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LIKE the best pop song remixes that riff on original tracks to pack a punch, the latest dining concepts are interpreting local cuisine in alternative ways. Whether it is taking inspiration from Singaporean street food or using South-east Asian ingredients such as pandan, gula melaka, and pulut hitam (black glutinous rice) with modern cooking techniques, the East-meets-West mashups have been gaining traction as local chefs and restaurateurs turn towards our own backyard for produce and new ideas.
At the forefront of the movement is Willin Low, the lawyer-turned-chef who has been trotting out Mod-Sin (Modern Singaporean) creations at Wild Rocket for the past nine years. Mr Low's reopening of Wild Rocket in July this year sees a new menu with creative adaptations of local flavours. Think 48-hour sous vide Beef Short Ribs in Rendang Sauce with Ketupat, and a Pineapple Sorbet with Salty Soy Sauce and Chilli Padi that references Mr Low's nostalgic childhood memories.
Other players include Adrian Ling who doles out unexpected combinations in creations such as bak kwa Mac-and-cheese as well as Razor Clams Tau Suan (the clams are served with split mung beans in a clam dashi with slices of dough fritters) at Pidgin Kitchen and Bar. It's a trickle-down effect from more high-end/mid-priced restaurants to casual cafes and diners as seen from the latest crop of laid-back dining concepts paying homage to local fare.
One of them is The Prawn Star, a zi char eatery with a touch of Melbourne's frenetic food scene. It will serve up charcoal-grilled seafood and King Prawns with vermicelli in claypots. Joining the fray is Hyde & Co, a minimalist British-inspired cafe that offers gula melaka crumpets. And then, taking a leaf from nostalgic Singapore, comes the newly revamped Sinpopo Brand with more intriguing spins on old favourites such as Har Jeong Kai Burgers and Beef Short Ribs with hor fun rice noodles.
Spotlight on prawn stars
The Prawn Star
21 Duxton Hill Tel 6323 3353
THE restaurant's moniker is a provocative pun and some of its offerings are cheekily referred to as "live nude prawns" on its marketing materials. With such a sizzler, it's hard not to take notice of The Prawn Star, a laid-back, seafood-centric eatery that is slated to open for business on Nov 21. "The brand is supposed to be cheeky and irreverent, to be more accessible to the masses, plus you immediately know that it's a seafood place," explains Chris Chong.
Mr Chong is no stranger to the F&B industry. In fact, the seasoned restaurateur started Burke's cafe with college mates in the 1990s, had a stake in The Disgruntled Chef, and now owns Tiong Bahru Bar.
Most Singaporeans are familiar with the concept of zi char or stir-fries that you can usually find in restaurants at Housing Board flats. The idea is for The Prawn Star to be a Western-style zi char spot with unfussy East-meets-West dishes such as curried mussels, Calamari "Yaki Udon" with bacon and yaki sauce, and Grilled King Prawns in kimchi-miso butter.
"We serve our seafood with Turkish bread instead of rice," adds Mr Chong. Seafood is the main focus here, featuring prawns, fresh catches such as Blue Swimmer crabs and whole fish which are charcoal-grilled in the traditional way for an extra-smoky flavour. Diners can also expect a list of classic cocktails and craft beers. Like the dishes on the menu, the 35-seater exudes Melbournian chic-meets-heartland zi char stall. On one of the walls, a commissioned illustration of a "superhero prawn lounging in the living room" by local artist and Nafa student Chloe Wong takes pride of place. The rest of the eatery has hues of grey, recycled timbre wood and metro rail white tiles to give a "cleaned up, back alley look". "We wanted to create a Western canteen coffee shop and we even have a round kopitiam-style marble table," adds Mr Chong.
Fun and wacky approach aside, The Prawn Star is also a locavore eatery which sources for its seafood and vegetables from Tekka Centre and Tiong Bahru markets as well as Malaysia and Batam to reduce food miles.
Bringing back romance
Hyde & Co
785 North Bridge Road Tel 9369 4369
THE coffee culture is growing rapidly in Singapore thanks to a spate of cafe openings but the minimalist, British-inspired Hyde & Co eatery is keen to make us turn our attention to teas by offering 45 different types of infusions. Opened by 28-year-old Derrick Chew who also owns theatre production company, Sight Lines Productions, Hyde & Co serves unique brews such as sticky toffee pudding black tea and coconut green tea because Mr Chew didn't want to have "the same brews as Gryphon or TWG".
The teas are sourced from a merchant residing in Australia and distributed under the Hyde & Co brand. There may be plans to bring in more Chinese-style teas and to create special Hyde & Co blends but since they are in the first week of operations, Mr Chew is biding his time.
When asked about the concept for Hyde & Co, Mr Chew shares that he was inspired by Singapore's colonial past. There's also some history behind the name of the eatery. "Based on our research, we found out that North Bridge Road is one of the oldest streets in Singapore. The architecture and pre-war shophouses were built by Chinese construction companies that went by names such as Hock Seong and Co and we were inspired by this idea," explains Mr Chew.
Eschewing the stuffy and flowery Victorian sensibilities in favour of clean, simple and contemporary designs, Mr Chew shares: "Our designer modelled the black-and-white striped awning out in the front after the Monocle Cafe in London."
There's nary a scone in sight at this modern-day tea parlour, and neither will you find staples such as eggs benedict, pancakes or waffles on the menu. Instead, the place offers crumpets that Mr Chew describes as "a mix between an English muffin and a sponge cake". Guests can mix and match their stack of fluffy griddlecakes with sweet and savoury trimmings.
The food also bears hints of local flavours. Drawing inspiration from ondeh ondeh, the crumpets are sometimes paired with drizzles of homemade gula melaka syrup and a shower of coconut flakes. The Lady Hyde, a classic French Croque Madam sandwich with ham, cheese, and egg is also spruced up with pineapple and hae bee hiam - a creation that came from much experimentation with local ingredients such as lap cheong, otah and luncheon meat.
Mod spin on Sinpopo Brand
458 Joo Chiat Road Tel 6345 5034
STEPPING into the Sinpopo Brand eatery used to be like walking onto the set of Growing Up, a locally produced television series set in the 1960s. But since October, the vintage-style cafe swapped its retro image for a sleeker, more contemporary look. Gone are the bight red metal gates and kopitiam vibe, and in its place is a contemporary colour palette of black and grey, punctuated with white vinyl wicker bucket seats.
"We wanted to give Sinpopo Brand a fresher, cooler, and edgier look but yet keep the local spirit in terms of food, furniture and design," explains Lyn Lee, the lawyer-turned-bakery entrepreneur who is also behind the highly successful Awfully Chocolate and Everything with Fries.
First opened in May 2013, Sinpopo Brand is an ode to the Katong neighbourhood. Ms Lee explains: "Katong was the place where Awfully Chocolate first started and grew from a single cake shop to the highly successful brand that it is today. In this space, we used to have the Awfully Chocolate office upstairs and Everything With Fries downstairs and we were the only diner with coffee and fries in this area. Today, Katong is completely different with more Western food concepts and the heritage businesses being crowded out. We felt the need to put 'Katong back in Katong', and to create something with strong local influences."
To match its new appearance, Sinpopo Brand's menu has also been given a revamp. While they used to offer more straightforward eats such as chwee kueh and chicken curry rice, the eatery now has more unique snacks such as luncheon crisps, har jeong kai burgers, as well as, frisee salads tossed with battered muah chee and garlic hollandaise dressing.
There is a new range of desserts with local flavours such as the Chilled Pandan Souffle served with almond streusel and sesame tuile dentelle, and Orange Kaya Pisang Creme Brulee. The drinks list has also grown to include kopi macchiato, an Italian-style coffee made with local kopi gao using the traditional kopi "sock".
So far, Sinpopo Brand's new look has been met with much positive feedback according to Ms Lee. "Some of the tables and the unique cutlery stands were made in-house and we've received offers to buy them," she adds