How the launch of the Michelin Guide shook up Singapore's food scene

Mr Chan Hon Meng, whose stall was awarded one Michelin star, became an unlikely overnight celebrity both here and abroad.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - The 116-year-old Michelin Guide might seem an unlikely disruptor, but the launch of its Singapore edition in July certainly shook up the food and beverage scene here.

It turned hawker Chan Hon Meng, 51, of one-Michelin-starred Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle at Chinatown Complex Food Centre, into the most unlikely overnight celebrity.

Last month, he partnered F&B company Hersing Culinary to open an air-conditioned restaurant called Hawker Chan in Smith Street.

being part of Tiger Beer's pop-up restaurant Tiger Streats in Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Auckland and New York.

It ended on Dec 18.

In Sydney, for example, Mr Chan collaborated with chef Guillaume Galliot from Macau's two-Michelin-starred The Tasting Room, and in New York, he worked with chef Christopher Kostow of three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood in California's Napa Valley, on meals.

The other Michelin-starred hawker stall, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle in Crawford Lane, however, has not jumped on the publicity bandwagon, although queueing time has gone up to two hours for its signature bak chor mee, instead of about an hour before.

Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle awarded one Michelin star

  • Culinary bible Michelin on Thursday awarded one star each to two street food hawkers in Singapore, the first in the guide's history.
  • "For the first time, you would be able to have a Michelin-starred meal for under S$5," said Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin guides.
  • Launching the inaugural restaurant and hotel guide to the Southeast Asian city-state, Michelin inspectors gave one star each to Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle.
  • "Singapore was the natural choice for expansion because of the breadth and depth of the culinary scene, where you not only have a wide variety, but also very good cooking. And there is a strong culture of eating out, whether at a hawker stall or in a fine dining restaurant," he told AFP.
  • In a country where people take their food seriously - Singaporeans consider eating a national past time - 36 different cuisines were featured in the guide, ranging from Chinese to Australian.
  • When the Bib Gourmand list went public last week and his stall was not on it, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle's owner Tang Chay Seng was most disappointed.
  • "The Michelin officials came to my stall to look for me last week, and told me I was getting an award. But when the papers came out I called them to tell them my name wasn't in it," said the 69-year-old, who runs the popular Teochew-style pork-and-vinegar noodle stall at Crawford Lane.
  • It was founded by his father Tang Joon Teo in 1932, and moved to its current location in 2004.
  • He continued over a phone interview in Mandarin: "They just told me it's okay, sure will have one. So I'm not sure lah."
  • Despite believing that he was passed over for an award, Mr Tang still attended the gala dinner on Thursday night, if anything to just "see people receive their award and clap for them".
  • After discovering that he did indeed receive a star however, he remained practical and said: "I feel pretty normal about it. It's not that I'm not happy - getting a star means affirmation for my food. But there's a bit of pressure now to deliver. Because everyone's taste buds are subjective and I don't want to disappoint customers."
  • Both hawkers told told Channel NewsAsia that they will not be raising prices, but expect that the up to 45-minute-long queues will stretch even longer.

All the hawker stalls and zi char eateries listed in the Bib Gourmand category have also experienced the "Michelin effect" - getting swamped with long queues of diners.

Michelin Guide Singapore unveils its value-for-money list

  • Mr Husyin Ozdemir showing foods that available from his Alaturka Turkish & Mediterranean Restaurant at 16, Bussorah Street.
  • At Newton Food Centre serving barbeque seafood
  • "Singapore-style ramen" from A Noodle Story at Amoy Street Food Centre.
  • at 50 Dunlop Road
  • Carrot cake from Chey Sua Carrot Cake at Block 127, Toa Payoh Lorong 1 Market & Food Centre.
  • Laksa from Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa, a stall at Block 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1 Alexandra Village, #01-75.
  • Staff of Hjh Maimunah Restaurant, located at Jalan Pisang. The restaurant iis named after the current owner, Mastura Didih’s grandmother, who was a doyenne of hajj pligrmages operating from Singapore. The food on Hjh Maimunah’s menu is not strictly Padang and is better described as kampung-styled cuisine since it’s a mix of Malay and Indonesian dishes.
  • Beef noodle from Hong Kee Beef Noodle at Amoy Street Food Centre.
  • Rice dumplings from Hoo Kee Bak Chang at Amoy Street Food Centre
  • at Whampoa Market Place
  • at Tiong Bahru Market
  • at Amoy Street Food Centre
  • The signature San Luo Meehoon from JB Ah Meng, a zi char foodstall at the New Good Place Eating House in Geylang Lorong 23.
  • at College Rd, famous for its Fish Head Noodle Sou
  • Laksa from 328 Katong Laksa, a stall at 51 East Coast Road
  • Claypot yong tau foo from Kok Sen Restaurant, a very popular zi char eatery in Keong Saik Road.
  • at Little India serving Indian cuisineNa Na Curry
  • selling soyed duck at Whampoa Market Place
  • at 115 Bukit Merah View Market & Food Centre, serving curry with fish
  • Chilli Crab from New Ubin Seafood at Sin Ming Road
  • Steamed hairy crab with homemade Chinese rice wine, from Peony Jade @ Keppel Club.
  • at Mei Ling Market & Food Centre, famous for its noodles with chicken and duck
  • at Albert St serving Indian cuisine
  • Chef-owner Danny Lee, 46, of Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant with braised crab beehoon. It is located at at Geylang Lor 35.
  • The bak kut teh from Song Fa Bak Kut Teh at New Bridge Rd
  • At Hong Lim Market & Food Centre
  • A bowl of fishball noodles from The Fishball Story at Timbre+ in One-North. It was located at Golden Mile Food Centre before moving to its new premises.
  • A plate of chicken rice at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, from Maxwell Food Centre.
  • at Tiong Bahru Market
  • Ayam Buah Keluak - Chicken cooked with a nut called pangium edule. This is a Chinese Peranakan dish that is a must-have for the Peranakans during Chinese New Year. True Blue Cuisine is located at Armenien St.
  • A range of vegetarian dishes are available at Whole Earth Restaurant located at Peck Seah Street.
  • Papaya salad from Yhingthai Palace located at Purvis St
  • Naan, chicken, spinach and cheese, from Zaffron Kitchen at 137 East Coast Road.

However, not everything has been good.

Many hawkers were bewildered, especially those who were clueless about the guide and realised what they had achieved only after being interviewed by The Straits Times.

Diners were equally puzzled when the list was published online - it was riddled with spelling mistakes and inaccurate addresses. It called into question the effort - or lack thereof - put into curating the Bib Gourmand list, which many argued did not truly represent Singapore's diverse food scene.

Other diners, however, went online to express relief that their favourite stalls were not listed.

The industry was also abuzz with talk about chefs receiving calls prior to the ceremony to inform them of the number of stars they had garnered.

Foodies wondered about the bumper crop of stars awarded to restaurants in Michelin host venue and partner Resorts World Sentosa.

Since then, the ripples have continued.

One-Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut moved to Como Dempsey last month, and Bib Gourmand-rated zi char restaurant New Ubin Seafood has opened at new premises in Hillview Avenue.

One-Michelin-starred French-Japanese restaurant Beni played musical chairs with its starless sister restaurant Hashida Sushi at Mandarin Gallery by swopping premises.

Hashida Sushi re-opened in July, and Beni re-opened on Dec 19.

Popular zi char restaurant JB Ah Meng on the Bib Gourmand list closed its alley-way premises two weeks ago and will move to 534, Geylang Road in the new year.

One-Michelin-starred Shinji by Kanesaka at the soon-to-be-refurbished Raffles Hotel serves its last meal on Feb 4, and on March 2 opens at its new home at Carlton Hotel, across the street.

Former Fat Duck chefs Ivan Brehm and Mark Ebbels of one-Michelin-starred The Kitchen at Bacchanalia have left the restaurant.

So it is up to the new head chef, Australia-born Luke Armstrong, who earned his stripes in Michelin-starred restaurants overseas, to retain the star or gain more.

12 foodie favourites you might not have known are in Michelin Guide Singapore 2016

  • Address: 38 Tanjong Pagar Road

    What Michelin inspectors say: "Ryan Clift's discreetly signed flagship restaurant is dominated by a long kitchen counter, which is where most diners choose to sit so that they can engage with the chefs and watch them in action - lunch is a simpler affair so come for dinner to fully appreciate their ability and ambition. They embrace all the latest techniques to produce quite elaborate and exciting dishes with some challenging combinations of flavour and texture." (Photo: Tippling Club)

  • Address: 36 Purvis Street, 01-03

    What Michelin inspectors say: "The owner-chef worked in some well-known restaurants in his native Belgium before coming to Singapore. He may describe his cooking as 'simple, honest and down-to-earth' but typical dishes include angel hair pasta with Oscietra caviar, roast rack of black pig, and a fine apple tart. Many regulars wait until they've seen the tray of the day's special ingredients before ordering, however. The two dining rooms are enlivened by some colourful art." (Photo: Gunther's)

  • Address: 04-16 Mandarin Gallery, 333A Orchard Road

    What Michelin inspectors say: "A typically discreet entrance and corridor lead into two elegant counter restaurants, one of which seats just six and is ideal for an intimate dinner. There are three menu options for lunch while at dinner only an omakase is offered. For the sushi, fish comes four times a week from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market and twice a week from Hokkaido, with selected white-hulled rice also imported from Japan. The signature dish is monkfish liver with sea eel sauce."

  • Address: Regent Singapore, A Four Seasons Hotel, Level 2

    What Michelin inspectors say: "By concentrating on quality not quantity, Basilico proves that buffets and good food are not mutually exclusive. The main course at dinner is served at the table but everything else is from the various stations - all regions of Italy are covered and the dessert counter is especially good. The handsome dining room, on the second floor of the luxurious Regent hotel, comes with an impressive walk-in wine cellar, an open kitchen and an outdoor terrace." (Photo: Regent Singapore)

  • Address: The Hilton Hotel, Level 3

    What Michelin inspectors say: "It may be inside the Hilton, but this diminutive restaurant is run entirely independently. Ingredients come from as far away as France, Italy and Japan and there's a strong Asian element to the contemporary cuisine - the kitchen makes use of modern cooking techniques and dishes are vibrant and full of colour. It has just eight tables and eight seats at the dessert counter which, along with subdued lighting, make it ideal for a romantic dinner." (Photo: The Business Times)

  • Address: Marine Parade, Block 89, #06-750

    What Michelin inspectors say: "In 1956 Mdm Cher Yam Tian created her famous chilli crab and, together with her husband Lim Choon Ngee, opened a small restaurant along the Kallang River. Now occupying a vast space atop a multi-storey carpark in Katong (with a hard-to-find entrance) and run by the second and third generations. Chilli crab rightly remains the bestseller. Other dishes to look out for are black sauce prawn, crispy baby squid and pomfret done in two ways." (Photo: The Straits Times)

  • Address: 14 Haig Road

    What Michelin inspectors say: "It's no surprise that this centre is congested with customers as it's located between Katong and Geylang, two of the most popular eating areas in Singapore. There is so much to sample, like wanton mee and mee rebus - and no one should miss the famous putu piring."

    Listed stall: Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring (01-07) (Photo: The Business Times)

  • Address: 90/91 Whampoa Drive

    What Michelin inspectors say: "There are 52 stalls housed between two blocks. Stalls in Block 91 mostly offer breakfast food and many close after lunch; stalls in Block 90 are usually open for lunch and dinner or even until midnight. A wide array of good food can be found here."

    Listed stall: Huat Heng Fried Oyster (01-26) (Photo: Instagram user @saltedtamago)

  • Address: 30 Seng Poh Road

    What Michelin inspectors say: "Located in one of the city's oldest residential areas, this market is one of the most popular hawker centres. There are too many great food items to choose from, like lor mee, porridge and roast chicken. The silky white chwee kueh, topped with hot diced radish, is very tempting."

    Listed stall: Jian Bo Shui Kueh (02-05)

  • Address: Blk 6 Jalan Bukit Merah

    What Michelin inspectors say: "Opened in 1974, near to industrial and residential areas, it has almost 100 stalls and is one of the most popular hawker centres. It was the birthplace of the Archipelago Brewery Company and, in remembrance of the company, was named ABC market."

    Listed stall: Y R Ahmad (01-10) (Photo: Instagram user @unacat222)

  • Address: Blk 724, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6

    What Michelin inspectors say: "Thanks to its convenient location, this centre is always packed. It has 45 stalls offering a range of dishes to satisfy your tastebuds. The minced meat noodles fried Hokkien prawn mee, char kway teow and Hainanese chicken rice are always worth trying."

    Listed stall: Hup Hup Minced Meat Noodle (01-39) (Photo: Instagram user @sparklingsofa)

  • Address: 229 Selegie Road

    What Michelin inspectors say: "The flavoursome Nasi Lemak comes with a wide selection of dishes. Beef rendang and paru-paru are very popular."

Restaurants with no stars are also upping the ante with new menus or revamped spaces.

Earlier this year, French restaurants Iggy's at The Hilton Singapore and Saint Pierre at One Fullerton hired new chefs with Michelin pedigree.

Chefs were already on edge late last year when rumours went around that the Michelin inspectors were in town.

There will be even more pressure for restaurants to retain or gain stars in the second edition of the guide.

Of course, some restaurateurs, such as American celebrity chef Mario Batali of Osteria Mozza at Marina Bay Sands, take it all with a huge pinch of salt.

His restaurants in New York and Los Angeles have Michelin stars, but his Singapore one does not.

During a recent visit to Singapore, the outspoken chef, tongue firmly in cheek, said: "If I'm on your list, then it's the most important list. If I'm not, then no one reads the... list. The Michelin Guide is important, but it is also about selling books."

This article was first published on Dec 30, 2016.
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