New eats hit town

Smarter than a bistro but less stuffy than a restaurant, BT Weekend looks at six new dining destinations that occupy that sweet spot between casual and fine-dining.

90 Club Street
6225 8286
Hours: 9am-midnight (Mon-Thu), 10am-1am (Fri), 5pm-1am (Sat)

Who doesn't love food and travel? Definitely not F&B entrepreneur Ken Tan.

Always brimming with ideas for new restaurants on his return from overseas travels, the 33-year-old recently decided to meld them all into one destination: Pluck.

Opened yesterday, the 25-seat eatery is a collage of design and branding inspirations from around the world: its shiny tiled walls are reminiscent of the New York subway, while the steelworks that run throughout the space are inspired by the old train stations in Germany.

Its menu, too, reads like a travel scrapbook of head chef Brandon Teo's extensive food-centric roam through New York, San Francisco and London late last year. A dish of pork neck ($22) brined overnight and braised for 18 hours takes a leaf out of nose-to-tail London restaurant St John's book, for example; while another dish of caraway-roasted beetroot and coffee-roasted carrots ($18) bear imprints of San Francisco's farm-to-table, ingredient-driven cooking ethos.

Sounds like a misfit on $5-happy-hour Club Street? That's the whole point. "Club Street either has serious 'sit down and eat' places or 'sit down and drink' destinations - there isn't a place for both," explains Mr Tan, who is also behind Gem, Manor and Zui Hong Lou bars a few units away. He decided to close Shots, the cafe that previously occupied the premises, two months ago due to waning demand for coffee on the street, but hopes to eventually revive the brand as a takeaway coffee franchise elsewhere. Pluck, meanwhile, is designed as a casual bar-restaurant. A very on-trend open kitchen counter runs the length of shophouse unit with stools for 16. When Club Street is closed to traffic on weekend nights, roadside tables can hold up to 20 more diners.

"We want to be a laid back, unpretentious place that doesn't take itself too seriously," says Mr Tan. Fittingly, Pluck takes its name from the irreverent combination of the words "plate" and a certain expletive, he adds, "because when you combine good food and good times with good friends, it can be as enjoyable as the act of having sex."

Accordingly, dishes on the menu are hived into three categories designed for communal feeds: Small, for starters good for one to two; Medium, for larger groups of three to four; and Sharing, or platters for groups of six to eight. Prices range from $12 for a starter of pea puree with butter poached egg yolk and go up to $38 for confit Spanish pork belly served with celeriac, apples and walnut.

But perhaps what will make Pluck stand out from the gamut of sharing plates eateries out there is the stellar resumes of its all-local kitchen team.

Mr Teo was the former head chef of Keong Saik Snacks (before its rebranding as The Library) and earned his chef stripes at Esquina and Jaan, while pastry chef Elaine Ng previously worked at Restaurant Daniel and Le Bernardin in New York. Sous chef Tan Kee Leng is an alumnus of progressive restaurants Bacchanalia and now-closed FiftyThree, and youthful chef de partie Aaron Leow recently completed stages at Noma and Studio in Copenhagen.

Rather than bank on pricey, premium ingredients such as wagyu beef and tuna belly - which translates to higher prices for customers - the philosophy in Pluck's kitchen is to transform ordinary ingredients with good technique, says Mr Teo. "Just because we have a casual set-up doesn't mean our food is anything less than fine dining standards."

"Even pubs in the UK can be Michelin star standard," he points out.

When Italian meets American
54 Tras Street
6438 7737
Hours: 12pm-3pm, 6pm-10.30pm (Mon-Sat), closed Sun

What do you get when you place an Italian cowboy in front of a barbecue grill in the middle of the American mid-West?

Rustic, uncomplicated cooking and big bold flavours, according to chef Logan Campbell - or, simply put, the menu at Buttero, his fortnight-old restaurant on hot-right-now Tras Street.

While some may think of Spaghetti Westerns - a genre of Western films produced by Italians in the 1960s - as cheesy, Mr Campbell hopes that his Italian meets American barbecue style of cooking will bring something fresh to the plate of Singaporean diners. Though not of Italian descent, the New Zealand-born 36-year-old has been cooking in top Italian kitchens in Australia such as Beppe's and now-closed Cicada by Peter Doyle for the last 17 years. Prior to his move here, he was the executive chef of two-hatted restaurant Lucio's, where he worked for 12 years. And while he isn't constraining himself to all-Italian ingredients at Buttero, the drive to highlight the best of any ingredient he's given is what makes his cuisine Italian, he says.

That, and the selection of largely homemade pasta in variants such as the paccheri and eggplant ragu with pine nuts and ricotta ($22) or the daily special of tagliettelle finished off with a rich prawn butter made with the briney, juicy goodness of prawn heads. Entrees veer more into international territory with cross-cultural fusions such as sashimi of kingfish served atop chickpea pancakes ($20), or the crumbed veal taco served with smoked garlic and Granny Smith apples ($19). Or, if you have the appetite of a macho gaucho, order off the section of large plates from the rotisserie, such as the crackling porchetta with braised beans ($32), or the 'dirty steak' ($34) of wagyu flank rubbed with Carolina-style mustard and vinegar based sauce and slapped directly onto hot coals.

"This is food that I like to eat - food that doesn't look like someone's been playing with your plate for the last hour," says Mr Campbell.

Black and white portraits of his extended family members hang on the 42-seater space's exposed brick walls, while Tuscan orange floor tiles and wooden dinner tables, bar perches and even an old piano by the entrance give the place the warmth of home. Graffiti artwork by Hong Kong street artist Cara Toes further up the playful vibe. "A lot of eateries want to be accessible but yet they use a lot of steel and concrete; they are so edgy that they make people feel uncomfortable being inside, or not cool enough to even step in," he explains.

With the Tras Street eatery as their flagship outlet, Mr Campbell and his two business partners, a Singaporean and a Singapore-based Japanese businessman who currently run another restaurant in Hong Kong, hope to open other Buttero spin-offs focusing on just pasta, barbecue or laid-back winebar in the coming months.

Why, giddy up, we say.

Global flavour
31 Bar & Kitchen 31 Keong Saik Road
6224 9141
Hours: 3.30pm-midnight (Mon-Thu), 3.30pm-1am (Fri-Sat)

If the recent multi-cultural restaurant invasion of Keong Saik Road could be encapsulated as a dish, 31 Bar & Kitchen's Beef in a Bun ($14) would probably be it. Behold thus: a slab of buttery soft Australian grain-fed beef cheek stewed in French red wine, and served sandwiched in a fluffy Chinese mantou with a dollop of English mustard. It is all very well and tasty, except it then begs a troubling question, just what cuisine type should we label this under? "We couldn't want to call ourself a bistro, because we aren't doing French food, or a tapas place, because we aren't Spanish," mulls Frenchmen Andre Rannaud, 44.

Hence, 31 Bar & Kitchen. The 31 is a nod to the shophouse's unit number, while the vague and all-encompassing Bar & Kitchen tag allows local chef Tan Chee Leong to work in global influences into his creations, such as the onglet skewers ($12), cooked to still-pink medium doneness and presented, satay-like, as easy-to-chew portions on a stick, or the South American-inflected mango and prawn ceviche ($10) served chilled straight out of a jar. Instead of peanuts, each beverage order comes with a complimentary side of local ikan bilis tossed with chilli and a squeeze of lime. "Keong Saik has a lot more to offer," says Mr Rannaud, who owns the three-week-old bar together with three other partners. He's also the director of wine import company, Estima Consulting, which previously ran French restaurant Provence in the same space. The latter closed in mid-January.

"We wanted something different, something completely not fussy. You can come here for a coffee in the afternoon, or a glass of wine before having dinner at other restaurants here, or have a late night bite with friends," says Mr Rannaud, who took three weeks to doll up the 50-seater space with Do-It-Yourself touches such as handmade lamps, bar tops and storage shelves fashioned out of old pallets and table tops made from wine cartons bearing labels from the Domaine de L'elephant, an Estima-owed winery in France. The French cheese and cold cut platters ($28 each) are staples on the menu, while the selection of starters will change regularly. For bigger appetites, there's a small array of heartier fare such as snapper fillet cooked en papilotte ($28), lamb rack ($35 half, $60 whole) or a 1kg cote de boeuf ($105) that should feed a ravenous group.

The wine list, naturally, is supplied by parent company Estima, so expect pocket-friendly, largely French labels, including the ever-popular Larmandier Bernier ($215) and Jacques Selosse bubbly ($278). Cocktails come with a twist too, like the Monkey 47 gin and tonic served in a oversized wine glass, or conjure your own by picking from a thoughtfully curated shortlist of uncommon spirits such as Babicka Wormwood vodka, Real Minero mezcal and French pastis. "Having an extensive menu doesn't always means it's good," says Mr Rannaud, "We want this place to be all about simplicity."

Firing up the palate
12 Purvis Street
Tel: 6338 5844
Hours: 12-2:30pm, 6-10pm (Mon-Sat). Closed Sun.

For Titus Tiong, the devil is in the details. "I've always believed that it's the fine details that affect the big picture," says the 26-year-old co-owner of newly opened eatery, Sprigs. The bigger picture he's referring to? Providing a complete dining experience.

Which is why when Mr Tiong and his father opened the 44-seater in January, they scrutinised every single detail, from making it a point to remember the names and favourite dishes of their regulars to where his coffee machine is positioned. "When people think of coffee, they think of casual dining. I put it there so people would feel more relaxed coming in," he explains.

That is also the reason he chose to create a more cafe-bistro atmosphere at Sprigs, instead of branding it as a restaurant. "Sprigs' a bit more casual than a fine-dining restaurant, but more elegant than just a coffee shop," he explains. "Restaurants sometimes can feel so formal. When people walk by them, they can get intimidated, or think it's too expensive. I want to show people that sophistication and class does not have to be expensive." The same spotlight on simplicity plays out in Sprigs' largely modern European menu put together by head chef Shubri Basere, who was formerly a senior chef de partie at French fine dining restaurant Gunther's, down the road. Unlike at Gunther's, Chef Shubri's new dishes are now less extravagant. "They are two very different restaurants; Sprigs more casual," he adds, saying, "The menu is one that respects quality and fresh ingredients with an attention to details and a good balance of flavours."

"(But) my style of cooking at Sprig compared to Gunther's is not so different as I am used to a high level of culinary standards," he clarifies.

No fancy dish titles or unpronounceable foreign ingredients here. Sprigs' menu spans a gamut of flavours to please every palate, says Mr Tiong, a former interior designer.The crab salad with chilled pea Soup ($15), for instance, was designed to be refreshing for a hot day and to whet the appetite, while the Honey Spiced Margret Duck Breast ($26) and the Pan Seared Foie Gras ($24) should satiate those looking for more robust flavours. Those with a sweet tooth, meanwhile, should save space for their popular Crispy Chocolate and Caramel Crumble ($12) dessert. Although Sprigs has only been open for four months now, they've already gathered their own herd of regular followers - which includes mostly office workers in the area - with one even asking them to host and plan his recent wedding, says Mr Tiong.

Despite this, he is not in a hurry to rush into further ventures, he says. "It makes no sense for me to rush into other things so soon after opening. I'd rather focus on Sprigs right now."

Taste of four seasons in S'pore
Seasons Bistro #01-11/12 111 Somerset 238164 Triple One Somerset
Monday to Thursday: 11am to Midnight, Friday and Saturday: 10am to 2am Sunday: 10am to Midnight

Singapore may only have one season but executive chef Benjamin Fong of Seasons Bistro aims to educate diners on the beauty of eating according to the four seasons. Chef Fong, who honed his craft at the Ontario Culinary Arts School and several notable Canadian restuarants plans to do this by changing the restaurant's menu according to the seasons of the Americas.

"Eating by the season forms the basis of the dining philosophy here," says Chef Fong of the restaurant, which is now open for brunch and lunch before going fully operational to include dinner by mid-May.

"Seasonal food just tastes better and this way diners can look forward to the freshest produce available that season," he adds. According to Thomas Leclerq, managing partner at Belgasia Singapore, the holding company for Seasons Bistro, Singaporeans are not conscious of the effects that the changing seasons have on available food since most of the food that we get is imported from Europe, Australia or the Americas. And while the countries which Singapore imports food from are affected by the seasons, bringing in produce from countries in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere means that seasonal foods are available all year round. At present, Seasons Bistro has a line up of Summer dishes for diners. One signature is a Seared Yellowtail Tuna Taco ($14), which Chef Fong describes as "an ode to food trucks all over Western United States". The dish features avocados and tomatos - two fruits available in the summer - imported from North America. Even the Yellowtail Tuna, Mr Leclerq says, is seasonal. "We try to be as sustainable as possible. Right now is the season for Yellowtail Tuna. Beyond this window, the fish stocks need time to replenish themselves and we won't be serving it anymore".

He also adds that importing ingredients fresh based on season is not be as expensive as it may seem. "In fact, if you try to get your hands on ingredients such as strawberries when they aren't in season, there's a good 30 to 40 per cent mark-up," he explains. Having an entirely seasonal menu is one of the ways that Seasons Bistro intends to stand out amid an expanding local gastronomical landscape offering a wide array of cuisines and concepts that appeal to a broad market, says Mr Leclerq. "Seasons Bistro was designed to be approachable in terms of price point and ambience. We don't want to limit ourselve to a specific group of diners", he adds. As such, the average price per head is $25 for brunch, $30 for lunch and $50 for dinner.

This article was published on May 10 in The Business Times.

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