham; rice suppli (S$9)- stuffed rice ball with cheese that's battered and fried; porchetta (S$14), baked crispy pork belly stuffed with wild fennel; and orecchiette pasta with pork sausage and saffron sauce (S$18).
Everything is either imported or made in their kitchen and bakery, says the 51-year-old, who splits her time between all three outlets, but has her son in iO's kitchen while her daughter runs the front of the house there.
But only she gets to decide on the menu to ensure the food is done "properly". That's why she insists on keeping the recipes as authentic as possible too, and refuses to make any adjustments other than lowering the salt and sugar levels to suit the local palate.
It's this honest style of cooking and unique flavours that draw customers to the restaurant, despite its location in the middle of the heartlands, says the chef, who sees customers coming from all over the island.
She adds: "I was a bit worried when I first opened iO because I was doing things that nobody ever tried before. But I've been surprised so far. Many Singaporeans tell me they've never tried (Italian street food) but they love it, or that it brings back memories of being in Italy."
By Rachel Loi
408 Ang Mo Kio Ave 10, #01-779
Tel: 8436 3363
Opens 12pm-3pm, 6pm-10pm daily
THE Saveur group may have given up on its casual Italian concept Concetto, but new contender PocoLoco might just take its place. As with Saveur's humble beginnings in a Joo Chiat coffeeshop, PocoLoco is starting small in the Ang Mo Kio heartland.
"We try not to enter enclaves like Bukit Timah, Holland Village, or Siglap - there's too much competition," explains co-owner Alvin Chew, 34. "Established brands like Da Paolo and Michaelangelo's have been there for years, not to mention the lack of parking."
Being in the suburbs means lower rentals, so they can offer authentic fare at zi char prices. Says the ex-engineer: "Every common man in the neighbourhood can try our food - we're competing with S$8 sweet and sour pork and S$15 fish."
That's why their appetisers, such as the baked scallops with capsicum puree, are capped at S$12, while pasta dishes range from S$9 to S$12. Other items such as the beetroot spaghetti make interesting alternatives to ubiquitous offerings like alfredo or aglio olio.
There's also no fixed preparation for the meats (around S$18) - the kitchen makes recommendations based on your preferences, so you can get fish done acqua pazza style, or choose between chicken milanese and parmigiani. They also offer chef's specials such as oven-roasted pork belly or uni risotto, subject to availability of ingredients. Don't be fooled by the PastaMania price points - many ingredients are imported from Italy, and most components made from scratch, including dressings, focaccia, tomato sauce, and stock bases.
This attention to detail requires significant expertise, so Mr Chew has partnered with F&B operator Lee Tiong Leng. The 35-year-old has been in the industry for seven years, with kitchen and management experience at several Italian eateries. He also owns eight mookata outlets under the Singa Gourmet brand and fine dining concept Ristorante Tanaka, which serves Japanese Italian fare.
The dishes thus have some Japanese influence.
"Japanese chefs do very good Italian food - their style is more refined, and they are meticulous even with basics like dicing vegetables," says Mr Lee.
But he's had trouble retaining top talent - one of his Japanese chefs was poached by an F&B magnate. "I can't compete with someone who can just buy over a building in Boat Quay and offer him a job."
Now, rather than banking on brand name chefs, he's focusing on training loyal staff, some of whom have been with him for seven years. "We want to expand, but we're not running a franchise - so the challenge remains in churning out dishes with consistent quality," he says.
By Tan Teck Heng
Joining in the fray
456 Alexandra Road
Tel: 6274 3655
Open Mon to Fri, 11am - 11pm
SAVEUR and Immanuel French Kitchen have been bringing affordable French food to the masses for awhile now but a little over a year ago, a new entrant silently joined in the fray - local chef Chris Fong, with his own modern European restaurant Horizon Bistronomy.
It started out as a mere 40-seater that opened at Punggol Settlement in December 2014, but after a year of operations, the 29-year-old Singaporean chef expanded with a much bigger second location at Alexandra.
"I realised there was a market for French food that's not high-end or low-end, but somewhere in-between. So I decided to start my own," he says.
The offerings at both restaurants are similar - mainly European dishes with a bit of Asian influence, cooked mostly using French techniques. His style is honed from stints at restaurants such as Sabio By The Sea, Restaurant Andre, and Saint Pierre over the course of a nine-year career.
And after spending a year at Les Amis, he decided to open his own restaurant, and self-funded the entire project so that he could call all the shots.
"I make everything I can from scratch - even the sauces, which are an important element of French cuisine. There's no way I'm going to use the powdered kind. If I partner a businessman, he might ask me to use cheaper methods and I don't want that," he explains.
One of the items on his Alexandra menu is a homemade pasta which he only does for lunch, served with prawns and crab meat at S$18 a la carte; while dinner's best-seller is a duo of pork belly done two ways (one crispy, one braised) at S$26.
However, he admits it has been a bit of an uphill battle to introduce Western food in the heartlands; that's why he incorporates local flavours into his food while also educating his customers at the same time.
He explains: "I serve Kurobuta, which is good enough to eat medium well so I serve it slightly pink. But people have insisted on having it fully cooked. So we try to teach them that it's safe to eat, and hopefully one day they'll give it a try - our strategy is a mix of fusion and education."
By Rachel Loi