Sunday, 27 July, 2014

 
Published May 17, 2014
Dining
Covert operations
Need a private drink away from the public eye? Check out these three new under-the-radar watering holes - and psst, you don't need a password to get in. By Debbie Yong
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TAKE IT PRIVATE
Above: Operation Dagger is anything but conventional, and aims to make the spirits, liqueurs and bitters used at the bar entirely in-house. - PHOTO: BAR COUNCIL BY YEN MENG JIIN

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Operation Dagger

#B1-01, 7 Ann Siang Hill

Opens in June

LIKE Operation Dagger, the movement in the late 1950s to rid Chinatown of its plague of gangs and secret societies, convincing the soon-to-open bar of the same name to be featured on this page took weeks of persistent hounding.

That's because the basement bar is not meant to be a place for everyone, executive bartender Luke Whearty says of his reticence.

"Not everyone will understand what we are doing. We're even prepared for people to hate us," explains the 30-year-old Australian, a transplant from progressive Melbourne bar Der Raum. And though the bar has every mark of a speakeasy, from its lack of a signboard (look out for a rectangle and inverted crown symbol chalked near its entrance - it's inspired by "hobo code", or a secret language used by homeless people to communicate with each other) to its very Prohibition era-style underground venue, Mr Whearty disclaims that they didn't set out to be one.

"We don't want to claim to be speakeasies and yet have a public Facebook page. At the end of the day, we are a business, we do want attention." Just not from everyone, it seems. The hesitance towards mainstream marketing, he elaborates, stems from wanting "to attract only the people who appreciate what we are doing to seek us out."

You get what he means the moment you step into the 1,000 sq ft space, a concrete bomb shelter meets dimly lit dungeon meets mad scientist's lab - in other words, anything but a conventional cocktail bar. The 32-seater space was used as a store room for sister restaurant Oxwell & Co just across the road for a year before the owners turned their attention here now that operations at Oxwell have stabilised.

You won't find the usual "safety drinks" such as recognisable, commercial alcohol labels displayed behind the bar, says Mr Whearty. In their place sit shelves of medicinal-looking brown glass bottles marked with obscure symbols. The symbols - S for spirit, a circle for fruit, and a circle encasing smaller circles for spices - take a leaf out of Ferran Adria's El Bulli's sketchbook. (To traverse the growing language gap between his global team of chefs and stagiaires, Adria started labelling his kitchen larder with hieroglyphics).

The core aim at Operation Dagger is to make - as far as possible - the spirits, liqueurs and bitters used at the bar entirely in-house. This is done with a combination of traditional techniques such as bottle fermentation and modern gadgets such as rotary evaporators and sous vide machines that sit within a gated alcove at the back of the space. His four-man bar team eke out two hours in the afternoon daily to work on new flavour experiments. Clipboards hung, laboratory-like, on the back wall chart their progress, be it making mead out of honey and water (there are eventual plans to rear their own bees to make their own honey), bottle fermenting cocktails with champagne yeast, distilling clear spirit from toasted sesame or infusing rye whisky with fresh local bananas.

The best way to drink them all in is to go for the "omakase" set. For $120 per person, the bar will send out a mix of cocktails, and "raw expressions" or samples of the day's infusions, homemade mead or distilled spirits until you've had your fill. Meanwhile, a limited a la carte cocktail menu cheekily labelled "dangerous drinking water" is designed to "get people thinking out of the box": it doesn't state the base spirit that goes in the cocktail ($22 to $25), merely its ingredients.

"When you come to Operation Dagger nothing will be familiar. We want to get people to think about their drinks in terms of flavour rather than what brands they know," he says.

"You may or may not like your drink, but at least you can leave here saying you've tried something new," he explains. And if you're really not so inclined, there's a small list of beers and wines, and bar snacks such as kale crisps, pickled cucumbers and chicken karaage go for $5 to $12.

"You can nerd out and go into the details of how a drink is made, or just enjoy it as it is," he says. "Because at the end of the day, it's just drinks. We want everyone to have fun."

debyong@sph.com.sg


Bar Council

275A Outram Road

Open for two seatings from 7-10pm and 10pm-1am daily from Tues to Sat, by appointment only

Email: i@barsmiths.com

FRENCH bakery? Check. Third wave coffee joint? Check. Cupcake shop? Check and check. The only thing Tiong Bahru seems to be missing now is a speakeasy - or is it?

A stone's throw away from the heart of the de facto hipster 'hood sits the Bar Council, a watering hole so covert, you'll need to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody to get a foot in.

That final somebody, it turns out, is Mark Tay. According to the managing director and founder of beverage consultancy BarSmiths, the "secret bar" wasn't created to be a secret - or even a bar at all.

Occupying an open 400 sq ft area of an Outram Road shophouse, the bar comprises a custom-built beverage counter, a pantry area and an outdoor balcony and primarily serves as an office, training space and research lab for Mr Tay's business.

He moved into the space last November after running the five-year-old company out of his Pasir Ris home, and shares the unit with two ad agencies, GOVT and Hustla & Co - whose founders are close friends, says Mr Tay.

"Each time their clients would come for meetings, spot our bar area and ask if we can make them a drink," he recalls. "We started to get more and more requests that we decided to open it up as a speakeasy to friends and associates."

To avoid interfering with the two agencies' daily operations, Bar Council only takes visitors after office hours and accommodates up to 20 persons in two seatings nightly. Alternatively, the entire 1,800 sq ft floor can be booked out for private celebrations and wedding after-parties for up to 100 persons and with one to two weeks' notice.

Bar Council specialises in what Mr Tay calls "multi sensory cocktails" that ride heavily on molecular techniques. There's no menu here, drinks are all made bespoke. Or ask Mr Tay to whip up the signature creations the 39-year-old has crafted over his 14 years behind the stick, such as the Elyx Tropics - a concoction Mr Tay created as the local brand ambassador for Absolut vodka - made up of pineapple juice, orgeat syrup and chocolate bitters, or his range of bottle-aged cocktails such as the Smoky Havana, which stirs together Havana Club rum, vermouth and aperol smoked with white oak chips, dehydrated orange peel and cinnamon.

Payment operates on a "tip what you think your drink is worth" system "because I don't know how to charge friends", says Mr Tay.

On the potential for abuse, he laughs: "Sure, you can pay only $2 after drinking cocktails the whole night, but will we take your reservation the next time you want to come back? Maybe not."


KOT Weekend Winebar

64 Neil Road Tel 6635 4770

Email: info@kotselections.com

Open 5-10pm every last Fri and Sat of the month, by-appointment-only at all other times

HOW do you one-up the seasoned tippler who claims to be able to navigate blindfolded the circuit of trendy cocktail and wine bars that has emerged in the Neil Road and Keong Saik vicinity? Try this: Ask him for directions to KOT Selection's Weekend Wine Bar.

Though the brand new winebar sits right in the heart of the thriving dining district, getting there requires some serious sleuthing skills. For it is wedged near the back of an unmarked, dead-end alley in between Tanjong Pagar's stretch of rainbow-friendly bars - a true testament to the adage that good things come to those who seek.

An office, store room and meeting space for artisan wine purveyor KOT Selections by day, as of a fortnight ago, the 900 sq ft shophouse now doubles up as a monthly winebar and tastings room every last weekend of the month.

Says KOT Selections' founder Ong Yixin, 34, of the decision to open his doors to the public: "We want to introduce our wines to a broader audience in a casual, non-intimidating setting. It was always our plan to do so, but we needed to find the right space."

The latter finally manifested in his current unit, which he moved into last October. Regional maps of France and photographs of winemakers - all of whom Mr Ong knows and has visited personally - deck the walls, and a shelf of over 500 vinyl records help to create an ambience of drinking in a friend's contemporary study. Scattered tables around the space encourage people to cluster around in small groups to exchange thoughts on the wines.

A 200 sq ft cold room by the back of the space stores about 500 different labels of well-farmed, carefully-made wines from smaller estates and domaines in Europe and California. Prices range from $30 up to $500 per bottle. Particular care is taken to ensure an unbroken cold chain from the time the wine is bottled to its delivery to one's dinner table.

Each monthly event will be organised around a different theme to let consumers find out more about small-batch producers in a supperclub-like setting, says Mr Ong.

Californian wines took the spotlight at their inaugural event last month, for instance. Ten different labels of wines and two champagnes of varying characteristics - from a satin-smooth Zinfandel from Les Enfants Terribles Heart Arrow Range to an earthy Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend from Rocks & Gravel made in the Rhone style were available from $17 to $35 per glass. Or, for a sip of each, patrons could opt for the Grand Tour comprising 45ml pours of every wine for $50.

Future events planned include a wine and hawker food pairing session on May 30 and 31, during which patrons will get tips of matching with local delights such as chicken rice, curry puffs, ngoh hiang and tapioca cakes from nearby Maxwell market, as well as sessions focused on individual grape varieties.