Take a stroll along Keong Saik Road, and you'll notice a charming mix between old and new Singapore. On the one hand, there is an Indian temple on the street corner, some old-school coffee-shops selling roast meats, zi char and kopi-o, and a few unmarked shophouses that some say turn into brothels in the dead of night. On the other, the street has in recent years gained a reputation as an enclave of cool, attracting hip F&B establishments such as Restaurant Ember, Potato Head Folk, Afterglow and Muchachos, along with boutique hotels such as 1929 and Keong Saik Hotel.
In recent months however, even more new businesses have sprouted in the area, boosting its rapid gentrification. One major entrant is The Working Capitol - a hybrid space that includes co-working spaces, private offices, an event space, as well as its own cafe. Spanning the area of five shophouses over 33,000 square feet, it also also houses three new eateries - Neon Pigeon, Lollapalooza, and Luxe.
Says Saranta Gattie, one of the three founders of The Working Capitol: "We love the neighbourhood - it offers a beautiful balance between the new and the old and is diverse in the true sense of the word. It all seems perfectly natural for long-standing family businesses to be elbow-to-elbow with the latest restaurants, a Hindu temple opposite a KTV lounge. The colour, randomness and juxtapositions are awesome."
It was the same charm that drew the founders of week-old Neon Pigeon to open their maiden venture on that same street. Their marketing head, Michael Macnab, says: "Keong Saik has a cool vibe - The street is really a mix of all walks of life and flavours, and the atmosphere on the street is a good fit with the idea of a social eating house. It's a great place and we wanted to be a part of it."
Bar-owner Joel Frazer had a similar desire when he opened his first cocktail bar - The Cufflink Club, on nearby Jiak Chun Road three years ago. Evidently, that hasn't changed since his third establishment is targeting to open on 21 Keong Saik Road by June. "It's quite a diverse little area - edgy, cool, youthful, rich in history. It has an energy that isn't found in other parts of Singapore . . . And we'll open what will be the best restaurant in Singapore but in a relaxed environment," he says determinedly.
In addition, a few other smaller players are also opening up along that same street - a two-month-old Chinese steamboat place named Tang Cuisine, and an upcoming Korean dessert cafe named Banana Tree that's slated to open in April.
However, with all these new establishments popping up left, right and centre, co-founder of Lollapalooza Pang Hian Tee expresses concern that the area will soon lose its existing charm. As one of the three founders of Lollapalooza, Mr Pang and his co-founders choose Keong Saik Road for their second venture mostly because they were drawn by the "pretty" buildings.
He says: "Opposite us there's still a merchant that does Chinese dried goods, and a couple more down the street . . . but I wonder how long places like that will last, because if everybody's going to come here then rental will go up and they'll be encouraged to move out. It'll be a bit like what happened to Tiong Bahru, where all the original merchants have moved."
Raring to go
21 Keong Saik Road
Opening in June
Three years after opening his first bar, The Cufflink Club, at Jiak Chun Road, Joel Fraser is finally ready to embark on his second and third ventures. First up is a Latin American bar and restaurant named Vasco, which is slated to open in Hong Kong Street by early May. Along with an open kitchen concept, Vasco will serve Latin American food such as ceviches, skewers and steaks, and drinks such as tequila, rum and pisco.
"The Cufflink Club is a cocktail bar based on me - it's my playlist, it has spirits I like to drink, music I like to listen to. It's a bar-version of myself. Vasco is more concept-driven - I was in Brazil and wanted to bring this back to the Singapore audience. So the food element is going to be much larger," says Mr Fraser, 31.
He got the idea for Vasco while on a trip to Brazil last year to catch the World Cup. After returning to Singapore, he hit the ground running and started looking around for a potential location, all the while still juggling operations at The Cufflink Club.
"It's like I've built a house of cards with The Cufflink Club, and looked over it for three years to make sure it didn't fall over. Then I think it's time to build another house of cards, but every time I put a card down on Vasco, I still go back to The Cufflink Club and make sure it's not going to fall over. It's challenging because I can only be in one place at any one time," he explains.
Things are probably just going to get even crazier by mid-April however, when Mr Fraser starts work on his next upcoming concept. Although he is unable to go into detail at this point, Mr Fraser reveals that his third venture will be a full-blown restaurant named Cure, located at 21 Keong Saik Road.
"We've signed the papers, it's confirmed. I'm teaming up with a prominent chef to do a bistronomy-inspired concept, where it's a young chef making the best food he's capable of without the three-starred kind of pretentious environment," he reveals.
He explains that instead of opening in a swanky shopping mall, he intends to open a restaurant that will serve good food for approximately S$100 per head in the laid-back environment of Keong Saik.
Of course he isn't going to stop at three either. In fact, Mr Fraser is already entertaining the possibility of taking Vasco overseas, and might even open a fourth place sometime next year, depending on the success of Vasco and Cure.
He says: "I don't have a pot of money to spend on new venues, I'm a young entrepreneur . . . and you can quickly lose money as well. It can go both ways. But if I don't do it, who will?"
Modern spin on the traditional
1 Keong Saik Road
Tel: 6222 3623
Open Mon to Sat, 6pm - midnight
Fancy some "bird feed"? At least that's what the folks at Neon Pigeon are calling their range of Japanese snacks - soups, greens, seafood and meats, which are served with a modern twist at their brand new establishment.
Neon Pigeon only opened its doors this Tuesday, and is run by a new management group called The Dandy Partnership. It's made up of long-time friends and colleagues - Michael Macnab, who does marketing, Michael Goodman, who does food and design, and Rohit Roopchand, who is the head of operations and one of the people behind the Hong Kong establishment, Fatty Crab.
Co-founder Michael Macnab describes his new eatery as "a vibrant social house that brings the soul of a traditional Japanese Izakaya to Singapore with a punch of gritty urban vibe".
The food menu consists of small and large plates of items meant for sharing, such as edamame with shichimi smoked sea salt (S$7/S$13), miso black cod soup with smoked dashi and seaweed (S$10 per person), crispy brussels sprouts with mirin glazed bacon (S$12/S$22), grilled duck breast with katsu curry pumpkin puree and Japanese red pickles (S$18/S$33), and miso roasted pumpkin rice with sugar snap peas, crispy garlic and egg yolk (S$15/S$28). The reason behind their Japanese-inspired menu, according to Mr Macnab, is that Japanese food is easy to work with. He says: "Japanese cuisine works with basic elements to evolve into different forms of food. We have personally experienced the modern side of Japan and wanted to share some of the food you can only find in the hidden corners of a city like Tokyo."
These dishes are prepared by chef Justin Hammond, who used to work at Gingerboy in Melbourne, and also has experience working in Hokkaido and Vancouver. Guests are recommended to order six to eight small dishes to share between two people.
As for drinks, they offer a range of specialty cocktails, sakes, sochu, and Japanese whiskies.
According to Mr Macnab, their eatery is meant to be a no-frills type of place that's laid-back so anyone can come and hang out with friends to have "good food at good value". He says: "We wanted to create a great local spot where you get to see people from all cultures together, having fun and trying something new. Our aim is to introduce traditional flavours of Japan with a touch of the modern zest found in the booming Japanese food culture - familiar in essence, but at the same time, unique to Neon Pigeon."
Freestyle and borderless
1A Keong Saik Road
Tel: 6221 3538
Open Mon to Sat, 6pm - 11pm
Closed on Sundays and public holidays
If you enjoy the food at Lolla - the small-plate restaurant in Ann Siang famous for its sea urchin pudding, you might be excited to hear that the trio behind it has recently opened a new sister outlet named Lollapalooza.
The first sense of familiarity you get when you step into the new space is the long communal table - this time with a seating capacity of 26 to 30 instead of Lolla's 22 - where customers can dine next to strangers and possibly share food, wine and conversation. The other similarity is the style of food. Like Lolla, Lollapalooza has a menu of 20 to 25 sharing plates, except that their menu is printed daily to reflect whatever new dishes are available based on which ingredients are in season.
Says one of the founders, Pang Hian Tee: "We came up with two words to describe the food and that's "freestyle" and "borderless". Because we wanted the menu to be very produce-driven, so whatever is the best we can get, we will serve."
Not that it will be overhauled every single day of course, but a couple of items will be replaced every other day to make way for fresh new stock.
Mr Pang adds that while chef Isaac Lee is mostly European cuisine-trained, the food will not be limited to any particular cuisine - hence "borderless". So expect to see a mix of European and Asian cooking styles, and perhaps even Peranakan ingredients being used. The only thing that you can expect of the food is that most items will be finished off in their wood-fired oven which runs on applewood all day. Some of the items on the menu include a mixed herb and vegetable salad (S$18) where the ingredients may vary from day to day, a dog cockle tartare (S$30), radicchio with crispy pig's ear (S$21), corned veal tongue (S$45), and wagyu ribeye cap (S$55). According to Mr Pang, the food and concept at Lollapalooza are "totally different" from their first outlet. As a response to customers wanting more private space, they have also included individual tables and booths to cater to people on romantic dates or conducting business meetings.
He reveals that while the focus now is on getting Lollapalooza off the ground, he and his partners already have a few ideas for a third and fourth venture - all of which will be built on the same principle. "It's food that we would like to eat ourselves. That's what's very important to us - whatever we do will be places we'd want to go ourselves."
This article was first published on Mar 28, 2015.
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