The iconic Red House Seafood at East Coast Seafood Centre is closing in March after almost 30 years there. NABILAH SAID and KENNETH GOH speak to the people behind the restaurant and four other seafood joints on the secret to their longevity.
RED HOUSE SEAFOOD
Where: Three outlets at 01-14 The Quayside; 68 Prinsep Street; and Block 1204 East Coast Seafood Centre, 01-05
Open: Various opening hours, go to www.redhouseseafood.com/
The year was 1978 and 16-year-old Sunny Goh was working at Red House Seafood, then located in Upper East Coast Road, as an order-taker while waiting for his O-level results.
He did well enough to qualify for polytechnic, but instead of pursuing his studies, the teenager chose to stay on at Red House.
Mr Goh, now 54, has risen through the ranks to become group restaurant manager for Red House. He oversees the three outlets at East Coast Seafood Centre, Robertson Quay and Prinsep Street.
Red House, established in 1976, is a family business that is now in its third generation, though they decline to reveal their names. It was located in a red colonial building on Upper East Coast Road, which gave the restaurant its name, before moving to the East Coast Seafood Centre in 1985.
Mr Goh says of the Upper East Coast Road outlet: "There were no point of sale systems then, so orders were handwritten. There would be carbon copy sheets to pass down to the kitchen."
The East Coast Seafood Centre outlet will close on March 25 as the National Parks Board will demolish the building to free up the space for beachgoers.
A spokesman for Red House says that East Coast Seafood Centre is probably on its last legs, adding that the crowds have "thinned drastically since 2004" as people can get seafood elsewhere, including neighbourhood eateries.
In comparison, people used to queue for about an hour for all the seafood restaurants at East Coast Seafood Centre in the 1980s and 1990s.
Red House ventured nearer to town in 2007 when it opened its Robertson Quay outlet. Its owners say business is better in town, though they did not divulge figures. When asked what makes Red House special, its owners say they focus on the freshness of their ingredients. For example, it receives delivery of Scottish lobsters direct from fishermen in Scotland at least twice a week.
Its signature dishes include spicy seafood combination, which is a curry dish with scallops, prawns and fish ($28, $42 or $56 depending on size) and creamy custard prawn ($7 per 100g).
As for the secret behind the perennial favourite, the chilli crab, a spokesman says "there are no shortcuts in cooking a great dish and for good chilli crab, one needs to let the crabs simmer in the sauce for a good amount of time".
A fan of Red House, Mr Rene Chia, 52, says that besides the good food, the staff are friendly too.
"I know them by name, they know me by name. I can ask them, 'Do you have the roe?' or 'Can I get a bit more sambal belacan?'. They are happy to serve you," says the managing director of a UK company, who has been going there for the past 20 years.
He is a fan of the East Coast Seafood Centre outlet in particular, as he finds that being near the sea helps set the mood for eating seafood.
In fact, after returning from a business trip to London last month, Mr Chia headed straight from Changi Airport to the restaurant for dinner.
He says: "Eating black pepper crab, barbecued cuttle fish, sambal belacan by the sea - this is what Singapore is all about. It's a taste of Singapore."
PONGGOL HOCK KEE SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Where: 3 Punggol Point Road, The Punggol Settlement, 01-08/09
Open: 11.30am to 10.30pm on weekday (closed from 2.30 to 5.30pm), 11.30am to 10.30pm on weekend
Ms Seet Choor Hoon has fond memories of dining by the sea at Ponggol Hock Kee Seafood Restaurant as a child.
The owner of an enrichment centre, who is in her 50s, recalls: "It was an exotic experience. I liked its warm, family-style atmosphere and good food such as chilli crab and drunken prawns. After dinner, my family and I would walk along the sea."
But after the restaurant moved out in 1994 when the Government acquired the land, she lost track of it.
Drawing customers like Ms Seet back to the restaurant, which reopened at The Punggol Settlement in June last year, is an achievement for Mr Anthony Ting, 54, who manages the 46-year-old restaurant with his siblings - Cecilia, 55; Theresa, 52; and Cheng Ping, 51.
The Punggol Settlement, a two-storey food enclave developed by property developer Fragrance Group, houses three other seafood restaurants.
Mr Anthony Ting says: "We are glad that long-time customers still recognise the restaurant and come back to reminisce about the good old days. Our hard work has paid off."
The 260-seater restaurant is just 50m away from its original location next to Punggol Jetty. Their father, Mr Ting Choon Teng, had stumbled upon the area as a part-time taxi driver. He and 10 friends each invested $1,300 to start the restaurant.
Now 85, the grandfather of 16 says in Mandarin: "There were two other seafood restaurants in the vicinity, but ours was nearest to the sea."
Like their customers, Mr Ting Cheng Ping has good memories of the old haunt.
"The old restaurant had a kampung feel, and we had to climb to the zinc roof to patch the holes whenever it rained."
The restaurant used to attract diners from all walks of lives, from Australian and New Zealand navy officers to taxi drivers who would pay up to $1 for the restaurant to cook shellfish or garoupa they caught from the jetty. On weekends, the crowd would balloon to 700. These diners would be seated across 90 tables, some of which were set up at the edge of Punggol Road, where buses used to make a three-point turn.
The restaurant's signature dishes include chilli crab ($55 per kg) and Chinese mee goreng ($8, inset). Both feature a "special chilli- tomato sauce" created by the older Mr Ting.
A former foreman at a sauce factory, he had taken a month to come up with this concoction made with more than 10 ingredients such as dried shrimps and blue ginger. The sauce is now prepared by his son Cheng Yew, 50, who helms the kitchen.
The restaurant's other branches in East Coast Park, Hougang Mall and the former World Trade Centre closed in the early 2000s due either to rental increase or redevelopment plans. From 2006 to last year, it was operating out of Marina Country Club.
When Fragrance Group invited the restaurant to return to Punggol, the Tings jumped at the chance even though the rental is three times that of what they were paying in Marina Country Club.
Mr Ting Cheng Ping says: "It was disappointing to have to move each time as we would lose some customers in those areas."
The Sars crisis in 2003 also hit the business hard and the restaurant saw fewer than 20 customers a day.
To boost sales, it started a home-delivery service that year, delivering more than 70 dishes, including its chilli crab and butter lobster, islandwide. The service is still available today.
The restaurant now has 17 employees and draws about 1,200 customers on weekends. Mr Anthony Ting says he is glad the restaurant is pulling in a "healthy" revenue of at least $200,000 a month.
His brother, Cheng Ping, adds: "We are proud to preserve the legacy of my father's work and we hope our children will be able to carry on."