Rooting for veggies

Roots Kitchen Bar

30 Dickson Road

Tel: 6291 5679

Open Wed to Mon, 11am - 11pm, closed on Tue

WANDER a little further east from Little India, and you may chance upon a fancy eatery just off Jalan Besar. Ah, just another hipster cafe, you might think, one of those anticipating yet another wave of gentrification to hit this hidden street. All the signs are there: the industrial-chic decor, a brunch menu, and a bar offering specialty beers complete with a gleaming coffee machine.

But the team behind Roots Kitchen Bar have some chops. Chef owner Alvin Tan started his career with the Les Amis group at Au Jardin, and went on to join Boathouse by Hidden Door Concepts at Fullerton Hotel, where he catapulted to head chef position after his predecessor quit. "It was tough going at first, I was only around 24 then, the youngest in the team of seven - it took time to gain their trust," says the 28-year-old.

After three years, the Shatec graduate moved overseas to private island resort Velassaru Maldives as sous chef, where he managed seven F&B concepts as third in charge. He left last May, and considered setting up shop in Chiang Mai while holidaying there, but ex-colleague at Boathouse Derek Ong, also 28, convinced him to return to Singapore for a joint venture with two other partners.

Opened since last September, the restaurant combines Mr Ong's business experience with chef Tan's upmarket sensibilities. While they do cater to the cafe hopping crowd with items such as eggs benedict and caviar (S$15), their menu puts them closer to Saveur than Toby's Estate. Bestsellers are in fact soups and mains.

"We're all about returning to the basics of cooking: we use real ingredients, we clean and fillet whole fishes ourselves, our soups are made from scratch and made to order - the mushroom for instance uses porcini - and we use a lot of root vegetables, it's all good, simple ingredients," says chef Tan.

The idea is to keep costs down with oft-neglected ingredients, while also sparing no effort or time in preparation. "Take beef flank as an example: people misunderstand it as a cheap cut, but it can compete with cuts with more marbling when done right - we butter baste it after searing, and layer the flavours on."

The flank is served as London broil, a full portion at just S$22. Done French style, the well-seasoned steak is accompanied by creamy mash potatoes with heirloom carrots. Then, there are soups such as the roast tomato, with roasted peppers, chorizo, and crab guacamole (S$12).

Other dishes are likewise affordable versions of classic items on fine dining menus - there's ocean crab pasta (S$18), which is capellini coated in an intense lobster bisque sauce and topped with crab, or seared Atlantic sea bass served on a seafood fricassee (S$24).

These offerings are a hit with expats and tourists, probably due to the surrounding boutique hotels and their strong presence on travel site TripAdvisor. It's encouraging, given that they hope to change foreign perceptions of the local scene: "When I travel, I hear westerners comment that standards in Asia are compromised by higher menu prices, lower service standards, and poor quality of imported produce," says Mr Ong.

"And in Singapore, we don't have much room to fail - there are three main bugbears: rentals, labour, and food cost. All are on the high side here compared to say, Indonesia, where only one or two components are costly."

Despite concerns, they are looking to expand by the end of the year, though plans are kept flexible for now. "F&B concepts have to be site specific while keeping customers in mind, and not just cater to the whims of a star chef, so a franchising model might be best in terms of scaling the Roots brand," says Mr Ong. "But if we can find more talent like Alvin, we'll definitely consider starting another unique concept."

Of Cava and tapas

La Champaneria

21 Duxton Hill

Tel: 6323 3353

Opens Mon to Sun, 5pm - midnight

THE general consensus is Singaporeans are a tough bunch to please, especially when it comes to food. But the Russian-born owners of tapas bar La Champaneria - Anna and Sergey Apalkov - beg to differ.

The couple owns two restaurants back home - an Italian coffeeshop, and a French tapas bistro - and recently opened their first establishment here in Singapore.

"In Russia, we have pictures of the food in our menu, and when something is just a little bit different, people say 'I don't want this, bring me what's exactly in the picture.' Even if it's a difference of two or three leaves of salad," says Sergey.

"Or they might complain on the Internet and give two or three out of 10 points just because of, say, the toilet. But in Singapore people are more forgiving - at the very most, they send me a private message about it," chimes in Anna.

The pair started their first restaurant about 10 years ago, and at one point had a total of four. They closed two of them, however, and continued to run the other two as an alternative source of income even after moving to Singapore in 2008.

They were inspired to start La Champaneria after visiting a famous champaneria in Barcelona, Spain, and set up an exclusive agreement with a Catalunian manufacturer of Cava - a bubbly that's made using the same technology as French Champagne.

"Our friends who come from Spain see the prices of the Cava in supermarkets and say it's so expensive. In Spain it's only one or two euros. So we compared a few drinks like Cava and Prosecco and that's where it started," explains Anna.

Their menu carries four kinds of Cava, ranging from a Cava Brut (S$6.50/glass, S$30/bottle), to a Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva (S$8.50/glass, S$42/bottle), as well as some Cava-based cocktails (S$10-13).

As for the food, they focus mostly on European-style tapas such as grilled octopus (S$15), cured salmon on rosti (S$14), and mussels in wine tomato sauce (S$18), but also some of their own creations like a chilli crab dip (S$18).

"I work with the chef and give him the direction, because this place is like my home - I want it to have my personality," says Anna.

Her dream is to run a chain based on the same concept of Spanish Cava and tapas, and she remains unfazed by the manpower shortage that plagues the rest of the industry.

She observes: "It's like this everywhere. It's not a Singaporean problem. In Russia, the staff are less consistent in quality, but more creative. Here it's the other way around. There are pluses and minuses."

Cooking from the heart

Gills N Shells

500 Jalan Sultan, #01-19

Tel: 6493 2238

Open Sun to Thu, 11am - 11pm;

Fri, Sat, eve of PH, 11am - 1am

SELF-TAUGHT chef Podisingho Xavier has been in the F&B industry for almost two decades - a path he started on as a teenager when he had to cook for his three younger brothers after his dad passed away.

So it was pretty much a dream come true when he finally had the chance to open his own establishment - a modern European seafood restaurant named Gills N Shells.

"I never went to any culinary school, during my time we never had those things. It's something I just had a passion for, that's why I wanted to open my own place. It's not as easy as it seems though," says the 42-year-old.

Gills N Shells opened about three weeks ago on the first floor of the new Hotel Boss at Jalan Sultan, with an al fresco area facing the Rochor River, and is run by chef Xavier and his two co-founders - Jayson and Coreen Tan. While Jayson still keeps his full time job in sales and helps out with the backend work in his free time, his wife Coreen left her job in marketing to run the front-of-house.

At first glance, the menu seems typical of a seafood bistro. They serve things such as live oysters (S$22.90 for six, S$39.90 for 12), clams and mussels in a clear spicy white wine broth (S$15.90), and prawn aglio olio (S$15.90).

But it also features some of chef Xavier's own creations, like baked oysters with bacon and cheese (S$25.90 for six) and a pan-seared and baked cod (S$24.90) topped with braised turnip infused with rum and chilli padi to give it a spicy kick.

According to Jayson, one of the things that sets their restaurant apart is the fact that most of their food components are actually made in-house.

He says: "Everywhere you have nicely decorated restaurants serving the same food, because everyone gets it from the same supplier. But we want something that tastes different. Our burger bun is made here, the beef patty is made here, the tiramisu, the garlic bread, even the garlic spread - it's all made by our chef and kitchen staff."

Adds chef Xavier: "I believe selling good food comes from the heart, so I try to make my own things instead of buying them from a store. If I could grow my own vegetables, I would."

From IT to eatery

999.99 (Five Nines)

29 Keong Saik Road

Tel: 6221 7098

Open Mon to Sun, 6.30pm - midnight

IT'S not every day we hear of an IT company going into F&B, but Japanese web marketing firm Stylez has launched eatery 999.99 in dining hotspot Keong Saik Road.

What connects the two businesses? Just a passion for food, says Stylez CEO Ryo Ito. While noting that difficulties abound, particularly the scarcity of quality European produce, he believes that their strong Japanese ethos of Kaizen (improvement) will add to the industry.

"Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world in a wide variety of cuisines," he says, observing that the competition means only the best survive. "There's an opportunity to bring that Japanese style of management and operation to Singapore - by offering better quality food and service at lower costs, compared to current offerings here."

Just over two months old, the 62-seater has got that industrial-chic look down pat, so hipster foodies will feel right at home - there are exposed brick and cement walls, gold pipe detail, quirky lamps, and a bar counter overlooking the open kitchen.

At the helm is head chef Masanao Saito, previously the Japanese ambassador's chef in Sweden. His versatile menu seems designed to accommodate sit-down diners without alienating those who just want a chat over wine. It features an adequate selection of old and new world labels, while foodwise, there are cheese platters, charcuterie, crab croquettes, even oyster ajillo (all from S$5 to S$14), which make decent starters or bites.

For instance, the king prawn kadaif (S$12) is elevated bar grub of sorts. The shrimps are wrapped delicately in shredded and deep fried pastry, and served with a mild red pepper sauce reminiscent of sriracha.

For more satiating fare, there are mains (S$16 to S$23) which wouldn't be out of place on a fine dining menu - at least conceptually speaking. The lamb chops and eggplant (S$18) arrives dramatically under a bell jar filled with smoke.

It's the five-course set dinner which is a real steal at S$59, comprising tuna, scallops, red snapper, and a choice of either striploin steak, pork belly or lamb chops, plus dessert. They are already packed on weekends, which bodes well for their mix of culinary ambition and affordable prices.

This article was first published on February 13, 2016.
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