New concepts spice up the mix

The red-hot restaurant scene in Singapore is luring F&B heavyweights from Jakarta, Bangkok and London to launch local offshoots. Debbie Yong gets a preview of what's stirring.

One Big House Party

Potato Head Folk
31 Keong Saik Road
Opens June

If you don't have time to slip away to Bali's fashionable beaches, here's a little time-saving tip: Bali's most fashionable beach club brand will soon come to you.

Debuting next month - in the heart of Singapore's increasingly fashionable Keong Saik neighbourhood, no less - is Potato Head Folk, the first international outpost for the Potato Head Group (PTT).

Started as a bistro and bar in the Indonesian capital in 2009, the Jakarta-based group is best known for its Potato Head Beach Club on Bali's Seminyak beach, an architecturally stunning venue with a perpetual weekend vibe, beach-appropriate tipple, and a solid food menu.

"Opening in Singapore has been on the top of our list for a long time," says PTT's cocktail and concept consultant, Dre Masso. "As our first international venue, we wanted to do it in an important place. People outside the region may not have heard of Potato Head so Singapore, as a globally recognised culinary destination with phenomenal bars and hotels, will provide a great platform for us."

PTT's Indonesian founders Ronald Akili and Jason Gunawan were so taken by Keong Saik's village feel when they visited last year, he says, that a deal was swiftly inked between them and a few local investors. Potato Head Folk takes over the iconic four-storey art deco building previously occupied by popular coffeeshop, Tong Ah Eating House, which moved to a new unit down the road last July.

Besides its eponymous brands, the group also runs tapas bar Lilin and French restaurant Tapping Shoes on its Bali premises. It additionally launched casual burger joint The Three Buns in Jakarta last month - a concept they will be transplating here. The latter takes its name from the three options you have for burger buns - the classic white bun, a demi-brioche and a wholemeal bun - and will occupy the first two floors.

In keeping with the joint's "slow fast food" ethos, ingredients will be sourced locally and everything "from the patties to the ketchup and pickles," will be made in-house as far as possible, says group consulting chef Adam Penney. And it's not just marketing spiel: you can peer in to check on the open kitchen on the ground floor from its counter-side stools or the outdoor high tables that seat 35. One level up, a slightly more spiffed up space called the Three Buns Restaurant will offer the same burger menu, but with table service in a whimsical Alice In Wonderland-esque space for 40, including a large communal table for 14.

Like its bold, quirky interiors put together by Australian artist David Bromley, expect each burger at The Three Buns to have distinctive personalities - along with cheeky names such as the Burning Man chilli cheese burger with a spicy Korean gochujang and jalapeno dressing; the Rambo, or Middle Eastern-inspired lamb burger packed with aubergine and feta cheese; the vegetarian The Roots burger with butternut squash, roasted beetroot and courgette fritters; and the double cheese and double onion-stacked the Four Floors, a homage to our own Orchard Towers. Pair them off with sides such as the "LL Coolslaw" coleslaw or "naughty fries" accompanied by a gochujang-bearnaise dip and topped with beef chilli.

For dessert, spoon into ceramic ramekin-encased puddings supplied by Mr Penney's UK-based dessert company, Pots & Co, alongside homemade cookies in flavours like classic chocolate chip or white chocolate and raspberry, to luxe combos such as truffle walnut, chocolate and porcini, brie and bakkwa, and stilton with rum and raisin. True to their namesake commitment to building a community of like-minded folk, the dining room will double as an art space for performances and exhibitions to showcase creative talents from Singapore and beyond.

On the third floor sits drinks-centric lounge Studio 1939 - a nod to the building's founding year. Chinese antique furniture contrasts against Bromley's modern art sculptures and a luxurious marble bar - all styled to make one feel like you were dining in the study of a friend's home.

The winelist, aptly, is padded with carefully curated picks of special vintages, limited collections and private reserves, along with a mix of classic and creative cocktails crafted by Mr Masso and his team. The bar bites menu takes inspiration from "food around the world that we love", he adds, such as a platter of Iberico ham and award-winning British cheeses, or a plate of grass-fed venison carpaccio with Muscat raisins. Or, head for premium picks such as truffle fries with fresh truffles shaven over them, smoked chips with foie gras dip, and the burger to trump them all: topped with caviar, sea urchin mayonnaise, oyster leaf and wasabi. Though you have to push past a heavy closed door to enter the reservations-only space, "we're not a members bar, but a space for people who truly care about quality," Mr Masso clarifies.

Capping them off is the The Rooftop, a lush tropical garden - the only open-air rooftop to overlook the street - inspired by the Tiki culture of the 1930s. Expect slushie-style blended drinks, bottled cocktails made with fresh juices daily, and "jerk cocktails", or carbonated libations created by mixing alcohol and sodas, that you knock back from coconut and bamboo cups made by Balinese craftsmen. Besides the staple menu of barbecued and smoked meats, the rooftop space will periodically host exclusive 'Folk Gatherings', or regular dinners under the stars that will feature local and global guest chefs along with unusual performances.

Music programming will be a pivotal part of Potato Head Folk, says Mr Masso, and its playlist will revolve around a mix of soul, funk and hip hop beats on the first two floors, and folk and blues on the third and top floors. "The idea is that it would be like a giant house party - you're even welcome to hang out along the stairs," he adds.

Besides the Singapore expansion, the group is also planning to launch a new concept in Jakarta later this year and a 60-room boutique hotel right next to its Bali beach club in partnership with Sydney's Movida restaurant next year. Another beach club on Bali's Canggu Beach and a second Seminyak hotel designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas will follow in 2016.

Spicing up the club scene

Nutmeg & Clove
17 Ann Siang Road 6pm till late, Tue-Sat
Opens mid-June

They've bagged global awards for their theatrical libations, elaborate garnishes and luxe interiors steeped in old-world glamour. Now, the personalities behind legendary London cocktail bar Nightjar want to shake things up, Singapore-style.

Soon to join the line-up of craft cocktail bars such as Manor, Oxwell & Co and Ding Dong on Ann Siang Road is Nutmeg & Clove, a collaborative venture between several silent partners in the alcohol trade and Nightjar's head barman Marian Beke. The 31-year-old Slovak has helmed the speakeasy in London's uber-hip Hoxton neighbourhood since its 2011 founding. He says of the impetus to start the Singapore venue: "We realised that there were many world-class bars in Singapore, but not many celebrating its traditions and rich, colourful culture. When a unit opened up at Ann Siang Hill, we jumped at the chance as the Chinatown area offers great stories about the roots and journey of Singapore."

The bar's name, for instance, is an open tribute to Ann Siang Hill, which was previously home to Singapore's oldest nutmeg and clove plantations. Fittingly, the bar will also feature a range of herbs, spices and fruit that reflect the diversity of the local palate. Like at Nightjar, where the drinks menu is sectioned by historical eras such pre-Prohibition, Prohibition and Post-war, including a premium category of vintage spirits dating back to the early 1900s, drinks at Nutmeg & Clove draw inspiration from different periods of time that most significantly shaped cocktail culture. Signature pours are still being measured out, but cocktails will range from $16 to $20.

Mr Beke, however, is cautious to downplay comparisons between the two bars: "We are not trying to open a version of Nightjar in Singapore as each city has its differences. What works in London might not necessarily work in Singapore. We are trying instead to set up a place for locals, using ingredients that best suit the Asian palate... but with the same attention to detail and high standard of cocktails synonymous with the Nightjar brand."

While Mr Beke shuttles between London and Singapore to consult on the menu, the bar will be presided over by head mixologist Yin Te-Kai - better known as Kae Yin - previously the head bartender at whisky and jazz bar Marsalis Home in his native Taipei. A soon-to-be-announced local head chef who has clocked in time at top restaurants in Singapore will plate up Western bar fare with subtle Singaporean and Southeast Asian influences ($9 to $22).

In a further nod to the 1,200 sq ft, 45-seater shophouse unit's former life as the lobby area of the Ching Yoon Wooi Kwoon, one of Singapore's oldest Cantonese clan associations, the bar's sultry den-esque interiors is accented by dark wood kopitiam chairs, Chinese lattice panels and a gunny sack-covered feature wall. Drawers and cabinets reminscent of Chinese medical halls serve an aesthetic and practical purpose: they are where alcohol bottles and bar tools are stored.

Though the concept for the cocktail bar has been gestating "for years" while the team tried to align their schedule and resources, says Mr Beke, the current boom in Singapore's cocktail scene spurred them to get the project off the ground. "In the past five years, I've witnessed an explosion of cocktail bars of high standard all over the city, not just by locals but from old hands in the industry and big brands all around the world. International bartenders have also been relocating from cocktail trend-leading cities such as Sydney, New York and San Francisco - so this must be a good thing," elaborates Mr Beke, adding that he first visited Singapore nine years ago and "instantly fell in love with it".

"Singapore is the London of Asia for me: it's a favoured travel destination and a metropolitan city with open-minded and multicultural residents. Our first venue will set the benchmark in the eyes of future investors and the public, and Singapore offers good soil to start growing any type of business," he says. "And it has better weather than London too!"

Art gallery-cum-nightclub

B1-01/06 The Riverwalk, 20 Upper Circular Road
Opens mid-July

They came, dipped a cautious toe in to test the waters, and now they've decided to plunge right in.

After a brief pop-up stint during last year's Formula One weekend, the people behind iconic Bangkok nightspot Bed Supperclub will have their highly anticipated resurfacing in Singapore this July. And this time, it's here to stay. To be named Canvas, the art gallery by day and club by night is a collaborative venture between Bed Concepts and indie music venue, Home Club, which shuttered earlier this month.

"We've been looking at doing something in Singapore for a long time," says Mahen Nathan, one of Bed Concepts' four partners and the only Singaporean. Besides owning and running Bed Supperclub, the group also invests in lifestyle businesses and consults for restaurant and nightlife projects around the Indochina region. Bed Supperclub went on a hiatus last September when its lease on the boisterous Soi 11 party strip ran out after 12 years. As it turns out, Home Club's co-owner Roy Ng and a long-time friend of Mr Nathan, was simultaneously looking for a new concept to refresh his decade-old venue known for its alternative music programming and its anything-goes, hipster community centre vibe. "Besides the genesis of our respective clubs, our programming and philosophy of Home Club and Bedsupper Club are pretty similar," says Mr Nathan of the natural partnership. "Home Club didn't close, it's just an evolution of what it used to be".

The art gallery-cum-nightclub was a concept that had been gestating on the drawing board for some time, says Mr Mahen, and the initial plan was to launch the first Canvas in Bangkok, but their vision shifted southwards to Singapore given the country's current political turmoil. Talks for further outlets in Taiwan and Hong Kong are also under way. At Canvas, Bed Concepts will set the direction for its concept and content, while the Home Club team will front its operations. "Roy and his team have already built a strong community in Singapore, they're respected as a serious player in the scene, and their longevity is testament to their credibility."

The Singapore venue will be a 3,000 sq ft multi-purpose space for 600 that is inspired by Andy Warhol's 1960s creative playground, The Factory. By day, the space will function as an art gallery for multiple artists across different genres - from photographers, to installation artists, painters and sculptors - to showcase their work. By night, local and international DJs and musicians take to the roost, and digitised artworks and installation artworks take on different mood lighting to help transform the scene.

A large part of the million-dollar venue's transformation from day to night use will rely on technology, Mr Mahen reveals. For instance, a 3D-mapping feature wall running the length of space will showcase digital artworks when the gallery opens from 2pm in the afternoon and gradually transition to become a digital backdrop when club operations kick in after dark. The gallery's river-front facade, meanwhile, comprises a rotating panel on which interactive digital projections - something that featured in Bed Supperclub - will be cast. On weekends, the same wall doubles as a screen for regular film screenings. "We want to blur the lines between genres that are traditionally considered niche or underground and the commercial," says Mr Nathan. Photo and film exhibits will be rotated every fortnight while more labour-intensive installations will be changed monthly. Local artists such as photographer Russel Wong, Alvin Tan of design collective Phunk Studio, and filmmaker Mikael Teo will kick off the initial roster.

"Unlike the old Home Club, where you could just grab a guitar and jump on stage spontaneously, we want to have a bit more deliberate programming here, with a lot of thought that goes into it" - all with the aim of appealing to a wider market segment, says Mr Nathan. Home Club regulars will still find something to return to, however, as weekly events such as Comedy Nights on Tuesdays and local comedian Kumar's fortnightly stand-ups on Thursdays will remain. Sparingly fitted out to allow each incoming artist to fashion it as they prefer, the entire space can also be booked for private events such as art festivals and after-parties or corporate product launches.

On why he chose to craft a new concept rather than replicate Bed Supperclub here, Mr Mahen says: "Singapore is a small market - running a megaclub will have its challenges. At the same time, we saw a movement towards a greater appreciation of arts and culture in Asia," he says. To add further oomph to their programming, a five-man "advisory council" comprising The National Art Gallery's Woon Tai Ho and local artists such as Alvin Tan and filmmaker Mikael Teo will work with Canvas's creative team to tap their collective network across the region and globally.

When Canvas establishes further outlets overseas, artists and creative content from its various venues can then cross-pollinate, says Mr Nathan.

This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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