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YOU'RE bound to hear the phrase "same same but different" when you're shopping in the markets of Bangkok. The colloquial phrase means similar but not quite the same thing, and this is perhaps the best way to describe local restaurants which are coming up with new offshoots of their current brands to fuel growth.
Instead of replicating GRUB bistro in another location, the owners decided to spin off the GRUB brand with GRUB Noodle Bar. "The Singapore market is a bit small to open the same concept twice," explains Amanda Phan, one of the owners. "The Noodle Bar offers something different but sits under the GRUB branding which promotes quality ingredients, cooked well and at reasonable prices," explains Mrs Phan.
Some food concepts such as The Gourmet Food Co is branching off from the main dried seafood wholesale company Chin Guan Hong. One of the reasons Yio Jin Xian started The Gourmet Food Co was because Chin Guan Hong comprises many divisions that range the gamut from wholesale and distribution to providing food services such as the prepping, gutting, deboning and cleaning of seafood. "To clobber everything together under a single brand was difficult," explains Mr Yio.
On the other hand, the Saveur restaurant group is finding that it is easier to build on an existing brand. Saveur is known for affordable French food and when they started an Italian cuisine offshoot named Concetto, "people didn't know that it was by us and it took a longer time to build awareness among our customers," says Joshua Khoo, one of the founders of Saveur, which recently launched an upscale spinoff, Saveur Art.
However, others such as omakase Japanese restaurant Hashida Sushi and Selfish Gene Cafe are taking a more sugar-coated (literally!) approach to the nuts-and-bolts of implementing a growth strategy. The former will introduce a sweet shop while the latter will launch a dessert extension.
ION Orchard #04-11 Tel 6634 1141
JOSHUA Khoo and Dylan Ong first broke into the scene back in 2011 by serving decent French food at unbelievably low prices - think foie gras for under S$10 in a coffee shop setting. Their French hawker stall, Saveur, is a success story - one that includes an expansion into bigger shophouse premises at Purvis Street and a second outlet at Far East Plaza last April. Now three years after their hawker endeavour, they are going more upmarket. Saveur Art, a swankier version of Saveur, opened last week at Orchard ION.
The duo come from a fine-dining background - Mr Ong cut his teeth at Raffles Hotel Singapore and Flutes at the Fort; and Mr Khoo worked at the now defunct celebrity chef Guy Savoy restaurant in Singapore. For Saveur Art, they pulled out all the stops with Laguiole steak knives, pristine white tablecloth, leather-bound menus, and a jazzy soundtrack. The cuisine has been elevated with fancier plating and premium ingredients such as Mangalica pork.
With a display of paintings from Singaporean artists Wong Keen and Lim Tze Peng, Saveur Art seems to fit right into the luxurious surroundings of Orchard ION that boasts tenants such as Opera Gallery.
But their philosophy is still rooted in keeping prices down. Main courses are mostly kept within the S$20 range while a four-course tasting menu is S$52 and you can expect all the extras that come along with a fine-dining meal - there are canapes of squid ink crisps with marinated anchovies and pimento coulis, an amuse bouche of rice puffs and seaweed sabayon in roasted potato dashi, and even petite fours at the end. The French-focused wine list won't break the bank either with the most expensive bottle of Chateau Bernadotte costing S$119.
"Where else can you find a langoustine dish like this at S$13?" asks Mr Ong referring to Cold Angel Hair Pasta with Mozambique Langoustine and Olive Oil Emulsion garnished artfully with a sprig of oyster leaf to play up the ocean flavours.
And if you find that the egg confit with truffled potato mousseline, roasted macadamia nuts and brown butter foam a tad bit similar to the cuisine at the award-winning JAAN restaurant, that's probably because Saveur Art's chef de cuisine Tyler Lai used to work under JAAN's executive chef Julien Royer for three years.
Selfish Gene Patisserie
40 Craig Road, 1st floor, Cafe;
2nd floor, Patisserie Tel 6423 1324
SERVING poached eggs cooked in a circulator and the kind of roast beef sandwiches that feature eight-hour, low-temperature roast beef, Selfish Gene Cafe is more than a cafe but still not quite a restaurant. All that is going to change this December when chef owner Gene Mok extends his opening hours (they usually run their shutters down at 5.30pm) to serve bistro kind of food in prix fixe dinner menus, "since people don't eat scrambled eggs at night". Taking the Selfish Gene brand further, Mr Mok is also launching a dessert concept, Selfish Gene Patisserie, above the cafe in the same month.
"The lease for this space kind of fell into my lap. The tenants from the second floor of the shophouse decided to vacate so the landlord offered it to me," says Mr Mok, who decided to take the plunge and turn what was previously an office for a hedge-fund company into "a late night dessert place where people can chill out".
Running in tandem with the cafe on the first floor, Selfish Gene Patisserie will focus on baked items such as savoury scones, sticky buns, quiche and open face tarts in the late afternoon and transition into a bar serving drinks and plated desserts at night. "We are going to push Selfish Gene Cafe Patisserie as one concept. I want the dessert extension to be integrated with what we already have at our Cafe," explains Mr Mok.
He doesn't call it fusion but Mr Mok will meld Asian sensibilities with French techniques to offer a twist on Nonya pineapple tarts, with an ensemble of French biscuit, pastry cream, and roasted pineapples spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and dried chilli.
His tofu cheesecake will take inspiration from chendol by incorporating flavours of pandan leaf, red bean and gula melaka. "Upstairs is like an adult version of downstairs," says Mr Mok of the intimate atmosphere in his newly acquired second floor space. He has kept the concrete walls and exposed wood beams as it is but added minor touches like wood furnishings to bring warmth into the minimalist interiors.
Besides offering a sweet ending to the meal, Selfish Gene Patisserie will also be used for private events and for pop-up dinners.
NIFTY NOCTURNAL NOSH
Grub Noodle Bar
221 Rangoon Road Tel 6341 5631
HAVING supper is common in Singapore but finding quality food late at night can be tricky. But nocturnal city-dwellers can now skip MSG-laden dishes, roti pratas, and deep-fried dim sums as healthier options are available at GRUB Noodle Bar, a spinoff of GRUB bistro at Bishan Park. The food offerings are completely different, but GRUB Noodle Bar delivers the same promise of cooking with natural ingredients without the addition of MSG, artificial preservatives, additives or flavourings.
Behind the GRUB brand is the quartet comprising husband-and-wife duo Mervyn Phan and Amanda Phan, who together with two other friends Dexter Tai and Kelvin Lim, started Cookyn Inc (a cooking events company) and FIX (a Halal cafe promoting corporate social responsibility programmes).
Joining other supper joints such as Founder Bak Kut Teh Restaurant and Whampoa Keng Fish-Head Steamboat in the Rangoon Road area, GRUB Noodle Bar opens late into the night. The laid-back eatery offers a myriad seafood appetisers that can be paired with German craft beers but the star of the show here is its beef noodles.
Springy egg noodles are served dry with minced beef, beef balls, stewed mushrooms and your choice of pasture-fed beef brisket (S$12) and 150-days grain-fed Angus ribeye ($19) or sirloin (S$17). The accompanying soup is simmered with two types of beef bones while the chinchalok dip (fermented shrimp paste) is a nod to Mr Phan's Hainanese roots.
"What you get at hawker centres will not be of this quality and quantity," adds Mr Phan. "The premium beef we use is more common in a steakhouse than a casual noodle eatery, and the meat portion is 100g - that's almost half a steak," says Mrs Phan. Other noodle options include piquant Assam Laksa and Stewed Pork Noodles with lap cheong lardons and pickles.
DRAW FOR CONNOISSEURS
The Gourmet Food Co
18 North Canal Road Tel 6534 0207
LOOKING at the sleek interiors of The Gourmet Food Co, you'll never be able to guess that behind this modern purveyor concept is Chin Guan Hong, a well-established dried seafood wholesaler company that started in 1940.
Chin Guan Hong is one of the main players in the local dried seafood industry and has been supplying to hotel chains and restaurants such as Imperial Treasure and Crystal Jade. "We decided it was time to put a facade and face to what we've been doing for so many years," says Yio Jin Xian, who belongs to the third generation of the family-run business.
As a result, a new branch to the business was born and an empty shophouse in the CBD area was converted into a showroom for restaurant owners and chefs to drop by to examine their offerings. With the new storefront came a new name - The Gourmet Food Co - to help the wholesale company project a more contemporary image. The space also functions as a retail outlet for foodies to pick up premium ingredients.
Since oriental seafood is at the core of Chin Guan Hong's business, The Gourmet Food Co stocks highly prized Kansai dried sea cucumbers that cost up to S$3,300 per kilogram and premium dried scallops packed into jam jars. The frozen section sees a range of ingredients that ranges from Hokkaido scallops, sea perch fish maw, white teat sea cucumbers, to sustainably sourced shark's fin.
Over the years, Chin Guan Hong has also expanded to offer a variety of meats and other food products. "But steak doesn't come to mind if I were to mention Chin Guan Hong," says Mr Yio. Hence, The Gourmet Food Co provides an opportunity to highlight meat products such as Japanese Miyazaki Wagyu, oxtail cuts and veal as well as other products such as wines and condiments.
SWEETS IN FULL BLOSSOM
Mandarin Gallery, Mandarin Hotel
(Opening in April, 2015)
BY day, he's a Japanese chef known for his exquisite dessert creations, by night he's a trendy streetwear and street-art enthusiast.
Now, Kenjiro Hashida's two passions will entwine when he opens his second outlet, Hashida Garo, at the Mandarin Gallery. Garo is a Japanese term for gallery in Japanese. Slated to open in April just two floors above his current 30-seat restaurant, Hashida Sushi, his slightly larger sophomore outlet will house several concepts in one, says the 35-year-old Tokyo native.
Details are still being inked, but one confirmed concept will be centred on wagashi, or traditional Japanese confectionery made of mochi, azuki bean paste and fruit, and often served with tea.
Given chef Hashida's penchant for experimentation, expect a mixture of conventional and contemporary creations that work in both Japanese and some local-inspired flavours, he hints. His highly popular macarons in flavours such as sakura and yuzu - currently served post-meal at Hashida Sushi - will also be available at Garo's dine-in and retail space.
Other concepts the team is currently toying with include a Japanese sake bar area where customers can choose from various types of sake sourced from around Japan - including a Hashida label to be launched next year - and paired with modern Japanese bar snacks.
A further feature of Hashida Garo, as its name suggests, will be an interactive art gallery element worked in throughout the space for artists to show their craft. Not a traditional "hanging-art type of gallery", the space will focus on "what the artist themselves consider art", says chef Hashida, adding that he will start reaching out to various designers, street artists and even fellow chefs who view food as a form of artistic expression once plans have been firmed up. To run a sweet shop of his own was always a dream, adds the chef, who also runs a macaron factory in Tokyo. Though he initially planned to expand his dessert offerings at Hashida Sushi, he didn't want it to detract from the latter's forte in sushi.
"It is nice for me to have another avenue where I can reach out to a wider crowd of customers," says Mr Hashida, who snapped up the nearby unit when its current tenants decided not to renew their lease.
While lunch sets start at S$80 and omakase dinner sets span S$300 to S$500 per person at Hashida Sushi, "I want Garo to be a place where you can get something for S$5 and S$10 and still have change in return," he assures.
– Additional reporting by Debbie Yong