Thursday, 24 April, 2014

 
Published December 21, 2013
Dining
Trending now
You aren't truly a foodie unless you've queued with the masses, knocked one back in a (literally) underground restaurant or lamented the loss of an iconic dining destination in 2013. Debbie Yong looks back at the food trends that got Singapore talking this year
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Bincho Yakitori & Hua Bee coffee shop

 

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Grow Your Own

ALREADY standard practice among top chefs in France and the United States, the farm-to-table movement is rapidly taking root across Singapore. Local restaurants Artichoke and Morsels have been flying the flag in partnership with urban farmer Bjorn Low's consultancy, Edible Gardens, but the roster of locavore advocates expanded this year to include cocktail bars such as 28 Hong Kong Street, The Green Door and Maison Ikkoku, which have all sprouted petite herb gardens in their backyards and rooftops. Ann Siang Hill watering hole Oxwell and Co has talked of further plans to start farming bees for honey on its terrace, and even top brands such as the W Hotel and the Swissotel have carved out plots for edible gardens on their premises. Top chef Andre Chiang, too, started his own 1.5ha farm in his native Taiwan this year, which has just started to yield bounty such as carrots, leeks and baby corn for use at Restaurant Andre.

Going gaga

You can't be taken seriously as a foodie unless you've had to bite the bullet and rough it out in line outside an overseas food franchise this year. French macaron specialist Laduree, Michelin-starred Hong Kong dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan, American donut brand Krispy Kreme and British television chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian all sparked off snaking long queues when they unveiled their first Singapore outposts earlier this year, with some relentless fans even staking out overnight for first-bite bragging rights.

Not quite a franchise but an undeniable product of successful branding, British chef Gordon Ramsay, too, spurred some ardent overnight campers when he came to town in July to challenge our local hawker heroes to a cooking showdown. Funny though, that while Singaporeans think nothing of enduring long hours for food, we'll sooner throw a tantrum if we have to queue for more than 10 minutes for a taxi.

Pairing up

With rents on the up and up in Singapore, it increasingly makes sense for F&B businesses to cosy up in the same space, nevermind if their concepts are as different as chalk and cheese. Traditional bao shop Choon Ming Bao Dian and artisan bakery, The Bread Table, sit happily side-by-side in an Upper Thomson Road shophouse unit; five-month-old Take 2 Cafe in Novena is a hair salon and a cheap-and-cheery eatery conjoined by a sliding glass door; and a tiny corridor at the back of traditional Chinese medicine bakery, Dough and Grains, leads to the Backdoor Bar, a two-table drinking joint that regularly screens football matches.

Others such as Two Face Pizza and Alibabar split the space by day and night use, and morph from grubby dayime kopi tiams to craft beer bars after-hours. The latest to join this wave is F&B stalwart Loh Lik Peng, whose Bincho at Hua Bee is a mee pok stall by day and industrial chic Japanese yakitori bar by night that has created a buzz among Tiong Bahru's retiree residents and fashionable tipplers alike.

Blink and you'll miss it

A restaurant with an unfashionable postal code or with no street-facing access used to be a sure-fire recipe for failure, but basement venues and offbeat locations are now standard modus operandi. Basement nightclub Kyo packs them in weekly while The Black Swan's best-kept secret is its private room squirrelled in the former basement vault of the space's early bank tenants.

Bellwethers in sin-riddled Desker Road is an unexpectedly mod operation, and bike shop-cum-vintage furniture store-cum-cafe Wheeler's Yard is a hipster-magnet despite (or perhaps as a result of) being plugged in a warehouse that looks perpetually shut in industrial Balestier. Rooftop bar Mad Men and local musicians Jack and Rai's first F&B venture, The Flying Squirrel, both have their entrances on blink-and-you'll-miss-it side alleys in the CBD and the latter's new outlet, Workshop, is tucked away in a nondescript Bukit Merah HDB block. Like seeking an oasis in the middle of the desert, perhaps the idea is that drinks taste better when you've had to work to find them.

Pop-ups going permanent

Another pop-up restaurant? Been there, done that. 2013 belongs to the pop-ups who dared to venture forth with a brick-and-mortar space to call their own. Fat Duck chef-backed restaurant-lounge Bacchanalia was launched to immediate aplomb in April after the concept had been test-driven as a series of lavish pop-up Saturday brunches for a year, and The Naked Finn finally secured its permanent berth in Gillman Barracks after a long hiatus from its three-month pop-up within now-defunct boutique, A Curious TeePee. Similarly, Keong Saik Road eatery Burnt Ends is a manifestation of pop-up barbecue restaurant Burnt Enz that Australia head chef David Pynt ran in London last summer, while 8-month-old cooking studio My Private Pantry doubles as a homebase for Crystal Chua and Stephan Zoisl's two-year-old private cheffing outfit, My Private Chef. Now a popular Ann Siang Hill fixture, small plates restaurant Lolla, too, was initially gestated as underground supperclub, Lolla's Secret Suppers.

Hawkerpreneurs

With 10 new hawker centres on the blueprint, and a whole generation of hawkers soon headed for retirement, the issue of continuity for the hawker trade has come under the direct spotlight this year - so much so that a global conference, The World Street Food Congress, was even inaugurated around the theme of preservation and professionalisation in June. A new breed of "hawkerpreneurs" behind new modern food stalls such as Nicher and A Noodle Story and the success stories of earlier ventures such as Saveur and Le Cuisson make the idea of running a start-up in a sweaty environment seem sexy again, but the push for renewal recently took a step back with the October closure of Kampung@Simpang Bedok, Singapore's first hawker centre run as a social enterprise.

Off the radar

Signboards: so last season. Everyone likes to feel like only they have privileged insider's access to the latest hotspots, and speakeasies Jekyll and Hye, The Powder Room, Cache, the Spiffy Dapper and House of Dandy are the latest to get onto the burgeoning bandwagon of covert drinking destinations. But that privilege comes at a price, that is, the inconvenience of having to constantly get up mid-cocktail to flag misguided friends in the right direction.

Hybrid eats

First came Da Paolo Gastronomia's cronut, a local rendition of the croissant-donut that New York patissier Dominique Ansel created to a rabid following in the US; then came Shangri-La Hotel's croffle, or croissant-meets-waffle; and now we have food truck The Travelling Cow's ramen burger. What will they think of next?

Old is gold

Vintage never seems to get old in modern Singapore. But while the vintage influence was largely cosmetic before, restaurants rocking the retro vibe in 2013 work in recipes from Singapore's golden past as well. Amid 1970s knick-knacks, Sinpopo and Dong Po Colonial Cafe serve up sweet treats of yore - such as the ais bor and long cup butter cakes respectively - while newcomer bars Zui Hong Lou and Ding Dong, offer modern interpretations on Malacca chendol and chrysanthemum-infused cocktails in neon-lit Wong Kar Wai meets Suzy Wong artsy/sleazy surrounds. Nearby, Teochew restaurant Cheng Hoo Tian revives recipes dating back to its original founding in Ellenborough Market in the 1930s. Don't reminisce too fondly about the classroom tables and stringy chairs at The Tuckshop or at the plastic green tau huay trough that doubles as a punchbowl at Ah Sam Cold Drink Store though - you might just reveal your age.

Indie no more

The storm over speciality coffee is still brewing strong. In fact, most of the little indie joints java junkies have been rooting for since 2011 have done well enough to expand into multi-outlet operations with a heavier food focus this year. Strangers' Reunion expanded into an adjacent unit in April; Group Therapy Cafe spawned its second branch in Katong lst month; Smitten Coffee spun off sister brand, Necessary Provisions, in June; and Jewel Coffee at Shenton Way upsized with an 80-seater Jewel Cafe and Bar sophomore effort in Rangoon Road in March. Also new in Jalan Besar is five-month-old The Bravery by folks behind The Plain, who proved they are truly on a roll by going on to open Ronin in Hong Kong Street last month.

Spa Esprit and Harry Grover's 40 Hands Coffee, meanwhile, spun off coffee-takeaway counter, Kiasu Espresso, in Tanjong Pagar mid-year and later teamed up with Australia's Five Senses group to launch specialty coffee monolith, Common Man Coffee Roasters, in August.

Latin American fever

The Peruvian craze that has gripped food capitals worldwide finally hit town when South American restaurant Sur Nuevo Latino Kitchen opened at the cusp of the new year, and was followed swiftly by Colombian restaurant La Barra and Cuban eatery Ocio. These were followed by a string of by-now ubiquitous Mexican eateries such as the no-frills Pistola, Guzman Y Gomez, Mex-Out, and Muchachos, and trendy, tequila-centric watering holes such as Lucha Loco, Lower East Side, and Hombre Cantina. Too bad though that the wave seems to be crashing as quickly as it crested: Sur, La Barra and Ocio have since shuttered.

Better burgers

Last year's cupcake epidemic finally started to decline this year, but not before we saw a new rash of gourmet burger shops by everyone from former investment bankers and social entrepreneurs to local musicians and radio DJs. This year, guitarist Keith Tan's Meatpacking District, and Fast Food for Thought joined the ranks of relatively new homegrown burger joints such as Two Blur Guys, Omakase Burger and Do-It-Yourself Burger . Australian chain Charlie & Co recently got the memo too, and expanded here in January to jostle among existing overseas brands such Tokyo's Freshness Burger and R Burger, Canada's Triple O's, and Kraze burger from Seoul.

Downscaling

Les Amis shut high-end Vietnamese restaurant, Annam, to focus on taking chef Nam Quoc Nguyen's mid-tier chain Nam Nam across the region, and it will be also shutting fine-dining grand dame Au Jardin in April. Italian restaurant Gattopardo recently opened casual winebar Morsi and Sorsi; Il Lido went downstream with &Sons, a wine bar modelled after the Venetian bacaro; while Osvaldo Forlino's No Menu Bar doubles as a Chinese economy rice stall at lunch. Does this spell the end of the era of fine dining? We shudder to think so.

Bowing out

It's a dog-eat-dog business out there in the restaurant universe, and 2013 proved that even trophied front-runners can sometimes lose their footing. Some close because of rental hikes and management issues, others because their owners have had a change in priorities. Hong Kong-based local restaurateur Yenn Wong, for instance, will close her trio of restaurants, Bomba, Kha and Graze by January 2014 to focus on her family and her growing stable of restaurants there. Likewise, the owners of Preparazzi and Le Saint Julien closed their dine-in outlets to focus on their growing catering businesses (though Jeremy Nguee now runs temporary laksa bar Rakusaba at The U Factory, and veteran chef Julien Bompard still cooks on a referrals-only basis at three-month-old private dining outfit, Scotts 27). One on the Bund will shut early next year and La Cicala, Keystone, La Villa and Foodbar Dada all threw in the towel in recent months (but the latter's Josper oven-cooking can still be had at month-old 63 Celsius by the same owner) and Chef Willin Low's flagship Wild Rocket on Mount Emily shut earlier this month, too, for a three-month hiatus.

Serve-it-yourself

The tightening of foreign labour quotas and consequent manpower shortage that have hit the F&B industry hard in 2013 also mean that restaurant owners have to rely ever more on technology to get by. IPad menus are now popping up in trendy nosh spots such as The Fat Boy's Burger Bar to more traditional settings such as Tunglok's Xihe Peking Duck Restaurant. Popular newcomers such as Grub and Symmetry have built in fully automated SMS-based queueing systems while DIY Enomatic wine dispensers are now staple fixtures at wine bars such as Napoleon, Les Amis' winebar Caveau, Praelum and Cook & Brew in the brand new Westin Hotel - a clever way of reducing their reliance on labour and letting wine newbies sample a wider range at the same time.

Ethical eating

Sustainability has yet to become a common dinner topic in Asia, but going by the look of things, it will soon be. Recently opened restaurant Wolf trumpets the nose-to-tail philosophy of thoughtful meat use to reduce wastage, while sustainably sourced seafood will feature in at least 80 per cent of Gattopardo's new menu when the Sicilian restaurant relocates to Tras Street in January. Sustainability will also be a major theme for the series of workshops surrounding the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Awards next February. Watch this space for more.

debyong@sph.com.sg