Singapore's downsized restaurant scene

Singapore's downsized restaurant scene

Away from the big resort players, some of the city's top chefs are attracting their own fan base by offering more casual, intimate dining experiences
Unless you arrive early, it's standing room only at the extremely popular 15-seat Esquina Tapas Bar.

Three years after opening successful Singapore restaurant FiftyThree, lawyer-turned-chef Michael Han is downsizing.

In March, the starkly Nordic-minimalist restaurant on Armenian Street shut its doors. Come August, it will re-open in a smaller, more intimate, shophouse on Tras Street.

A stark contrast to Han's sprawling two-story 40-seat space, the new outlet will only seat 18.

“I believe casualness is replacing formality at the dinner table,” says 34-year-old Han, who apprenticed at Mugaritz, Noma and The Fat Duck after earning a master’s degree in law.

“I want to evolve the same careful, quiet approach we have to the food and to do so, it would be better to minimize the surroundings.”

'We want to keep it real'

“Esquina is the smallest restaurant in my group, but the most fun,” says co-founder Jason Atherton.Perhaps an antithesis to Singapore’s power-packed dining scene where big-name chefs are opening ostentatious restaurants with mega spaces –- the new Catalunya housed in the glass-domed Fullerton Pavilion is a fine example –- but Han is hardly alone.

Last December, the 15-seat The Rabbit Stash opened with little fanfare in the far-flung Pandan Valley condominium.

Stacked atop the mezzanine level of a pie shop, the restaurant, which shares a common boutique space with its cramped kitchen, is the perfect showcase for 37-year-old chef/owner Mathew Mok, who followed his degree in building management with a 17-month diploma in culinary arts.

After working 12 months in local restaurants and another year as a chef-for-hire, Mok decided to call his own shots at The Rabbit Stash.

“We want to keep it real, intimate and niche,” says Mok, who is assisted by his partner and Maitre’ d, Donna Ho. “I did not train under any high-profile chefs, hence most of my modern European creations are self-created." 

 

A more personal experience

Bigger culinary names are also jumping on the bijou eatery bandwagon.

Late last year, the 15-seat Esquina Tapas Bar opened its doors in a narrow strip of space in Chinatown's Jiak Chuan Lane enclave.

A joint project between boutique hotelier Loh Lik Peng and Gordon Ramsay’s former protégé at Maze Restaurant, Jason Atherton, the tapas bar swiftly won the hearts of local foodies and a massive stand-and-eat crowd soon thronged the space.

“Esquina is the smallest restaurant in my group, but the most fun,” says Atherton. “We wanted it to be an authentic tapas bar -- hence the size –- and it creates an amazing atmosphere unlike anything else we have.”

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"I did not train under any high-profile chefs, hence most of my modern European creations are self created." says The Rabbit Stash owner, Mathew Mok. In March, Esquina was joined by  FoodBar Dada, a 20-seat tapas bar housed in a tiny space tucked away in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it unit at Robertson Quay.

At 43 square meters, Dada is the smallest restaurant in The Privé Group, which includes four other restaurants led by the flagship Privé Grill.

“We wanted to create a space that is intimate and yet energetic, where the guests would be connected to what’s happening behind the stoves” says Yuan Oeij, chairman of The Privé Group.

“This could only be done with a small space serving fewer customers. The experience is so much more personal and the chefs can focus on delivering quality while interacting with the diners.”

Small venues, big bites

FiftyThree

If his modernist European cuisine at Armenian Street is anything to go by, expect lots of textures and modern cooking techniques at Michael Han’s soon-to-open 18-seat Tras Street restaurant.

“I am fascinated by cooking with wood,” says Han, “so possibly every dish will have an element touched by fire.”

42 Tras St.; +65 6334 5535

The Rabbit Stash

Snag a reservation at this boutique eatery for the seasonally changing five-course degustation menu, which you'll eat off a communal table draped in black linen.

Mok’s meats alone –- such as the beef tenderloin with sweet potato risotto and roasted lamb rack with mint scented cabernet sauvignon –- are worthy of a detour.

#01-206 2 Pandan Valley; +65 9173 0723

Esquina

Esquina doesn’t take reservations, so beat the traffic by arriving early for a bum-space by the counter.

Jason Atherton is busy attending to his restaurants in London, Shanghai and now, Pollen Street in Singapore, but his protégé, Andrew Walsh, does an excellent job with the cosmopolitan-inspired tapas like scallops ceviche in yuzu-scented dressing.

16 Jiak Chun Lane; +65 6222 1616

Foodbar Dada

The Josper Grill-centerd tapas menu at this industrial-slick hole-in-the-wall may not be extensive. But what they do, they truly excel at.

Come for Chef Manel Volero’s signature creations like Iberian pork with Serrano ham alongside caviar-flecked mashed potato cream and Josper-grilled baby squid in a savory toss with clouds of egg.

60 Robertson Quay #01-12; +65 9639 7862

Evelyn Chen traded her frequent flyer miles from her jet-setting corporate days for a critic's pen, and has been eating and drinking on the job ever since. She is a former Time Out food critic and current editor of Zagat Guide; her food and travel features have published in Destin Asian, Travel + Leisure SEA and Conde Nast Traveller. For a collection of her gourmet jaunts, visit www.bibikgourmand.com.

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