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The Brits are back
99 Duxton Road Z6221 5343
WHEN all Singaporean - and foreign - restaurateurs can talk about are manpower restrictions, high rentals and F&B saturation, it takes one with nerves of steel - or blind optimism - to open an eatery in this cut-throat environment.
Enter then, the undeterred owners of MEATliquor, the first overseas outpost of the UK boutique restaurant chain that has soft-opened this weekend in Duxton Hill. (It officially opens on June 3)
Founded in 2009 by Scott Collins and Yianni Papoutsis, MEATliquor opened in a nondescript street behind a shopping mall on London's Oxford Street. It was an immediate sensation for its outre interiors, loud brassy music, messy burgers and impressive alcoholic menu of killer cocktails. Within a very short time, new branches popped up in Covent Garden, Brixton and Hoxton, and further afield in Brighton and Leeds.
The restaurant's strictly no-reservations policy generated hour-long lines outside the low-key entrance. Lined with crazed drawings of skulls on female bodies, owl heads on tuxedoed mannequins and garish splashes of colour, the dimly lit interior - courtesy of Shed who has also worked on the Duxton Hill restaurant - looks as if it was dreamed up by someone high on illegal foliage on the set of True Blood before the frenzied vampiric feeding scene begins. In other words, instant Instagram fame.
Collins and Papoutsis are gambling that the fickle Singaporean diner will not just take to MEATliquor's surprisingly small menu of fat burgers dripping with meaty juices, deep-fried pickles and oozy mounds of chilli cheese fries - he will come back for more.
"We've done a lot of research," says Mr Collins of the new 4,000-plus sq ft restaurant which will seat around 120-130. "This has been quite a gamble for all of us."
By "us", he's referring to not just his UK partner, but also MEATliquor's local partner, The Blind Group, which operates the restaurant and bar, Oxwell & Co and Ann Siang Hill cocktail bar, Operation Dagger.
"We had been approached by untold companies around the world including the UAE to open a branch," Mr Collins says. "The Blind Group's Jacques Dejardin who was Jamie Oliver's operations director and a friend from the UK asked us to come to Singapore to have a look. He said there's nothing like MEATliquor in Singapore. Within 12 hours of being here, I loved it."
Cleaving close to the philosophy of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", the Singapore version of MEATliquor is set up to resemble as closely as possible the UK model, operations-wise at least. "Our model is fast turnover, with people in and out," says Mr Collins.
To ensure the retail DNA is encoded correctly, a core staff of six from the UK - including MEATliquor's head chef, general manager, operations manager and a couple of senior wait-staff - are in Singapore as part of the opening team. "The very punky decor, the cocktails and staff are what make us unique," says Mr Collins.
Of course, there are slight tweaks to the menu which was tested in the upstairs kitchen of Tippling Club around the corner; its owner and chef, Ryan Clift, is a friend. For instance, the buns used in London don't hold up to Singapore's humidity, so they've been replaced with glazed demi-brioche. Likewise, UK beef has been supplanted by grass-fed USDA Angus, while local tastes are reflected in new dishes such as sambal chicken wings and fried soft-shell crabs.
And here's the interesting part. Despite the reputation, Mr Collins is quick to point out that MEATliquor is not a burger restaurant. Which is technically true - only about a third of the menu comprises burgers. However, that third makes up 70 per cent of MEATliquor's sales. In London, that translates to around 4,000 to 4,500 burgers a week.
At around S$20, a burger costs about 10 per cent more than it does in the UK, a conscious pricing decision. "We don't want price to be a barrier," says Mr Collins. For now, the restaurant will not take reservations as a rule, "but we're going to test it. We may take bookings for groups of six or more."
And just to drive home the fact that opening a restaurant is no walk in the park, not least in Singapore, Mr Collins concedes that there have been staffing issues. This explains why MEATliquor is open only from Tuesday to Saturday, from 5pm. "This way, we keep the same crop of staff," Mr Collins explains, adding "Singapore will differ from the UK in that it has a late liquor licence, so it can stay open till around 4am."
While it may be premature to speculate on MEATliquor's expansion plans, it's difficult to miss Mr Collins' optimism beneath the caution. "We've never done this before. We want to see how Singapore works out first. We never plan too far ahead. We can't run before we walk, but being in Singapore has been a sequence of happy events."
By Daven Wu
Ramsay's first S-E Asian foray
Bread Street Kitchen Singapore
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (Details to be announced later)
TO say that Gordon Ramsay has had a rough couple of years is to understate matters.
In mid-2013, the Scotland-born chef's 12-year old flagship restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's was shuttered amid disappointing reviews and a failure to renew the contract with the hotel.
Meanwhile, his ongoing feud and court battles with his father-in-law and former business manager of the Ramsay group, Christopher Hutcheson, whom he sacked in 2010 for gross misconduct, is tabloid fodder in the UK.
But if it's not already clear, especially for fans of his expletive-laden reality TV shows including Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay is made of sterner stuff. He didn't get to where he is today by being easily bruised. He was barely 26 when he scored two Michelin stars at London's Aubergine, and 31 when he opened his eponymous dining room, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Today, he still holds seven Michelin stars
Despite the distractions outside the kitchen, the 48-year-old chef presides over a global dining empire that stretches from Las Vegas and Los Angeles to Paris and London, where he has 14 restaurants and bars.
In a few weeks, he opens Bread Street Kitchen - an offshoot of his London restaurant, and his first in South-East Asia - in Singapore at the Marina Bay Sands. The space is already ready, with furniture having just arrived and trial runs about to take place over the next few weeks at the two level space featuring an open kitchen concept and a casual al fresco space.
Despite the looming opening date, details remain sketchy although Stuart Gillies, the managing director of the Gordon Ramsay Group, says the Singapore restaurant will be similar to London's - which is to say industrial warehouse chic - but "adapted to suit the local environment. It is also a smaller space than the original London site and will feel more intimate and warm which will suit the waterfront environment."
Heading the kitchen is Sabrina Stillhart and general manager, John Quetier, both Ramsay stalwarts for many years. "We will use the key senior team from Bread Street Kitchen London to support them during the opening," says Mr Gillies, adding, "Gordon will be present during the opening period as will our operations team and will visit regularly throughout the year."
Obviously, hopes are high for Ramsay's somewhat schizophrenic formula of modern English/European fare with a dash of North West American verve. Think snow-crab California rolls, grilled chicken Caesar salads, tamarind-spiced chicken wings, slow-roasted pork belly with apple sauce, and Josper charcoal grilled chops.
It will be interesting, too, to see how the menu is priced. In the cavernous Bread Street Kitchen London, which is just down the road from St Paul's Cathedral, a meal for two will cost around £120 (S$250).
When Ramsay was in town for last year's Formula One Grand Prix, he told reporters that "As this is my first restaurant in Singapore, it's not going to be seriously expensive, and clearly it's not going to be cheap, but it is going to have good value for money."
This may well have been a subtle riposte to charges that the London restaurant is over-priced for what it serves. In his review, Jay Rayner, the Guardian newspaper's vitriolic restaurant critic - having noted a 90 per cent mark-up on the price for a dish of chicken wings - said "the issue is less the exact numbers, but whether you end up looking at a dish and questioning the value. Here you do."
Ramsay himself has been particularly upbeat. At the same F1 press conference, he told reporters that "Marina Bay Sands has been brilliant at looking at what type of restaurants they haven't got. Bread Street Kitchen is something that is not here already. I like that bit of 'cool Brittania' style that's coming in."
Given his track record, it's a foolhardy pundit who is willing to bet against Ramsay. If anyone can make it work in the chilly aerie that is Marina Bay Sands, it would be this hot-tempered Scotsman.
By Daven Wu
Perfect pit stop
Jamie's Italian Singapore
Forum The Shopping Mall, #01/01-04 (opening third quarter)
IT used to be that if you wanted some pastas, grills or salads with Jamie Oliver's name on it, you would have to make your way to VivoCity. But not anymore.
Jamie's Italian - a partnership between celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his Italian mentor, chef Gennaro Contaldo will open its second outlet at Forum The Shopping Mall by the third quarter of this year.
Jamie's Italian first opened in Singapore in 2013.
Emma Sebrof, country general manager for Jamie's Italian Singapore says the company believes there is still space in the Singapore restaurant scene for a casual, affordable and family-friendly Italian restaurant that serves fresh and good food made from scratch. "Jamie's Italian VivoCity has fulfilled that role very well, and we think that it is time for us to bring the brand to other parts of Singapore," she adds.
Forum The Shopping Mall was picked as "we have always thought that Orchard Road is a great location for the brand, as it is a bustling area that attracts both locals and tourists alike," says Ms Sebrof.
She elaborates that the Jamie's Italian approach to dining is casual and comfortable, a perfect pit stop during a busy day of shopping, whether it be for lunch, coffee or an aperitif. Forum Shopping Mall suited them well not only because of its Orchard Road location, but it is also a family-friendly mall. "The amazing street-facing space became available and we just had to grab it," says Ms Sebrof, of its first floor location.
She expects more tourists, a younger audience, couples, groups of friends and colleagues at the Forum restaurant compared to VivoCity's largely family crowd.
Even though the chain has over 50 restaurants under the Jamie's Italian brand, each restaurant has a different personality. Ms Sebrof says, the Forum restaurant is like a "young sister" of the VivoCity one.
The space is smaller, which makes the restaurant a little more cosy and rustic than its sibling - the look and design of the space will be quite different.
"We will also be open from 10am every day at Jamie's Italian Forum, serving artisanal Italian pastries and great coffee, while for Jamie's Italian VivoCity, we're only open for breakfast on weekends," she says. "There will also be a bit more focus on the bar at Jamie's Italian Forum, which comes with an adjoining lounge area."
Food-wise, the Forum restaurant will serve pizzas, which are not offered on the VivoCity menu. Expect choices such as Funghi with roasted mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, charred onion and thyme, and the fiery Italian Hot, topped with artisanal salami, spicy meatballs, jalapeno chillies and buffalo mozzarella. But just don't expect Oliver himself to be in town unlike Ramsay and the MEATliquor owners - there are no plans for him to make an appearance, but that's not likely to dampen the enthusiasm of die-hard fans who have already made Jamie's Italian in VivoCity a hit.
By Tay Suan Chiang