Friday, 19 December 2014

Maximising Your Dining Dollar in Singapore - Tips for Young Players / Diners

Unless you have been living under a rock the last few years, you would be painfully aware that the cost of living in Singapore has been getting higher and higher.  Unfortunately, that of course includes dining, where it seems virtually impossible to get a decent three-course meal for under $50.  Where's a budding gourmet to start?

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.
You know when you go to a Chinese restaurant, and they serve you some pickles / peanuts, sambal chilli, well before they serve you any food?  That stuff often costs around $5 per dish.  If you aren't going to eat them, make sure you return them soon after you sit down, or you will be deemed to have "consumed" them.

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
There is, alas, a particularly mischievous breed of sommelier whose task is to locate little-known wines from obscure regions (as Horace Rumpole put it, "there is some impoverished area of France, a vineyard perhaps, situated between the pissoir and the barren mountain slopes, where the Chateau Thames Embankment grape struggles for existence") and sell them to schmoes like you and me, in part because we have no price reference for such a wine and therefore cannot judge whether it represents good value.  They call it "educating your palate".  I call it "pulling a fast one".

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
Here are two big tips before you do.  Firstly, if the menu doesn't indicate the price of the wine pairing, ask the waiter how much it costs.  There is another insidious variety of sommelier who chirrups delightful phrases such as "Please let me look after you" or "could I please arrange something special for you" which basically translates into "Could I please ream your wallet so hard you will need to buy a new one?"  I met a quite-famous and well-respected Indian chef at the inaugural Asia's 50 Best Restaurants workshop, and she asked me to recommend a restaurant to her as she only had one free night in Singapore.  I did, and the following day at the awards night, I asked her how it was.  "Oh, it was wonderful, Julian, the food was just amazing.  But..." I winced, and she continued, "The sommelier asked me to let him look after me, and I got five very average glasses of wine for $220"!  You don't know how badly I wanted to jump off the ledge at Marina Bay Sands right at that moment.

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
5.  Share / Skip Courses

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
6.  Paying for Name or Location

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
A good alternative would be to see whether the visiting chef is running less formal services during his visit.  As an example, during the World Gourmet Summit, visiting chefs often toil in their hosting restaurant for a week, offering a limited carte, as part of the "Epicurean Delights" promotion.  There, you at least get the undivided attention of the visiting chef, and because the sitting is normally not sold out, there is less pressure on the team.  It feels like an eternity ago now, but the two-Michelin starred French chef Michel Sarran cooked some wonderful food during his Epicurean Delights stint at WGS 2012.

8.  Relationships

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!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

My 100th Post - Wine Trade Masterclass with Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine, at Salt Tapas & Bar, Raffles City

It's taken me a rather long time, but after 34 months, I've finally reached my 100th post.  And it is fitting that I celebrate this milestone with one of the artisans who originally inspired this adventure, Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.

Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Good Eats in Ang Mo Kio - Here's My List, So Please Share Yours

I have been living in Ang Mo Kio for just over a year now.  During my time here, I've found a few good places, but from my experience, it is not really a gourmet paradise in the manner of the Whampoa / Balestier district.  I'm not sure whether it is the fact that it is a old township with a high population density, but the place seems disproportionately overrun with mediocre chain outlets.

I thought I would share my list of recommendations here, with the hope that my readers who are local residents or frequent visitors to the area will chip in with their suggestions.  I should qualify this by saying that I haven't had the opportunity yet to check out every nook and cranny of this district, especially the area behind AMK Hub, so any pointers are greatly appreciated.  

Local Hawker

 - Belinda's Traditional Pancake, Teck Ghee Hawker Centre, Block 341, AMK Ave 1, #01-27.  An excellent ban chang kuih, a thick, chewy pancake with crispy edges, and filled with your choice of red bean, crushed roasted peanuts or fluoro-scary coconut.  Belinda also does a crispy version filled with even scarier accoutrements such as chocolate, and also the Tamil crepe putu mayam (I don't think they make these fresh, although they taste perfectly acceptable).  From S$0.80 and upwards.

 - Wan Tan Mee, Block 339, AMK Ave 1, #01-1601 TG 339 Eating House Where can you find a serve of sixteen pork wantons for $2.00?  And can you realistically expect them to be delicious?  Well here, you can.  The noodles are done in a wet style, and retain a nice al dente bite to them.  The sui gao dumplings, though, are not quite of the same calibre. 

 - Prata / Murtabak.  It's a shame that many of the large roti prata shops in the neighbourhood, such as Prata Raya, Indian Muslim Kitchen and Haji Karim's Prata Palace, do not make their own prata dough.  So it's left to the little guys to continue the artisanal traditions, and it always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside when I see the cooks kneading and portioning balls of homemade dough after hours.  For my local prata fix, I head to Super Prata House (Block 338 AMK Ave 1, #01-1639; prata from $0.90 per piece, minimum order of two pieces), but when the craving for a hot, mutton-stuffed, ghee-fried murtabak strikes, go straight to Indian Muslim Food at Block 339, AMK Avenue 1, #01-1565 ($5-6 for murtabak).

 - Gu Zao Rojak, AMK Block 347 Food House, #01-2150, AMK Ave 3.  I'm a harsh judge of rojak, and my rojak needs had previously been met by Balestier Hoover Rojak at the Whampoa wet market.  Gu Zao succeeds because its you tiao are reheated on a charcoal grill upon order, giving them a deliciously crisp texture and unique smoky flavour.  I also like that the assembled rojak is blitzed with crushed, roasted peanuts before serving, adding to the wonderful hodge-podge of textures and colours.  The owner will also whip up a 100% you tiao dish tossed in shrimp paste if you are that way inclined.  From $3 and upwards.

Other Asian

Nakhon Kitchen (Thai), 527 AMK Ave 10, #01-2371. Some of the dishes here aren't particularly suggestive of Thailand; the tom yam goong, in particular, is rather disappointing.  However, Nakhon Kitchen seems to find its feet with its curries (excellent red curry sauce) and stir-fries (try the squid with hot basil sauce), while the fried chicken wrapped in pandan leaves is excellent.  Value is also amazing (my wife and I had a soup, appetiser, noodle dish, rice, beef curry and squid stir-fry for $35), as the continuous dinner time queues attest.

Canton Paradise, #B2-01/02, Ang Mo Kio Hub, 53 AMK Ave 3.  By all means come here for a meal.  By all means, join the queues for Sunday brunch, although I dare venture that the food, while decent, may not be worth the wait.  But what you must do is grab some of their baked honey char siew buns.  I have observed that the quality of the pastry has declined recently, no longer having the char and crispy edges that first drew me in, but just chuck the buns into the oven for a few minutes to refresh them. 


 - Grub, 510 AMK Ave 1 (Bishan Park 1).  Grub is one of those places that makes me smile.  They try do to the little things right: sourcing hormone-free chicken, sustainable seafood, grass-fed beef.  Service is friendly and helpful, and the floor appears to be manned by a fully Singaporean team.  Which would mean nothing at all if the food sucked, but I'm glad to report that it doesn't.  Their mentaiko fries are evil reincarnated as potato chips, I love their crispy fish burger, and their grilled ribeye is relatively good value at $19 (they managed to also cook a well-done steak without rendering it dry and lifeless).  Desserts, though, are best avoided, and while I understand their rationale, it doesn't stop me from disliking their "no reservations" policy.  Tel: +65 6459 5743.

 - Cornerstone, 1380 AMK Ave 1 (Bishan Park 2).  Like Grub, this is another one of my happy places.  Maybe it's because they are both located in serene parkland, I don't know.  While the savoury food here is quite decent, where Cornerstone really does excel is in the sweet department, with a specialist pastry chef churning out plated desserts, as well as designer cakes to order.  I would definitely recommend that Grub customers trek over to the eastern end of the park after their meal and get their sweet finish here.  Tel: +65 6554 7230. 

That's my list of old reliables in the area.  What are yours?

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Tis The Season for the King of Cheese! Adventures with Baked Mont d'Or

I was having lunch with a chef friend (Ah Lam's Abalone Noodles, if you were wondering) a couple of months ago.  We were talking about food trends, Gordon Ramsay's impending arrival at Marina Bay Sands (which has since been confirmed), etc.  Apropos of nothing, he suddenly became very excited.  "And Mont d'Or season is starting"!