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When Raffles reopens, a culinary delight awaits
THE Raffles Hotel closed its doors last December for its first renovation in almost 30 years. The extensive work updates the entire 130-year-old property, even adding new buildings.
So important to the high-class social fabric of Singapore is the hotel that a starring role in the soon-to-open summer blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, was non-negotiable.
"We got in there soon enough that they were able to hold off in one little wing before the whole thing shut down," the movie's director Jon Chu said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Whatever the cost - hotel owner Katara Hospitality would only say that it is a "significant amount" (the last major renovation was estimated at over US$280 million) - the outcome will be astonishing, particularly the line-up of culinary talent.
The hotel is now fully closed with a re-opening planned for the first quarter of 2019, according to its website.
New chefs include Anne-Sophie Pic, of the three-Michelin star Maison Pic in Valence, France; venerable French master chef Alain Ducasse; and Jereme Leung, who has garnered accolades for his groundbreaking Chinese cooking.
The Singapore Sling will continue to be a house speciality served at the hotel's refurbished Long Bar, where guests will still be able to toss peanut shells on the floor.
The new Raffles emphasises food and drink so much that, with 10 food and beverage spaces that represent more than 1,100 seats for just 115 suites, it can claim far more tables than beds.
For Singaporean food lovers, the timing is good. When recently deceased chef Joël Robuchon closed his eponymous French restaurant, the city lost its only Michelin three-star restaurant.
The city's famous food scene was taken down farther with the release of the latest Michelin results in June. Some local chefs worried that travellers seeking best-in-the-world restaurants might start looking elsewhere.
"We are catapulting our property to the front of the culinary world again," said Raffles general manager Christian Westbeld, who estimates that most local restaurants have a two-year lifespan.
The two French powerhouses attest to the city's current obsession with that country's cuisine.
Mr Westbeld describes the renovation as an opportunity to cater to the needs of modern travellers while "preserving all the things from the last 100 years that have made us famous and unique".
The iconic white façade of Raffles will remain untouched. Alexandra Champalimaud, whose self-titled design firm is handling the redo, compares it to a "very beautiful wedding cake".
Inside, the original eucalyptus floors that date back to 1895 have been revarnished and reinstalled, plank by shiny plank.
The colour palette is bolder. The Peranakan-style bathrooms are now bigger, swapping dark green marble for a bright, white look; some have walk-in dressing rooms and freestanding tubs.
Throughout the hotel are various new categories of suites, from 500-square-foot studios to five sprawling "residences".
The most significant changes are downstairs in the lobby and the many rooms that surround it.
"It's sort of like the Taj Mahal, with its huge personality," Ms Champalimaud said of the space, which has evolved from small, separated parlours to an expansive, open area that will be accented by a huge chandelier being constructed in the Czech Republic.
"We replanned the entire lobby to make it a social space, whereas before it was just a place to sit," said Jon Kastl, Ms Champalimaud's project lead.
Now, he added, "there aren't hard lines drawn between the lobby and the restaurant spaces", facilitating entry to the dining rooms.
When Raffles opened its restaurant back in 1899, it was the first hotel in Singapore to hire a French chef. Once again, the hotel is spotlighting French cuisine.
La Dame de Pic's chef Pic has a personal connection to the hotel: she stayed there on her honeymoon.
This is her first restaurant in Asia; when the hotel offered her a partnership, she saw it as an opportunity to be part of a legendary property, as well as the city.
"Singapore appears to me as a real dynamic and inspiring, multicultural city," she said. "It reminds me a little bit of London, with its diversity of kitchen horizons that allows me to create a great culinary symbiosis."
The chef is known for transforming under-appreciated ingredients, such as cabbage, and incorporating a battery of spices and herbs like cardamom, star anise, and shisho with traditional French technique.
"The common thread of my cuisine will remain in the menus but will be imbued with market products. I have always been attracted to Asian ingredients... creating new flavours will represent a full-time job for me and my team," she added.
One dish she promises to serve is her signature berlingots: cheese-stuffed pasta shaped into pyramidal packets, like the old-fashioned French hard candies she grew up with.
La Dame de Pic's drinks pairing menu will be notably ambitious, with options from wine and sake to whiskey, dashi, and consommé.
The wine list will be geared toward France, particularly chef Pic's native Rhône Valley.
Ms Champalimaud describes the vibe of the pastel-toned dining room as "exquisite, like wearing a beautiful, simple stone on your finger", with lots of space between tables.
Because the chef loves peonies, they designed plaster renditions of the flower for the walls and ceilings.
Even the chef's name figures in the design: because pic translates as "spade", the light fixtures were designed to highlight the curved shape.
At Bar & Billiard Room (BBR), chef Ducasse will introduce a concept he has not done before (no small feat considering he currently has more than 40 locations on three continents): shared plates that highlight the cooking of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France.
Mr Ducasse is planning to serve charcoal-grilled meats and fish, as well as wood-fired pizza. There will also be a big bar programme with a wide range of beer, wine, and cocktails.
"Working with someone with that worldwide reputation for excellence and a Mediterranean concept in a very large space, we will probably see 300 to 500 guests per day," said Mr Westbeld.
Celebrity chef Leung returns to Singapore in Raffles's renovated Arcade. At his restaurant Yi, he will offer modern Chinese cuisine, although he says he will also serve Cantonese classics, as well as his versions of time-honoured delicacies.
"These dishes reflect what I believe the future of Chinese cuisine should be 20 years from today," said chef Leung in a statement.
Among Raffles's other venues are a steakhouse, Butcher's Block, which will feature a glass cooler displaying high-end meat cuts next to the open kitchen, and the Tiffin Room, where the flavours of India will be showcased in a colourful restored dining room.
The new Writers Bar will be a small, dark space decorated with books paying homage to former patrons such as Ernest Hemingway, who would drink and drink and drink at Raffles.
Because the Long Bar is such a favourite with tourists, the hotel is introducing an adjunct space above, with a separate concept.
"The Long Bar will always remain home of the Singapore Sling and be on the agenda of city guests and travellers," said the Raffles general manager. "But at the same time, locals are very proud of Raffles, and we are looking to make a destination for the local market." BLOOMBERG