THREE years after Tim Ho Wan entered the Singapore dimsum landscape, the one Michelin-starred eatery from Hong Kong has spawned five outlets and draws queues that are still long enough at times to deter the impatient diner. Lines at older players such as Ippudo are not abating either; the ramen chain opened its seventh outlet - a sake bar - just last year.
However, things are not all rosy in the casual dining scene, which isn't surprising given notoriously fickle Singaporean diners and exorbitant business costs: Korean brand Nolboo Hangari Galbi started at Orchard Central in 2009, and expanded to three outlets before disappearing in mid-2015. Around the same time, Paris-based Vietnamese eatery Pho Tai opened its doors at Capitol Piazza, only to close after a short six-month stint.
Still, there is no shortage of Asian food brands trying their luck in food-obsessed Singapore. For one, Seoul-based Vatos Urban Tacos sank over S$1 million into a space at the new South Beach Quarter with local partner Massive Collective, marking their first foray overseas.
The high cost can be attributed to complications arising from renovating the conservation building, but co-founder Sid Kim isn't too concerned; he expects to recoup the investment in two years. "Singapore is the gateway to the rest of South-east Asia, it has an incredibly developed food scene and a very diverse population," he says.
Two new Japanese brands are also testing the waters at Suntec City Mall. Both Tokyo Sundubu (Japanese-Korean stew) and Menya Takeichi (chicken ramen) have invested around S$300,000 and S$500,000 respectively, taking up adjoining lots in multi-concept space Eat At Seven. The 600-seater is run by their local partner Global Retail Partners, and serves as an incubator of sorts.
Other homegrown F&B groups are also snapping up franchising or licensing agreements. One such firm is Altitude Holdings, started by 10 local entrepreneurs, which entered the fray with Korean chicken galbi brand Yoogane in 2014. They recently added Korean stew concept, Andong Zzimdak, to their portfolio with an S$800,000 investment last October.
But transplanting these concepts isn't a straightforward affair, as tweaks must be made to suit the local market. So when Massive Collective brought Bali's popular rib-joint Naughty Nuri's to Singapore earlier this year, they upgraded the recipes with premium ingredients - like swopping Balinese pork for St Louis ribs.
Director Phillip Poon explains that you can't just serve the same plate of rustic mee goreng in Singapore and expect it to fly: "Bali's outlet is a small hut by the road, and that's the charm. It's great when you're on holiday, but if we took those dishes and replicated them here exactly, it wouldn't pass the test."
Others like Wilyawati Tjiu are sticking to the script - the franchisee of Korean newcomer Seorae Singapore believes that the brand's 264 global branches attest to its crowd-pleasing recipes. Despite the stiff competition - the managing director has personally counted over 400 Korean eateries in Singapore - she aims to eventually open four more outlets here.
However, Vatos's Mr Kim warns against aggressive expansion, and finds it more prudent to limit overseas outlets to one per major city, especially given the looming downturn: "It limits the supply and makes it a dining destination," he explains. "Also, slow and steady growth means you can keep standards up."
Further, not all imports are made alike; Mr Kim notes that when some F&B brands start fading on home turf, they look to distant shores, usually in the hopes of revitalising themselves through cresting fads like the Korean wave.
"It's the same with other industries like fashion - big companies in Korea would buy over and introduce a small or dying Italian brand (in the Korean market), and they do really well, though Italians have never heard of those brands before," he observes.
Plaza Singapura, #02-01
Tel: 6238 8429
INDONESIAN-BORN Korean restaurant owner Wilyawati Tjiu is a big fan of Korean dramas. Like many others, this hobby led to her making multiple visits to Korea over the last 20 years - both for holiday and work.
That is until the day she decided to fulfil her personal dream of becoming an entrepreneur, and came home with a licence to franchise her favourite Korean BBQ restaurant - Seorae.
"Every time I went to Korea I would eat a lot, maybe because of the weather," says the petite 38-year-old, who is now a Singapore citizen and used to work for an MNC. "I found that Seorae's flavours were the richest of all I've tasted, so when the window of opportunity came, I took it."
So almost two months ago, she made her first venture into F&B and opened Seorae Singapore at Plaza Singapura - one of over-264 branches worldwide.
According to Ms Tjiu, another major reason Seorae stood out to her was that they specialise in a unique cut of pork - galmaegisal - skirt meat, which is not found at other Korean BBQ restaurants in Singapore. Only about 250g of this particular cut of meat is found on each fully grown pig, between the ribs and belly.
"I find galmaegisal juicy and tender, and it doesn't have the pork smell. I usually don't like eating pork if I find there's a smell," explains Ms Tjiu, who adds that all her pork comes from the US.
Getting the right ingredients for certain dishes has been one of the main challenges, says Ms Tjiu, as some are difficult to export out of Korea. Other items like pork skin and intestines were not brought over either, as she felt they would not appeal to the local audience.
"I didn't make many adjustments to the menu, I just chose one that's suitable for Singapore based on what people are familiar with ... For (certain other dishes), I didn't want to compromise and change the taste so I'd rather not have it at all," she says.
BALI HIGH IN RIBS
Capitol Galleria, #01-84
IF you've been to Bali in the last 20 years, then chances are you might have heard of the popular rib joint Naughty Nuri's Warung in Ubud. Local lifestyle group Massive Collective's director Phillip Poon sure did. And he liked it so much after visiting that when he heard the brand was available for licensing, he jumped at the opportunity to open Singapore's first outlet.
It's different from the other rib joints in Singapore such as Tony Roma's and Dan Ryan's which focus on American-style ribs, says Mr Poon. "It was sweeter - probably because of the kicap manis, which adds an Asian influence. And it's really tender, combined with the BBQ flavour plus the fact you're on holiday, it works out very well," he says.
Fans of the original Ubud outlet might notice many elements of the food are different however, as Mr Poon explains that they felt the need to "tweak these dishes and offer more quality ingredients".
For instance, their signature pork ribs are made with St Louis Ribs imported from Spain which are meatier than the original Balinese ribs. They cost S$18.80 for a half-rack and S$35.80 for a full rack.
Head chef Gideon Tan of the Singapore outlet says the cooking timing and salt levels had to be adjusted in order to accommodate the thickness of the meat, but they stuck to the original recipe as much as possible.
The level of spiciness in their kichap manis chilli sauce was also tweaked, so that the local one is sweeter and less spicy than the Bali originals.
Currently, Naughty Nuri's has over 10 outlets around Asia, including Kuala Lumpur, Macau, and other parts of Indonesia. The one in Singapore opened just earlier this month, at a 3,200 sq ft space with two private dining areas at Capitol Piazza.
According to one of its original founders Isnuri Suryatmi, Naughty Nuri's has been busy expanding rapidly, and more outlets are planned for Australia, Thailand, the Philippines and China - all set to open in 2016.
OODLES OF NOODLES
Eat At Seven: Menya Takeichi and Tokyo Sundubu
3 Temasek Boulevard, #03-312/3 Suntec City Mall
Tel: 6235 3386, 6884 4435
Opens 11.30am-3pm, 5.30pm-10.00pm
WITH the ramen trend going into overdrive with variations such as lobster broth, new contender Menya Takeichi hoped to make a splash by going the simple route with the humble chicken. And he has - business is brisk, noodles are selling out, and staff have had to stay till 4am on some nights in preparation for the next busy day.
The chain has 40 outlets in Japan, and Singapore marks its first overseas venture. It's the same with Tokyo Sundubu next door, a Japanese-Korean stew eatery totalling 33 branches. They are the fifth and sixth concepts to join Eat At Seven, a 14,000 sq ft multi-concept restaurant managed by Global Retail Partners.
Singapore seems a natural choice for both brands, albeit for slightly different reasons. Menya Takeichi has done their homework - locals eat a tonne of chicken according to market research, says Yuta Arai, manager of Global Retail Partners.
The collagen-rich white broth is just as intense as its tonkotsu cousin. The tender noodles (from S$13.50 to S$17.50) are served with three types of chicken: chicken balls, chicken done chashu-style, and thinly sliced breast meat.
"Some diners thought that the slices are too rare, but the younger generation seems to prefer it," says Mr Arai. To cater to salt-averse palates, jugs of bonito broth are on hand for customers to dilute the seasoning to their taste.
As for Tokyo Sundubu, director Daisuke Takahashi is more concerned with expanding into South-east Asia. "The economy here is growing well, there are many possibilities," he explains. They are setting up shop in Vietnam come July, with plans for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Back home in Japan, up to 90 per cent of its patrons are women, probably because the brand prides itself on keeping each spicy pot under 500 calories, while also incorporating handmade tofu and a slew of vegetables such as okra and lotus root.
Options are diverse, from chicken Sundubu (S$14) to seafood (S$24), which includes soft-shelled crab, prawns, oysters and scallops. You can even add a knob of fish collagen (S$2) to maintain your porcelain complexion.
Spoilt for choice
Vatos Urban Tacos
36 Beach Road, South Beach Quarter
Tel: 6385-6010, 6385-6970
Opens 12pm - 11pm (Mon to Thu), 12pm - 12am (Fri to Sat)
THIS Seoul-based taco chain is known for its "KoMex" fusion grub, but the vibe is undeniably Californian-cool. Co-owner Sid Kim grew up in the US on a diet of mum's leftover bulgogi slapped on tortilla. He has brought the flavours of his childhood to South Beach Quarter, with signature eats like kimchi carnitas fries (S$16) and galbi short rib tacos (from S$12 for two). For a chill night out, try also their quesadillas (S$14 to S$22) and honey tequila wings (S$16) to go with their cocktails and margaritas (S$18 to S$29).
177 River Valley Road, Liang Court, #02-32/33
Opens 11.30am - 10pm daily
BUTAHAGE'S speciality grilled pork donburi is a traditional dish from Tokachi Obihiro in Hokkaido, made with a recipe that has been in 25-year-old Kohei Yano's family for four generations. Their outlet at Liang Court is the first venture outside Japan - where they have three outlets. Prices start at S$13.80 for a rice bowl with 160g of pork from the US, and goes up to S$22.80 for the premium option featuring a much more tender and fatty pork from Japan.
Raffles City Shopping Centre, 252 North Bridge Road, #B1-44F
Opens 11.30am to 10pm daily
APART from bulgogi, bibimbap, and galbi, fans of Korean fare may want to update their references with "jjimdak" (above). Opened since October, Andong Zzimdak has over 50 outlets back home and specialises in this home-style chicken stew. The generous sharing platters (from S$45.90 for 2-3 pax) comes with chewy sweet potato noodles, which soaks up the sweet and spicy gravy, and there's also a fiery option (mayak jjimdak from S$47.90). Set lunches available for solo diners (from S$12.90), with sides like mini-seafood pancakes (S$9.90).
This article was first published on February 27, 2016.
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