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 a few 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.  I also hope that whoever in the industry is reading this takes a long-term perspective and appreciates that these interested youngsters are the ones whom they should cultivate and groom into loyal customers.

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.

If you go down the bottled water route, please be aware that 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!  It's therefore 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 otherwise 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).  The honourable exception to this rule is Jade Palace Seafood at the Forum, which sells very good wine at very reasonable mark-ups.

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 nursing its collective hangover 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 three 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 at MBS, 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 Skypark ledge at that very moment.

Secondly, if you have a limit on how much you are prepared to spend, give the sommelier your budget, and tell him how many glasses of wine you want in your tasting.  Please specify whether your budget is nett (i.e. inclusive of service and GST which add up to 17.7%) or not.  I have known places where a customer specifies a budget of $X, and the bill presented to him after the meal is $X++.

Thirdly, 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, in which case you can just order one pairing to share between two.  

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 menu.  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 Alexander McKinstry 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.  These sessions also often feature a couple of the chef's signature dishes, so you will get a true taste of his / her cuisine.  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.

A well-placed tip is always appreciated.  Thanks to the almost mandatory 10% service charge (which in most cases never makes it to the hands of the floor or kitchen staff), the default mode of diners in Singapore is to not tip.  An additional gratuity is therefore always most welcome if you have received service beyond the call of duty.  And please always tip in cash, as some money-grubbing owners have been known to keep the credit card payments for their personal benefit.  It's not just the value of money, important as that is, but also a sign from you that you appreciate the service you have received and that you actually care about this sort of thing.  

Conclusion

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!

3 comments:

  1. $220 for 5 average glasses of wine? That restaurant should be named and shamed.

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  2. Happy New Year Julian, been following (&enjoying) your blog for a while now and just wanted to say keep up the posts :)

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    1. Thanks for reading Jeremy, I'll try my best! :)

      Happy New Year to you also!

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