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SPLASH OF COLOURS: Above: The Crazy Cheong Fun Revolution at CreatureS.

SPLASH OF COLOURS: Above: Sirloin steak with chinchalok topping at redpan.

ECLECTIC MIX: Above: Vivid-coloured walls and fresh flowers at every table are details not often found in commercial restaurants.

ECLECTIC MIX: Ah Gong Fried Chicken & Ah Ma Noodles.

FOR OLD TIMES' SAKE: Oil-fried soon hock served with tamarind and Korean gochujang sauce.

SLEEK AND CASUAL: Prawn & Hae Bee Hiam Pasta.

SLEEK AND CASUAL: Mac & Cheese with Lup Cheong instead of the usual bacon.

Local bites with a twist

Modern Singaporean cuisine seems to be a fast-growing genre for local chefs eager to carve an original niche for themselves. But is one person's originality another person's gimmick? BT Weekend susses out some of the new players in town.
21/05/2016 - 05:50

SIRLOIN steak with chinchalok topping. Oven-roasted miso cod with ulam onigiri. Green beans stir-fried in chorizo XO sauce with soy truffle dressing. While the individual components of these dishes may sound familiar, you won't find these specific combinations just anywhere in Singapore.

Instead, they are highlights of the menus at three new modern local restaurants - redpan at Marina Square, CreatureS at Desker Road, and Xiao Ya Tou at Duxton Hill. They join the ranks of existing players such as Wild Rocket, Labyrinth, and Candlenut Kitchen to add colour to our dining scene - a natural progression for a food-obsessed country that's often dubbed a melting pot of cultures.

One of the pioneers is the mod-Sin restaurant Wild Rocket, and its chef-owner Willin Low observes: "When we started, we were afraid that the public would hate modern spins on our traditional food. Fortunately, they not only didn't hate it, they embraced it and asked for more. Eleven years on, I'm happy to see not only restaurants, but cafes, zi char stalls, and even bars incorporating mod-Sin into their repertoire."

Of course like any trend, it comes with the risk that some of these dishes are a contrived mess of ingredients thrown together for no good reason. It's something that Chef Han Li Guang of two-year-old Restaurant Labyrinth is particularly careful about, especially since he specialises in an avant-garde style of local cuisine.

"The most important thing for me is that the flavours must be there," says chef Han, who is arguably best-known for his unconventional chilli crab ice cream. "Secondly, if an element is put onto a plate, why is it there? If you put dry ice for example, how does it heighten the flavours or experience? It has to tie back culturally, or trigger a customer's memory, for it to mean something."

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Ultimately though, that doesn't mean newcomers should be afraid to be adventurous with their cooking. Like how Chef Mervyn Phan of two-month-old redpan puts it: "When our forefathers started hawker culture, they didn't have recipes - they created char kway teow and beef noodles through experience, trial and error, and what was available at the time. We're so fixated now with trying to preserve that culture, but what about the next lap? Are we able to create dishes and be open to evolution like our forefathers? That's our challenge."

By Rachel Loi


120 Desker Road
Open Tues, Wed, Thu, Sun, noon - 10.30pm and Fri, Sat, noon - 11.30pm
Closed on Mon
Tel: 6291-6996

WALKING into CreatureS feels like you're walking into someone's well-decorated home. The vivid-coloured walls, fresh flowers on every table, and cheery greetings from service staff are details not often found in commercial restaurants.

It might as well be one, since director Dennis Chong started out as a home cook who simply enjoyed hosting gatherings for friends. After moving on to hosting private dinners for charity auctions, he and his partner Chong Kok Keong made the leap to opening their own 60-seater restaurant last year, at a three-storey conservation shophouse at Desker Road.

"We essentially enjoyed cooking for people, but being first-time F&B owners we wanted to make sure to do this comfortably, within our expertise. So we mirrored the restaurant to our own home, except with more tables and chairs," says Mr Dennis, who used to be a photographer. It's also how the restaurant earned its name, he says. From the two phrases - creature comfort (referring to how they want to serve people food that brings them comfort), and creatures of habit (referring to how they hope customers will return).

A first glance at the menu might spark a raised eyebrow, with quirky names such as Ah Gong Fried Chicken & Ah Ma Noodles (S$23) and Crazy Cheong Fun Revolution (S$18), but that doesn't mean the flavours aren't there. The former is a tasty pairing of fried boneless chicken coated in garam masala and la-mian, served with a side of chinchalok mayonnaise, while the latter is a comforting platter of minced chicken that goes with either steamed cheong fun (rice noodle roll) or lettuce, topped with a spicy coriander dip.

It's quite an eclectic mix, especially when next to more traditional dishes such as Laksa (S$24) and Babi Pongteh (S$22), but according to Mr Dennis, that's exactly what they intended.

"It's just like how we cook many different dishes when at home - whether Asian, Italian - so that's what we're doing here," he explains.

"Our method of cooking is very traditional. We try not to do things like sous vide because we want to stick with honest, home-cooking techniques. We want to reach a middle ground of serving outside food that's fundamentally very homey - like curry made from scratch, boiled in a big pot. And we don't freeze it for storage, so when we sell out, we sell out."

By Rachel Loi


Xiao Ya Tou
6 Duxton Hill
Open 11am to 12am daily
Tel: 6226 1965

DUXTON Hill is home to hipster eateries today, but there was a time when it was filled with brothels and opium dens. That's the sordid past that new mod sin eatery Xiao Ya Tou along Duxton is referencing, a two-week-old hangout that's already drawing expatriates and nostalgic millennials.

Chef and owner Abbyshayne Lim calls it a "naughty modern Asian restaurant". It's an apt description of the plays on zi char dishes, not to mention the visual references to vintage Chinese pin-up girls. (Xiao Ya Tou is in fact, Mandarin for "impish girl.")

This isn't her first time at the rodeo - chef Lim also runs four-year-old Symmetry along Jalan Kubor, a modern French restaurant. But with an initial investment of S$350,000, Xiao Ya Tou marks a bold change: "My dad said this wouldn't work out because I don't know how to cook Chinese food, and also our forte is in French cooking!" laughs chef Lim.

But switching out a pan for a wok isn't totally alien to her; chef Lim says it's actually more representative of what her team cooks and eats on a daily basis: "Xiao Ya Tou's food is inspired by dishes we cook at home or for staff meals, but elevated to restaurant levels," she explains.

"Even when I eat out, I go to a zi char place with my family to celebrate, or perhaps Crystal Jade or Tung Lok, but now we want to create a place where young people can enjoy themselves and still bring their parents along."

Locals of all ages will find dishes like oil-fried soon hock (S$42) familiar, though it's served with a tamarind and Korean gochujang sauce; there's also ayam percik (S$23), or chicken in a spiced coconut cream.

The star of the menu is the humble lu rou fan at S$9 (braised meat on rice), though chef Lim uses sous-vide beef instead of pork, and housemade pickles. It's a modern take on Chinese comfort food, boasting cleaner flavours with added crunch.

It's a challenge deciding how "local" they can take it, concedes chef Lim, given that Duxton's core audience comprise expatriates. Which is why some dishes are served tapas-style as an accompaniment to drinks, with small plates like sweet fish sauce chicken wings (S$12) - a play on shrimp paste chicken - and deep-fried otak-otak rolls (S$12) which are wrapped in phyllo pastry and served with a tangy tamarind peanut sauce.

Other ideas such as serving Nanyang coffee were scrapped. "I'll have to sell kopi at S$1.80, and my daily sales will come to maybe S$200 - I can't even afford to cover labour costs!"

Instead, she's banking on their expertise with specialty coffee, investing in a second Slayer coffee machine at S$30,000 (there's one at Symmetry, where they also roast their own beans).

But she's taking other calculated risks: for instance, she's introducing a brunch menu come mid June, which will feature spins on local breakfast and supper classics.

"No one really does Asian brunch, apart from dim sum styled dishes," says chef Lim. Oyster porridge or eggs benedict with hae bee hiam, anyone?

By Tan Teck Heng


Marina Square, #02-03/04
Open Mon to Fri, 9am - 10pm, Sat, Sun, and public holidays, 11am - 10pm
Tel: 6255 5850

WHAT do you get when you cross a local architecture firm with a local F&B company? One answer is redpan - a sleek, casual eatery serving locally-inspired modern dishes.

This two-month-old restaurant is the brainchild of DP Architects (which designed buildings such as the Esplanade and the Singapore Sports Hub) and The Food Explorer Group (which also runs Cookyn Inc and GRUB). It is located at Marina Square - where the DP Architects headquarters is also located.

"When we first started working together, we realised the common thread between our companies is that we are both homegrown. But we didn't want to do traditional local food, because we wanted to be more creative," says Amanda Phan, one of the four founders of The Food Explorer Group, in-charge of PR and marketing.

Her co-founder, Mervyn Phan, director of Kitchens, adds: "We were also a bit concerned people could compare us easily with traditional recipes, and that would be hard to compete with. So we tweaked our approach and are no longer limited to trying to recreate things from the past. We look towards the future now, and we can bring in any kind of technique we want. That's why our menu isn't confined to any particular cuisine, but we try to infuse local familiar ingredients."

That's how they ended up with dishes such as Char Siew Chilli Fries (S$7) made with a char siew ragout, sour cream and jalapeno salsa, a Mac & Cheese (S$14) with Lup Cheong instead of the usual bacon, and a Prawn & Hae Bee Hiam Pasta (S$16) made with a spicy shrimp paste from chef Mervyn's grandmother's recipe.

However, these are listed next to safer items such as Fish & Chips (S$13) and a Classic Cheeseburger (S$16) - a move which chef Mervyn explains as a way to make the menu less overwhelming for first-time diners.

"Singaporeans can be very safe (in their choices), so now only about 60 per cent of our dishes are adventurous. But we're actually slowly phasing out the more boring dishes as people start getting to know who we are. We're not saying traditional food is bad, we're just exploring what could be the next lap," he says.

By Rachel Loi