I was once a broke uni student with a nasty emerging addiction to dining at good restaurants. Granted that I wasn't too broke because I held down a part-time job while studying. However, I was always conscious that I got the most bang for my limited bucks.
Over my last seven years living and dining in Singapore, I've learned a few valuable lessons, some the hard way. Below are some brief pointers for those just getting started on their careers and their foodie addictions, who may not be quite sure where to start, or think they lack the cash to enjoy the best Singapore has to offer. Now some of these will not endear me to my friends in the F&B industry, but at the end of the day, I am a consumer advocate and I hope that it at least gets a few youngsters started on their gastronomic journeys.
1. Ignore The Extras
When the waiter approaches your table and asks "sparkling or still", the correct answer is "tap /ice / warm water, please" (please don't forget the "please"). No one is going to judge you for choosing not to buy overpriced bottled water.
Your waiter won't offer you the choice because they have probably been instructed by the restaurant manager not to, but it is a brave restaurant which refuses to serve you a glass of perfectly drinkable tap water when you ask for it.
Some restaurants have an odious habit of continuing to open more bottles without telling you and charging you for every single one of them. I once went out for a wine dinner which cost $100 nett per person. When the bill came, each guest ended up paying a further $25 for San frickin' Pellegrino! If you do decide to go down the bottled route, it's worth keeping an eye on the growing row of empty bottles next to your table...
|A beautiful Caffe Latte, from Ipoh of all places.|
And as for coffee or tea at the end of the meal? That's costing you between $7.50 and $15, depending on what level of restaurant you are dining at. Feel free to ask whether it is included in your menu. Again, no one is going to judge for you for it, and if they do, they are not deserving of your future custom.
2. Wine, wine, wine...
(a) BYO Wine - If you need a drink, can I please suggest that you bring your own wine? Looking at the wine prices at most restaurants these days makes my eyes bleed, with mark-ups easily running at 200% of cost (which already incorporates the avaricious importer's mark-up).
|Burgundy, for those who can't live without it|
In Singapore, almost all restaurants allow BYO, some with corkage. Some also run corkage-free days, typically at the start of the week when the dining crowd is still licking its wounds from the weekend. Why don't you take the $50++ (which seems to be the going rate) you have saved on corkage, invest in a nicer bottle and have a good evening? But even if you have to pay corkage, assuming you are drinking something decent, you will save money. Here's my directory of BYO restaurants with corkage policies if you need some ideas.
(b) Order the Wine Pairing - If you know bugger-all about wine, and don't want to highlight your ignorance in front of your new girl/boyfriend, feel free to choose the wine pairing with your meal.
|Sauternes - a beautiful companion to Lobster and Roast Chicken|
Secondly, you can ask the restaurant to divide the wine pairing for you and your dining companion, so you get one half-pour each. I have never come across a restaurant which has refused me this courtesy, and frankly I doubt you will either. Depending on your level of intimacy, you and your companion may wish to share the same glass, but I appreciate that may not always be the case.
3. No One is Watching You (well, almost no one...)
This applies to tap water drinkers and people who BYO wine. Do you think the waiter could actually be bothered telling the chef "Hey chef, there's a cheapo bastard at Table 7 who doesn't drink mineral water. Give him the shit piece of beef you have rotting in the corner of your fridge, can?" The staff are way too busy for such trivial vengeance. However, you will get treated like shit if you treat the waitstaff like shit. They are our fellow human beings and purveyors of happiness, so please be nice to them (please see point 8 below).
4. Let's Do Lunch
Many top restaurants do lunch at a relatively affordable price, sometimes at the third of the price of dinner. The key is to find a restaurant where the lunch menu vaguely approximates the quality of the dinner. At the pointier end, Julien Royer's Jaan is one such (plus you get the bonus of a stunning view), as is Les Amis, where the lunch dishes can be pretty darn good. They are not cheap: a three-course lunch at Jaan weighs in at $68++, and four courses at Les Amis go for $55++ (both include coffee), but seeing that the minimum price of entry at dinner is $198++ and $160++ respectively, they are very good deals.
|The view from the 70th Floor at Jaan|
This is a rather controversial one. But not everyone needs a full three-course meal at each sitting, and with various fripperies such as amuse-bouches, bread, petits fours, etc., I often waddle out onto the street feeling like a bloated python.
It's worth doing your research here when deciding what you can live without. For example, most restaurants in Singapore lack severely in the pastry department, so you can usually skip dessert without feeling like you have missed too much. However, there are a couple of places with good, unique dessert offerings worth checking out. Top of my list are Les Amis (where Cheryl Koh finesses good modern desserts with a strong classical base), Pollen (post-modern renderings from Andres Lara if you like that kind of thing) and Pidgin Kitchen & Bar (sweets infused with a unique local flavour by trader-turned-chef Adrian Ling). I have left pastry queen Janice Wong off this list, as 2am dessertbar doesn't really qualify as a restaurant, and you're not really going to go there if you are minded to skip dessert!
|Adrian Ling's "Kaya Toast and Milk Tea" at Pidgin Kitchen & Bar|
Dining at a mid-tier eatery in Orchard, for example, is a risky proposition because chances are, a lot of what you are paying is going towards the rental bill, not for better ingredients or staff training.
As for the restaurants boasting associations with Michelin-starred names, please do your research. Many of them simply have the named chef on a consultancy basis, and Mr (insert celebrity chef of choice here) has no skin in the game. Exceptions include places like Robuchon and the late lamented Guy Savoy, where the senior staff were actually shipped in from Robuchon / Savoy outposts overseas.
7. Splurge Carefully
Every once in a while, you will see some visiting Michelin-starred chef hosting some dinner at some restaurant paired with some wine. You feel the urge to attend because, as our PR friends always tell us, you save on the airfare to Paris / Copenhagen / New York / Timbuktu.
But there are many problems with visiting chef events. Firstly, they are working in an unfamiliar kitchen with an unfamiliar team. Secondly, hardly any visiting chefs bring in their regular ingredients for the events, which is important because top international chefs are increasingly emphasising the use of local produce in their menus. Thirdly, the events are often banquet-style events: everyone is seated at the same time and served the same menu. Can you imagine the pressure on the kitchen serving 100+ plates of the same dish at the same time? Something has to give: either the menu will be simplified so it can be mass-produced with little difficulty, or the execution will suffer.
|Michel Sarran's Seared Scallop, Riso Pasta, Vieux Mimolette and Uni|
At the end of the day, no one knows the food and wines better than the staff. Establishing a good relationship with the chef, the manager, the sommelier can be rewarding both as a diner and as a knowledge-craving foodie. Show them you are serious about your food and wine, and more often than not, you will find that they are keen to reciprocate. When both your and the staff's interests are fully aligned, you can rest assured that they will look out for your best interests.
Singapore dining is at a crossroads. Personally, I am not liking a lot of whatever new I am seeing (tapas bloody tapas), but this is as much a response to challenging economic times as it is an adaptation to a society where time is by far the most valuable commodity.
There are still, however, places that still aim for a more significant achievement than just keeping the cash till ringing. And there are ways to navigate them in a more economic way while still ensuring that you are getting a taste of Singapore dining at its best. I hope this has at least helped to provided a few rough pointers on your journey.
This will be my last post for 2014. As always, it has been a pleasure writing for you, and getting your feedback. May I take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas, and a great start to 2015!