If you think you can only find authentic Thai Panang curry or Vietnamese Cha Ca Thang Long (grilled fish) in the bowels of Golden Mile or the seedier side of Joo Chiat, you're in luck. South-east Asian food is taking the hipster route with more eateries sprouting up that offer real flavours but with a modern twist and in cool digs.
Fu Qian Li is the chef owner of one such restaurant - her casual eatery Nung Len is inspired by the hipster wave that has hit Thailand in recent years. The 27-year-old serves traditional tom yum noodles alongside sliders, playing on Thai flavours such as spicy basil or green curry.
It's not about just tossing tom yum pesto on pasta and plating it up - there's more attention paid to the building blocks of the cuisine. She explains: "In Thailand, no matter how people try to follow trends, they always make sure they retain their own culture, like making green curry sauce instead of gravy. In Singapore, nobody would dare make char kway teow with modern techniques because no one would eat it."
Such edgy, casual restaurants are extremely popular in Australia too, adds chef-owner of Fat Saigon Boy, Cang Lai, who runs two Vietnamese eateries in Sydney and Melbourne. South-east Asian food there spans the gamut of dining options: "You can get it from a hole-in-the-wall bakery to fine dining," says the Vietnamese-Australian.
Diners here are more conservative, however, and some don't quite get chef Lai's Australian interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine. The familiar pho remains a bestseller - the most popular of which is a version with smoked and roasted duck - but patrons are gradually coming round.
"Initially, I swallowed my pride and adjusted to local tastebuds, but it's now returning to what I want it to be," he says.
Cha Thai's Leah Sirijindapan is equally daring, and her kitchen uses a variety of gadgets that wouldn't be out of place in a modern European restaurant - like a sugar detector (to perfect the balance between sweetness and acidity), and a sous vide machine. "Other South-east Asian restaurants here are mostly run by housewives - it's good comfort food, but I want to throw more techniques into the mix," she says.
But that doesn't mean she allows herself any shortcuts; her food is prepared from scratch using labour-intensive preparations which are key to regional cooking: "Asian food is very complicated and requires a lot of work. Western food looks good, but taste-wise, it can't compare."
Even the team behind Hood Cafe & Bar has jumped on board. The indie live music venue at Bugis+ is known for its thumping rock beats and thin-crust pizzas, but they are taking a different tact with their latest expansion, the one-week-old 555 Villa Thai.
Located in the vicinity of Changi Prison, the 37,000 sq ft space is inspired by beer gardens in Thailand, so patrons can look forward to mookata and fusion bar grub while enjoying acoustic music. The menu is designed by partner Kelvin Giam, the founder of Thai eatery Tom Yum Kungfu.
The S$500,000 investment comprises four different sections - an indoor open karaoke bar, an outdoor mookata area, an al fresco hangout facing the stage, and an upcoming chill-out spot on astroturf. "We aim to draw different crowds - from families to yuppies to indie types - with these different spaces," says Hood's co-owner Nigel Wan.
He also hopes the concept will revamp the image of Thai culture in Singapore: "The wave of Thai discotheques in Singapore has given Thai music venues a bad reputation - we hope to remove the sleaze while keeping the fun."
Others like the Tonkin chain of restaurants are hoping to move beyond the hipster wave. They drew queues with their hip noodle bar concept at Orchard Central, and owner Jenny Mac has now started serving authentic Northern Vietnamese dishes (which resemble zi char) at her new Anson outlet, opened since December last year.
The dream is to open a Northern Vietnamese fine-dining restaurant some day. "Many places here are serving Southern Vietnamese cuisine," explains Ms Mac, who has been in Singapore for over 20 years. "I hope to introduce the cleaner flavours of Northern Vietnam to Singaporeans."
555 Villa Thai
Photo: The Business Times
30, Cosford Road
Opens 5pm to 1am (Sun-Thu); 5pm to 2am (Fri-Sat)
There's a winning formula to running a live music venue in Singapore but Hood Bar & Cafe is breaking the mould with its fresh concept, 555 Villa Thai.
A joint venture with Thai eatery Tom Yum Kungfu, it is even farther east than Changi Prison and serves Thai street food such as mookata alongside fusion bar grub.
There is even a 3D graffiti installation which serves as a photo-op, and an amphibious boat which doubles as both ornament and barbecue station.
The partners also happen to be trained designers and kept costs low ($500,000 for the 37,000 sq ft space) by conceptualising and executing most of the decor themselves.
This large space also allows them to turn the lot into an events venue. Said co-owner Joseph Zhang: "We're planning to have weekend flea markets and creative workshops for families."
The mookata (from $55 for two) makes for a great family dinner while there are also dishes such as salt-baked tilapia ($19) with Thai herbs from their own garden.
Hipsters will not be left out with fancy bites such as kang kong fritters served with a spicy coconut dip ($13). More options such as wagyu sliders and Thai-inspired Iberico pork steaks are on the way.
All items and sauces are made from scratch and seafood is fresh from on-site tanks.
The live bands play solely acoustic sets, with a mix of English, Mandarin and Thai music.
If you prefer to sing, the indoor area boasts an open karaoke bar and dart stations.
Fat Saigon Boy
14, Ann Siang Road
Opens Mon to Sat, 11am to 2.30pm, 6pm to 10pm
With his stout build and straight-shooting comments, Fat Saigon Boy's Cang Lai, 39, brings Momofuku's David Chang to mind.
Like chef Chang and his ramen, the Vietnamese-Australian is better known for his duck pho, though the menu offers even more inventive spins on his native dishes.
Chef Lai spent 20 years in European kitchens and a fine-dining Japanese restaurant. But he returned to his ethnic roots five years ago due to prevailing trends.
"The love of Vietnamese food in Australia is so huge because it's fresh, healthy and not fatty," said the owner of Vietnamese takeout kiosk VPR and noodle bar Me Pho in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
He chose Singapore for his first overseas venture because "it's half a Western society, half Asian".
Offerings include mains such as rice served with barbecue pork ribs and chilli nut sauce ($15++), tapas such as soft-shell crab sliders on fried mantou with green chilli chutney, and da lat ribs with harissa ($10++).
To go with it, there is Vietnamese sangria - flavours include mango lemongrass or apple yuzu ($10++ per glass).
Photo: Nung Len
33 Mackenzie Road
Opens Mon to Sat, 10.30am to 10.30pm
You might think there is only one way of serving foie gras but Fu Qian Li - who runs casual Thai eatery Nung Len - would beg to differ.
The 27-year-old has no issue marrying French methods and Thai flavours to come up with dishes such as foie gras with tamarind and coconut.
After all, she previously studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and is personally such a big fan of Thai food that she travels to Bangkok every other month just to cafe-hop.
"I just really like their food scene and how they can have a very modern-looking cafe that serves both traditional Thai and some Western food so I decided to bring it into Singapore," said chef Fu, a Singaporean who now runs Nung Len with a Thai business partner.
Her cafe houses a life-sized tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) and sits facing Mackenzie Road so the sound of passing cars and loud, upbeat Thai music make you feel almost like you are in the middle of Bangkok.
The menu still features mostly traditional Thai dishes such as a Kway Tiew Tom Yum Boran (traditional tom yum noodles, $14), and Khapow Moo Sab (Thai holy basil minced pork rice, $12), alongside simple fusion items such as a trio of homemade burgers ($18) - spicy holy basil, green curry and panang curry.
As sauces are a big part of French cuisine, even the dressing she drizzles on top of her fried chicken wings is made in her kitchen.
Photo: Cha Thai
80, Telok Ayer Street
Opens Mon to Sat, 11am to 10pm
When Leah Sirijindapan first started cooking at six years old, she already knew she wanted to be a chef when she grew up.
It helped that her family's kitchen in Thailand was well-equipped and that she attended a hospitality school to study the culinary arts.
Armed with years of personal experimentation in the kitchen plus six years of work experience in her home country, the 30-year-old is one of a new breed of young Thai chefs who are more technically skilled than the average home cook.
"Chefs in Thailand get paid really little because the food is cheap and people don't respect chefs there," said Ms Sirijindapan.
She moved to Singapore about four years ago to set up her own business, starting with a small cafe named Loaves Me Cafe and, recently, a casual eatery at Telok Ayer named Cha Thai. "I want people to know what real Thai food tastes like - that it's so much better than what you currently have in the market," she said.
At Cha Thai, she specialises in the staples such as a pad thai with prawns ($22) and tom yum seafood soup ($28).
There are also less common items such a lemongrass prawn salad ($28) and curry crab ($28) - all using locally farmed seafood.
According to chef Sirijindapan, every dish is made from scratch and she uses modern gadgets such as a sugar detector to measure sweetness, acidity and saltiness so the food will taste the same no matter who is behind the wok.
Saigon Teppanyaki & Bar
95 East Coast Road
Open Tues to Sun, 11.30am - 3.30pm, 5,30pm - 11.30pm
They say if you want something done right, do it yourself. And that's exactly what 48-year-old Andrew Chu was doing when he opened Saigon Teppanyaki & Bar - a fusion eatery which combines his favourite style of cooking with the flavours of his Vietnamese wife's cooking.
"I thought of creating my own style of teppanyaki because it was my favourite food in Taiwan," says the Taiwanese-born Singaporean. "It's such an interesting way of cooking because you get to watch the chef prepare your food right in front of you. It also lets you interact with him and tell him how you'd like your food cooked."
He and his 32-year-old wife Kelly Nguyen run this teppanyaki bar on East Coast Road, along with their four-year-old cafe next door named Saigon Sandwich. There, they serve more traditional Vietnamese fare such as various Banh Mi (baguette sandwiches), Bun (dried rice noodles) and, of course, pho (rice noodle soup). The recipes for both restaurants come from Ms Nguyen, who develops them based on her knowledge of simple home-cooked meals back in Vietnam, along with her own research, plus trial and error. She explains: "Japanese teppanyaki is boring to me because there's no sauce, just salt and pepper. But the Vietnamese like gravy, white onions, spring onions, so we mix that together on the grill, along with my own sauces and dips."
On the menu are dishes such as a peppery Vietnamese-style fried rice (S$11.90) with Chinese sausages, battered prawns and squid (S$15) served with lemongrass sauce, and Taiwanese-style sliced chicken (S$15) in a sweet sauce. Their next step is to open a family-style Vietnamese zi char restaurant in the unit upstairs once they have enough manpower, says Ms Nguyen.
Tonkin Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine
70 Anson Road, #01-03/04, Hub Synergy Point
Open 11am-9pm, Mon to Sat; closed on Sun and PH
Tonkin started life serving authentic Vietnamese food in 2013, but it wasn't till they came up with a noodle bar concept that lines started forming.
The outlet at Orchard Central is a hole-in-the-wall, but draws 10-minute queues despite the speedy service. Its appeal is probably due to the lighter Northern-style broth, fast serving times, and hip furnishings, including Oriental tiles, Vietnamese lamps, and a sleek mix of dark wood and metal accents.
While owner Jenny Mac is thankful her concept has caught on, what she really wants to serve is elevated Northern Vietnamese cuisine. "The dream is to open a fine-dining restaurant," says the F&B veteran, who's gone from dishwashing and line cooking to managing food courts here before starting her own eateries.
Given current market conditions, fine dining remains more of a pipe dream - instead, she has come to a compromise by serving casual Vietnamese-style seafood dishes in the CBD area. You can sample them at her fourth outlet, the new flagship restaurant along Anson Road, opened since last December.
The space - a homely restaurant with some modern touches - has an eclectic mix of street art and contemporary Vietnamese lacquer and oil paintings by the likes of Nguyen Hong Son and Nguyen Quoc Cuong.
Foodwise, there's barbecued river fish with lemongrass and chilli padi (S$19.90++), Hanoi grilled fish (S$23.90++), tamarind crabs (seasonal price) or grilled pork belly (S$8.90++), which offer more substantial alternatives to her popular noodle sets. These are largely exclusive to dinner service.
There's a gulf between North and South Vietnamese food which Singaporeans don't always recognise, says Ms Mac: "We don't add sugar, and our flavours are purer and clearer - there's more of a Chinese influence," she explains, adding that the herbs and spices she uses, such as dill and chillis, are tasty rather than spicy because of the sub-tropical climate in the North, compared to the equatorial heat of the South.
That's why she insists on ordering many such ingredients directly from her homeland. That authentic flavour has drawn Vietnamese diplomats and expats, who in turn bring their foreign friends.
This article was first published on March 14, 2016.
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