Movers & shakers

The dining scene gets hotter with chefs opening new restaurants and moving to new locations. BT Weekend speaks to the key players.

The Disgruntled Chef @ The Club

28 Ann Siang Road 6808 2184

Opening hours: Mon to Sat, 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Sundays

The newly opened The Disgruntled Chef at Ann Siang Hill may bear the same name as its first restaurant at Dempsey Hill, but not everything is the same. For one, the second restaurant is decidedly more grown up and glamorous than the first.

While the five-year-old restaurant at Dempsey is a gastrobar, the one at Ann Siang Hill is about fine dining and posh interiors. "I've always wanted to open a second restaurant closer to town, to make it more accessible to diners," says chef/owner Daniel Sia. The restaurant is located in the boutique hotel, The Club, which recently underwent a revamp.

Its location meant that the restaurant would be popular more with the working crowd, hence its fine-dining concept, replete with linen napkins, which wasn't a feature at Dempsey. "I feel diners now are more careful in their spending, and when it comes to occasion dining, they want something that is value for money, rather than something casual," says chef Sia.

Two years ago, he sold the restaurant to F&B Asia Ventures (Singapore), a subsidiary of Everstone Capital Partners - a private equity firm.

F&B Asia also owns Harry's International, which in turn owns the lease to The Club. Chef Sia now has his desired location, and the timing was right to open a second restaurant, hence the decision to do so. He is also the culinary director for The Club.

While the Dempsey outlet is surrounded by lush greenery, here at The Club, the restaurant is surrounded by shophouses. So interior design firm Rockett Studio decided to reinterpret Dempsey's natural greenery, by furnishing the restaurant with dark green banquette seats and bright moss green armchairs. Adding to the "foliage", besides fresh blooms on every table, are specially commissioned pieces of art by UK-based visual artist Ruth Parker, who does botanical paintings on mirrored panels. These mirrors adorn the walls of the restaurant.

Naturally, the menu at The Club, is more sophisticated as well. "But the food philosophy will still be the same - modern European and in big and small plates," says chef Sia. By this he means, that diners can create their own menus, be it to share a big plate of food, or to have many small plates to share, or have a small plate for themselves.

But there will be some popular items from its Dempsey menu that can be found on its menu at The Club, but more prettily plated up, or in other words, Instagram-worthy. Some of these dishes include the Crackling Suckling Pig, Chargrilled Smoke Ribeye and Roasted Miso Cod. "The prices for these dishes will be a little more expensive here than at Dempsey because they involve a more elaborate cooking process," says the chef.

Operations wise, he sees the Ann Siang Hill outlet as more challenging. At Dempsey, the kitchen is next to the dining area, but at Ann Siang, the kitchen is in the basement, while the main dining area is on the first floor. Unlike at Dempsey, the Ann Siang restaurant also has a private dining room that can seat 12 people.

For the time being, chef Sia will be spending most of his time at Ann Siang. He has plans for another eatery under the same brand. It will be one with an all-day dining concept, with a retail space to sell house-made sauces and jams. "So that anyone can take The Disgruntled Chef home," he quips.

French omakase outing


18 Gemmill Lane 6557 2224

Soft opening from Aug 24

Chef/owner Francois Mermilliod describes his soon-to-open restaurant Bar-A-Thym as a place where "a banker and an artist can have a meal next to each other".

By that he means that the space is intimate and proper enough for business lunches, while the menu is still affordable enough for an artist to stroll in and have a decent meal. The restaurant will serve omakase meals, where diners will leave the menu up to Chef Mermilliod. "But I will not be charging the same prices as at Japanese restaurants. But rest assured that diners will be well-taken care of, and they can get decent meals for around S$100," he says.

He constantly reiterates that diners will be taken care of, and regulars know they are in good hands. After all, the French chef who has been in Singapore for 19 years, has done stints at Absinthe, Au Petit Salut, Duo and Flutes at the Fort. The name Bar-A-Thym is a play on the French word, baratin, meaning sweet talk. "The concept of Bar-A-Thym will be of a Southern French restaurant," says chef Mermilliod. The restaurant takes over the premises of Wolf, the former nose-to-tail restaurant run by The Prive Group. Chef Mermilliod is opening the restaurant with a private investor. The Prive Group is a minority shareholder in the restaurant too.

Amid the renovations that the space is undergoing, chef Mermilliod speaks excitedly about his custom-made S$50,000 120cm-by-70cm chrome-plated plancha, which is a flat-top grill. There will be lots of seafood items on the menu, says chef Mermilliod, such as anchovies and Carabinero prawns.

"The seafood will be shipped from around the world, and I will, as much as I can, get sustainably farmed seafood," he says. There will also be some meats on the menu such as his cote de boeuf and rack of lamb for which he is well-known for.

He takes BT Weekend on a tour of the premises, pointing out a communal table in the front, four seats in front of the plancha which will be the chef's table, and another round table at the back. The kitchen is an open-concept one, and from this spot, chef Mermilliod can just about see the entire 50-seater restaurant. "I want the place to have plenty of interaction between the diners and myself," he says.

The restaurant will be a fun place decked out with grafitti on the wall, "not fine dining, but with good service". He will have six staff members at the helm. "They are people that I have worked with before. Service will be friendly and attentive," he says. His restaurant will not be the only new place opening on Gemmill Lane. There are also Delicacy by Food & Wine Merchants, an all-day dining restaurant, and Italian-American restaurant Angeleno.

Chef Mermilliod isn't fazed by the competition. "We are all doing different things," he says. "Gemmill Lane could be the new venue for diners with restaurants offering distinct concepts."

Connecting with diners


39 Hong Kong Street 6509 1453

Opening Hours: Wed, Thu, Fri, noon - 2pm (lunch); Mon to Sat, 6pm - 10.30pm (dinner).

While most restaurants are busy upsizing, Bacchanalia's head chef Ivan Brehm has a different idea. He is moving his award-winning restaurant from its 100-plus-seat premises at Coleman Street, to a much cosier 36-seater at Hong Kong Street.

The reason? To focus and better connect with guests, he says. By doing away with the lounge, bar, and extra space, chef Brehm redesigned his restaurant and combined the kitchen and the dining areas - taking the open kitchen concept to a whole new level.

"I'll be working next to the door, you'll be eating right beside me, and there'll be customers passing by. Chefs will be able to greet the customers immediately, help seat guests, interact and take orders - it'll be a very multi-purpose kind of environment," he explains.

Bacchanalia is slated to reopen around the end of August, and the old premises will be transformed into what he calls a "unique" and "forward-thinking" concept by the end of September.

While the progressive concept of the restaurant will remain, Bacchanalia's menu will see a few changes, such as the size of the a la carte menu being reduced, and there will be two tasting menus - a five-course and a seven-course. The wine list will also be more refined and affordable.

It's not a rebranding in any way, but instead, a refinement of his message, says chef Brehm, who adds that he spends about a third of his time sourcing for the right products. "This has been the story of our restaurant since it opened - when we had tofu on the menu, we made it. We've stopped putting 'house-made' on the menu because we make everything. It's not something we just woke up and decided to do. Now we are able to communicate these things better to our guests because (the restaurant) is so much tighter," he says.

With that communication, chef Brehm hopes to also foster understanding in local diners, so people will realise what's better for them not just financially, but in terms of health and flavour as well.

"At the moment, we're more concerned with taking pictures, and with the salt, umami and sugar concentrations. We don't talk about flavour or aroma, or the holistic synergy of texture and the way the food interacts with your mouth. If we don't start caring, there'll be a massive plunge in quality, and restaurants can start charging S$35 for a scallop that costs S$4, for example," says chef Brehm.

Ultimately, his goal is to "colour between the lines" for his guests. "What we do is give the customer the full density of the story, so that they know how serious we are about making good food. The moment people throw themselves in the story, and are part of the story, the interaction with what they're eating is a lot more intense and a lot richer. It's in a way making diners an active participant in their own meal," he says.

Showcase of Indian cuisines

SAHA and The Altimate by the Padang FNB

National Gallery Singapore, Supreme Court Wing, Level 1

Opening Nov 1 One-year-old restaurant SAHA Signature Indian Restaurant & Bar will be moving out from its Duxton Hill location to the National Gallery Singapore.

About its move, managing director Natalia Makarova tells BT Weekend: "The National Gallery will be one of the most happening places in Singapore which will attract a lot of people. The magnificent buildings, excellent location and the sheer variety and diversity of the exhibitions make the new museum a unique destination."

She adds that the opportunity to be at the Gallery was presented to the restaurant. "We are very pleased to be selected as one of the few carefully chosen F&B establishments to be there," she says.

The new restaurant will seat about 60 to 70 diners, double the size of its current restaurant. It will move out of Duxton Hill around late October.

Ms Makarova says that even at its new location, the restaurant will be retaining its current concept of avant-garde Indian cuisine based on the authentic regional food of India. "We plan to revamp the menu, changing about 20 to 25 per cent of the dishes, but we can assure guests that the most popular signature dishes will be available as well."

Some of the signature dishes include the Kerala Vegetable Istew, a quirky espuma of Kerala vegetable stew blended and piped out of a siphon into a cocktail glass filled with orange pudding, as well as the Gulab Jamun Cheesecake with Saffron Poached Pears.

The menu is created by top chef Abhijit Saha, also known as the "Gordon Ramsay" of India, but it will be executed by resident chef Preetam Singh Sodi. At the Gallery, SAHA is sharing the space with The Altimate, the first-ever Asian bar showcasing a host of wines from all over Asia and will operate a fully stocked bar with Asian-inspired fruit cocktails.

"We are looking forward to welcoming all sorts of guests who can appreciate the wonderful mix of quality, creativity and tradition we can offer," says Ms Makarova.

Bigger and better Labyrinth


8 Raffles Avenue 6223 4098 Esplanade Mall, #02-23

Opening hours: Mon to Fri, noon-3pm (lunch); Mon to Sun, 5.30pm - late

When the Esplanade first opened in 2002, its unusual architecture drew criticism from the public, and earned it unsavoury nicknames such as "durian" and "housefly eyes". It's something Han Li Guang relates well to, especially with the "progressive and provocative Singapore cuisine" he serves at his aptly named restaurant - Labyrinth.

With dishes such as chendol xiao long baos and his signature chilli crab ice cream, chef Han has sometimes provoked negative reactions from customers who just can't accept his unconventional style of cooking. Not that it fazes him, of course. "I've had feedback before that Jumbo's chilli crab sauce is better than my chilli crab ice cream, but that's fine," says the chef. "I'm not here to present the best chilli crab, I'm here to tell my own story."

His affinity with the Esplanade is one of the reasons he chose to move his 11/2-year-old restaurant from its original location in Neil Road, to the second storey of the Esplanade Mall. "Our food tries to fuse culture, heritage and art on a plate - that's what Esplanade does as well," he says.

While the original restaurant was about 1,100 sq ft, this new space is 2,500 sq ft, so chef Han was able to set up a bar and lounge, and make allowances for private rooms in the dining area.

The menu structure will change as well, and go from offering just lunch and dinner menus to include a pre-theatre menu, plus a la carte bar bites and creative cocktails. The restaurant will be open to the public by Aug 11, and the new additions will be fully launched in September.

At the bar, "The idea is going to be: Can you eat your cocktails? And, can you turn food into cocktails?" says chef Han. So on top of serving classics such as mojitos and margaritas, he has also conjured up new original cocktails, such as a lapis sagu-inspired one, and another that's inspired by pineapple fried rice.

Food-wise, the Esplanade menu will feature new dishes that have been undergoing R&D for the last five months - inspired by chwee kueh, carrot cake, hor fun, hokkien mee, bak kut teh, cereal prawns, and bak chor mee.

Hawker food is the focus for now, he says, as he has developed a high level of respect for hawkers in the last year and a half that he has spent running the restaurant. "They who don't rely on recipes, and put in hours and hours of effort into their dishes, yet are only able to sell for a few dollars," he explains.

It won't always be the focus however, since the menu and direction of Labyrinth is likely to change over time. Says chef Han: "My passion has always been Singapore food - not hawker, but local. Just as Singapore cuisine is always evolving, so will Labyrinth's. Our flavours are rooted in the past, but the presentation, textures and plating are rooted in the present and future.

"Who knows, maybe one day I'll be doing African food, if African cuisine becomes a hit in Singapore maybe 20 or 30 years down the road," he jokes.

This article was first published on August 8, 2015. Get The Business Times for more stories.