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Refreshing aspirations (Amended)
CHIJMES, Caldwell House, #01-26/27
Opening on Jan 27
YOU know you've reached a certain status when random strangers hear that you are opening a new restaurant, and message you through Facebook or Instagram telling you that they want to work for you.
That's what happened with Sam Aisbett, when he was putting together a team for his restaurant Whitegrass, which opens on Jan 27. He now has eight chefs, a few of whom he had worked with previously.
Chef Aisbett, 32, was until May last year, the head chef of award winning Quay restaurant in Sydney, which has held the Three Hats and Three Star rating in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide for 13 consecutive years. Chef Aisbett was also previously the sous chef at Tetsuya's Restaurant.
This is his first foray as chef and owner. The restaurant is backed by Penangites Sean H'ng and Karen H'ng who own Macalister Mansion.
When the H'ngs offered him a chance to open his own restaurant, he took it up, choosing to be in Singapore for its dining hub status. He adds that he had previously been offered to open his own restaurant in Sydney too.
"I needed a change, and have always wanted to work in Asia," says chef Aisbett, who relocated to Singapore with his wife Annette, and their two dogs, six months ago. Mrs Aisbett is also the restaurant's operations manager.
Whitegrass will serve Modern Australian cuisine, which the chef describes as "being able to do whatever I want. There are lots of influences in Australia, and we are not tied down to one cuisine. There are no boundaries".
It will be a fine dining restaurant "but still fun", he says. The restaurant will open only for dinner, and there will be a five-course and an eight-course menu. Prices are still being decided on, but chef Aisbett says "the five-course menu will not be cheap, but it will be accessible".
There will be no ala carte menu. "Doing just two menus means the kitchen has more time to make things perfect, and I am very much a perfectionist," he says.
Chef Aisbett says that he is inspired to use both Asian and Western ingredients in his cooking. You would think that it would be easier to get ingredients in Australia, since the country produces some of the best, but the chef says otherwise. "Some cheeses are easier to import into Singapore, than in Australia," he says.
He particularly loves jackfruit, saying that the ones he gets in Singapore are "more perfumey and sweeter". This, he will use to make ice cream. Besides Tekka Market, he likes checking out Chinatown Market, which is near his home.
If you think century egg is good just for porridge, think again. Chef Aibsett will use it in his cooking. He had seen it on television, but only tasted it recently, not quite used to the strong ammonia smell and taste.
He plans to use the century egg in a French quail dish, where the bird is brined, and cooked softly in butter, topped with some endive. "The white of the century egg will be chopped up and mixed with quail stock, to give the dish a gelatinous texture. I've noticed that Singaporeans take to different textures on their palate better than Australians."
He will also incorporate native Australian ingredients such as muntries, a sourish tasting fruit, and paper bark, used by the Aborigines to wrap food for cooking. "These are all still in the experimental stage," he says.
The dining scenes in Singapore and Sydney have their similarities and differences.
Singapore has its hawker food, "which is so cheap", he says. "But both cities have their cafes and share of good restaurants."
As chef-owner, he says his role is more than just being in the kitchen. "Suddenly, I've got to decide what kinds of tables I want - round or rectangular. I've not had to make decisions like these before," he says.
Good thing then, that he had help from design firm Takenouchi Webb, which has done up the restaurant into a beautiful space. The restaurant has three dining areas, and can sit 70, with an outdoor bar for 24 people.
Chef Aibsett says that those who know him will enter the restaurant and immediately know that it is his. "I've injected 'me' into the space, it is chill and yet with class," he says.
There are plenty of table arrangements featuring exotic blooms such as proteas, but no tablecloth for that less stiff feel.
The chef's love for nature and animals also comes through. A mural, done by local artist MessyMsxi, has illustrations of the ocean, weeds and plants, and figures of the chef deep sea diving and foraging for plants. "The mural illustrates what's going on in my mind," he says. There are illustrations of birds in the kitchen too. Even the name is reflective of this. Given by a friend, it doesn't mean anything, but "I liked the sound of it, because it has nature in it".
Will he be able to create the success he's had in Sydney in Singapore? "Hopefully the diners here will like my food," he says with confidence.
By Tay Suan Chiang
More casual and edgier
Cheek by Jowl
21 Boon Tat Street
Opening late January/early February
SORREL may be closing on Jan 18, but its owner, Loh Lik Peng, director of Unlisted Collection, has wasted no time starting up a new restaurant in its place.
Cheek by Jowl will open in late January or early February, and it will be headed by Rishi Naleendra, who has worked in restaurants in Australia, such as Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne and Tetsuya's in Sydney. He is currently head chef at Maca Restaurant at Tanglin Post Office.
Last October, Sorrel's head chef Johnston Teo left, leaving executive chef Alex Phan to helm the kitchen.
"I think with the departure of Johnston, it is just a natural time to change the concept," says Mr Loh, who also owns other restaurants such as 5th Quarter, The Market Grill and Restaurant Ember. Chef Phan will be part of the team at Cheek by Jowl.
Mr Loh adds that he thinks chef Naleendra is "very talented and I loved what he was doing in Maca, so it was a good opportunity to bring in a talent like him".
Cheek by Jowl will serve Modern Australian cuisine. "I love Modern Australian, especially since I'm in Australia so much at the moment," says Mr Loh.
The prices will be "super wallet friendly", according to Mr Loh. Some of the dishes will include wild venison with fermented plums and wasabi, rabbit leg with parsnip and beach herbs and barramundi with burnt lemon and onions.
The look of the restaurant "will not be radically different but it will be less serious and have a more casual and edgier feel", says Mr Loh. As with all Unlisted Collection properties, it will be designed to fit in with the personality of the chef and his menu.
On his part, chef Naleendra says: "I am super excited and feel really lucky to be working with Unlisted Collection on my new project."
Together with his wife Manuela, who will be the restaurant's manager, the couple came up with the name Cheek by Jowl. The story goes how they both have been working close together since they met 10 years ago and this restaurant is a symbol of them coming to work together side by side, hence its name.
By Tay Suan Chiang
Classics with some twists
ilLido at the Cliff
2 Bukit Manis Road, Sentosa, Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa Tel: 6708-8360
AS if selling his house and sinking S$4 million into Aura at the National Gallery isn't enough of a risk, restaurateur Beppe De Vito is re-opening italian fine-dining restaurant ilLido at Sofitel Sentosa later this month.
Starting with rooftop bar Southbridge in late 2014, the chef and founder of the ilLido Group has since launched Osteria Art and ilLido Bali. ilLido at the Cliff brings the tally to five concepts over 16 months, and it is being launched in a climate where an economic downturn is looming, entertainment budgets are still being cut, not to mention a saturated dining scene where talent is also hard to find.
What probably comes as a relief to Mr De Vito is that Sofitel is footing the bill for ilLido's new space, a 196-seater with two private rooms, which is located right round the corner from its previous site at Sentosa Golf Club. The hotel is also providing most of the manpower, so Mr De Vito sidesteps the labour crunch.
So it's a licensing deal of sorts, but they prefer calling it a "collaboration". Mr De Vito stresses that he retains full creative control. "I'm totally involved, it's my menu and concept, and I wouldn't have done it otherwise," he says. "But I do look at the hotel as being a safer place - it's their job to draw guests in, and they do it well."
He will still cook at Aura, but he's posting trusted sidekick Chef Simone Fraternali to helm ilLido's kitchen. So, which is the group's flagship, really?
"I don't believe there is 'a' flagship - each concept is just as good as the other. It's like asking me if one of my children is better than the other!" laughs Mr De Vito.
ilLido will stick to the classics, albeit with some twists. With fine-dining, the trick to drawing customers is not lowering prices too far, but offering more value-for-money items, he says, which is why there are four-course lunch sets starting at S$38, and degustation at S$98. The fantastic view of the South China Sea comes complimentary.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Mr De Vito tells us that a pizza joint is in the works, one with a hip gastrobar vibe. It's set to open by May, so the group is finalising the location, said to be a two-storey space in a central area with al fresco seating.
Expect modern takes on Napolitan-styled pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens. They currently have two chefs in Italy studying the nitty-gritty of pizza-making, and have been growing the mother yeast for over a year, started with organic Italian fruits and flowers. Ingredients will largely be imported from Italy, but pizzas will be priced competitively at S$20 to S$30.
"We want to do away with the idea that a pizzeria is just a family restaurant," he says, which is why they will focus on cocktails as well.
Is he overstretching himself? He doesn't think so - as long as he keeps his brands all in the family. "I enjoy the freedom and the creativity," he explains. "If I have to consult with someone every time I need to change something, work would become more of a chore."
By Tan Teck Heng
Comforting Greek cuisine
73 Amoy Street Tel: 6221-6124
Opens: 12pm-2.30pm (Mon-Fri); 6pm-12am (Mon-Sat); closed on Sunday; public holiday hours same as on Saturday
HE first caught the attention of local foodies by elevating lowly cockles into hipster fare at his first eatery Dibs where he was executive chef. But Leong Khai Git has since swopped his apron for a general manager position at the four month old Greek restaurant Alati in Amoy Street.
He is still a shareholder in Dibs - a modern-Asian tapas bar on Duxton Road - but he has no plans to return to the kitchen there, nor at Alati, any time soon. When he was offered the general manager position at Alati, he took it because he prefers to have control over all aspects, not just the menu.
Now, his task is to educate diners on the finer points of Greek food, which he says shares a pasta culture with Italy - a fact that not many people know about. "So we're trying to change that. When Italian food first came to Singapore,we didn't know how well it would do either."
He adds: "I learnt a lot from my experience at Dibs, and I've brought that knowledge with me to Alati. I realised that sometimes, people seek comfort food, which is something I think Greek cuisine has in spades."
To maintain authenticity, the restaurateur and his two business partners brought Soutsos Dimitrios straight from Greece to Singapore to be Alati's chef de cuisine. The 39-year-old Athenian landed his first job as a cook in 1999, and has worked in 10 different hotels and restaurants since.
Some of Alati's bestsellers include the Moussaka (S$26), the Mykonos Lobster Pasta (S$95 for two people), and the Salt-Baked Fresh Fish (additional S$10). You can choose from seabass (S$9.80 per 100g), sea bream (S$10.20 per 100g), and red porgy (S$14 per 100g).
Mr Leong, 31, says: "I recommend the sea bream because it tastes best when it's baked. Grilled, it tends to become dry, but when you salt-bake the fish, the moisture is retained, and it gets seasoned on the inside as well as out."
The restaurant imports its seafood and olive oil directly from Greece, as it is cheaper than buying it from local suppliers here. "We're getting better quality for less money. And we can pass on the savings to our customers," Mr Leong adds.
Will he create any Greek-inspired dishes of his own at Alati? The answer is no. He may return to the kitchen eventually, but for now the only cooking he does is at barbecue get-togethers with friends.
By Avanti Nim
An earlier verion of this article incorrectly stated that Mrs Aisbett is the restaurant manager and head sommelier. She is in fact the operations manager. The article above has been revised to reflect this.