A friend of mine reckons Singapore is Asia for beginners. "Training-wheels travellers," she says, and then proceeds to tick off the South East Asian island city-state's shortcomings. Too safe, too clean, too air-conditioned, too predictable. "And you pretty much never get food poisoning," she adds.
Adventure is fine. Adventure is great. Whitewater rafting through Pyongyang or bartering for horse-milk liquor in Ulan Bator is all very well, advanced Asia travellers, but sometimes you crave the kind of break where you can walk down the street without thinking about your wallet, cross town with ease, and eat and drink with impunity. Sometimes, in other words, you want your holiday to be, well, a holiday.
Here's the thing, though: Singapore has started to take a few risks. Maybe it's globalisation. Maybe it's the new casino. Maybe it's growing up. Whatever it is, the city now likes to throw the dice a bit more when it comes to food. There's always been interesting stuff to eat at the street level [check out our story on Singapore's best street food vendors], but now things at the top end are getting spicy, too.
Singapore has had a very staid idea of fine dining in years past, says André Chiang, chef-patron of Restaurant André, but that's changing; he's gambling on the city's diners being willing to surrender control and embrace adventure when they eat in restaurants as well as hawker centres. "It still has to be smoothly run, of course, but today it's less about perfection and more about trying something new."
The city's pull on overseas talent has grown significantly in recent years. Modern Singapore has been rich for some time, but the financial crisis elsewhere has thrown its wealth into sharper relief. Old and new Chinese billionaires eye each other from opposite corners of The Tanglin Club, the marinas are crammed with yachts registered out of Jakarta, Macau and Manila, and revenues from the casinos have eclipsed those of Las Vegas. The bigger new international names (Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon and our own Tetsuya Wakuda among them), says Julien Royer, chef at Jaan, have also brought with them access to produce of a quality hitherto unseen in local restaurants.
Singapore's agriculture remains more or less non-existent, and chefs are reluctant to buy fish caught in the waters around the busiest port in the world, so the locavore thing hasn't really taken root here, and the idea of seasonality is elusive in a country that only has two seasons: hot and wet and hotter and wetter. "But it also means we can get anything from anywhere," says Dave Pynt, chef at Burnt Ends. The appearance of French game birds alongside Japanese seafood, and Australian meat and Thai fruit on the same menu doesn't raise an eyebrow in a community where the mingling of talent, ingredients and culture is the norm.
The breadth of this reach comes at a price, mind you. The new Singapore isn't cheap - not in restaurants at least. A plate of some of the best chicken rice in town will leave you change out of a fiver at the hawker centres, but almost every fine-diner here charges prices that make the bills at Vue de Monde and Quay seem almost reasonable. (There's also the insidious plus-plus: listed prices don't typically include the seven per cent sales tax and the 10 per cent usually added as a service charge.) And while Hong Kong has dropped its wine tariffs completely, and bargains are there for savvy drinkers in Tokyo, in Singapore the price of booze remains steep, even by Australian standards.
Happily, this new care isn't apparent just at the $500-a-head level. Old neighbourhoods are opening up to new businesses, and shophouses on the fringes of Chinatown and Little India are transforming, making some streets a patchwork of kopitiams and nasi padangs nestled among design firms, speak-easies, fancy bike shops and bistros. Many of the new ventures opened by visiting chefs blur the line between bar and restaurant (Esquina, opened by Jason Atherton in late 2011, and the new Oxwell & Co from his fellow Gordon Ramsay alumnus Mark Sargeant spring to mind). Others take the bistronomy approach, presenting very polished food in a setting geared for more casual fun (Izy, the Club Street izakaya opened by former Waku Ghin chef Kazumasa Yazawa, for example).
The bars are in on the act, too. Led by the superb 28 HongKong Street, a clutch of new players are moving out of the lychee-Martini-flavoured-vodka epoch. The drink-making at the likes of Jigger & Pony, The Cufflink Club and The Library, and restaurant-bars such as The Black Swan and Cut, is savvy and professional. Hell, even the Singapore Slings at Raffles' Long Bar are now made fresh to order, a symbolic shift if ever there was one.
Welcome to the new Singapore. We hope you came hungry.
Though the mark of the master is unmistakable, Waku Ghin is by no means Tetsuya's Singapore. Sydney's favourite culinary son has embraced the opportunities available to him both in Singapore and in the Marina Bay Sands casino, creating something radically different. Diners are cosseted in a series of small dining salons with Japanese-style bar seating around a teppan grill plate, where his chefs produce wonders, as they like to say in the circus, before your very eyes. Seafood is the focus. A sea urchin sheared in half, filled with roe, sweet raw botan ebi prawns and a magnificent dollop of caviar is one of those ideas that's so simple that anyone could have thought of it, but only Tetsuya did - brilliant.
A meaty crab leg roasted in salt in front of you has a purity of flavour and an exceptional texture belied its seeming simplicity. The details are handled with finesse. Australian-Japanese manager Hitomi Matsumoto brings charm to the floor, while the Champagne poured with crazily marbled Ohmi beef is just one daring but perfectly apt pairing from sommelier Paco Galdeano. Dessert, with your fellow diners in a room overlooking the bay, is taken to the next level with perfumed kyoho grapes from Japan paired with nothing more than a granita made with their skins.
Chef Wakuda's obsession with cocktails, meanwhile, means that the bar is of a Tokyo standard, its cocktails impeccable, its snacks worth a visit in themselves.
Vibe: Exclusive, and then some.
Price: Dégustation $210.
Plus: Next-level Tetsuya's.
Minus: A bit austere; bring a posse.
Atrium 2, level 2, Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Ave, +65 6688 8507.
Opened in 2004, Iggy's has been at the forefront of Singapore dining for so long that it'd be easy to dismiss it, and yet the current kitchen team's faintly Japanese menu is as fresh and impressive as anything in town. It's also an establishment driven by the front-of-house. Owner Ignatius Chan counts himself as a restaurateur and cellarmaster rather than a chef, so there's a seamlessness to the service that's seldom rivalled on the island. There's a lightness and precision to the cooking that's very hard not to like, whether it's the grapefruit, caper and black olive "tapenade" scattered over sweet grilled leeks with a silken yam purée, or the surprisingly crisp way cabernet sauvignon vinegar and a sauce of red cabbage frame a pristine Gillardeau oyster.
Vibe: Club moderne, with the diner in the driver's seat.
Price: Lunch prix fixe $55-$90; tasting menu $105; dinner tasting $165; dégustation $235.
Plus: Fresh cuisine unburdened by cheffy pretension.
Minus: The setting, tucked away on the Hilton's function-room floor (though the dining rooms are admittedly pretty lush).
Level 3, The Hilton Hotel, 581 Orchard Rd, +65 6732 2234.
Given the UFO-like lines and Tardis-esque AvroKO interiors, it seems apt that this particular building, on the waterfront looking out to Marina Bay Sands, is crewed front and back by staffers from the culinary space station formerly known as El Bulli. But while the twists are there for those who want them (hello cheese-based cocktails, hola superb foamed version of tortilla Española), ordering is à la carte and lunch could just as readily be an accomplished line-up of tomato-rubbed bread, jamón Ibérico and the signature suckling pig, roasted with such loving care that it's tender enough for the waiters to chop with the edge of a plate. For best results, though, pick your way across both sides of the menu from liquid-centred green olives to textbook croquetas and cod fritters to the paellas that are the hit of weekend lunches. Catalán brio on the floor is a big part of the magic.
Vibe: All business at weekday lunches, family friendly on weekends and party time after dark.
Price: Tapas $8-$18; main courses $40-$70 (suckling pig $115).
Plus: Spain's new and old conjured with equal aplomb.
Minus: The wine list could use some bolstering.
The Fullerton Pavilion, 82 Collyer Quay, +65 6534 0188.
Definitely one of the more un-Singaporean offerings to have appeared in the past year, the counter at this no-bookings hotspot is perhaps the buzziest spot in town. It's a collaboration between chef André Chiang and Loh Lik Peng, the hotelier and restaurateur behind tapas bar Esquina, The New Majestic and Wanderlust hotels, and a clutch of other properties in the Unlisted Collection. The driving force behind the food, though, is a young Perth bloke by the name of Dave Pynt, who counts St John Bread & Wine in London and vaunted Basque asador Etxebarri among his prior convictions. The name is slightly misleading: there's no American-style barbecue going on here. But the lick of flame from the twin apple- and almond-wood burning brick ovens built by Pynt enriches just about everything on the menu. Sit down to something as simple as a plate of smoked soft-boiled quails' eggs or barely warmed oysters. Or push the boat out and construct a choose-your-own adventure dégustation from the likes of fennel, gently blackened and sweet, on torn burrata cut with a squeeze of orange, or duck hearts with endives shrivelled to intensity, and a slash of aïoli. The tiny local bananas roasted in their skins and served with caramel ice-cream for dessert are compulsory, while "the sanger", a juicy handful of smoky slow-cooked pork shoulder slapped between slices of brioche with chipotle mayo almost rivals the hawker centres for a fine post-boozing option. What a lovely way to burn.
Vibe: Cumulus Inc meets Bodega with a woodfired oven.
Price: Small plates $11-$17; share plates $55-$70.
Plus: Fun, casual eating and savvy, careful cooking equal a blueprint for the new Singapore dining.
Minus: The challenge of finding a seat after dark.
20 Teck Lim Rd, +65 6224 3933.
Luke's Oyster Bar
Sexy package, this. With a concise but muscular cocktail list, can-do service, beautifully handled oysters and a focus on American-style grills, it's little wonder that Luke's has become an instant hit with the neighbourhood's multitude of ad agencies. It has "let's get another bottle" and "probably not making it back to the office" stamped all over it. Pull up a pew at the bar for Malpeques, Wellfleets and Beausoleils shucked to order, or fried and served with devilled eggs. Or settle in at a banquette with veal chops and anchovy butter, or a mighty whack of prime rib.
Vibe: Expense-account hip.
Price: Main courses $38-$75.
Plus: Superb service.
Minus: Not being able to expense it.
20 Gemill La, +65 6221 4468.
Julien Royer is one of the rising stars of the Asian restaurant scene, though, in truth, he's already way up in the firmament, toiling in a 70th-storey eyrie atop the Swissôtel in the city's centre. This is deep into dégustation territory here, but Jaan keeps the business crowd sweet with à la carte options as well. Royer grew up in the Aubrac in southern-central France and is a graduate of that region's best-regarded kitchen, having trained under Michel Bras. Though it's a million miles from Bras' garden-grown and foraged roots, Royer's take on his mentor's signature gargouillou is one of the best you'll encounter outside Laguiole, a perfectly wabi-sabi arrangement of scores of different individually cooked vegetables, highlighted by judicious accents of salt, olive, cured ham and fresh raspberry. Very fine dining indeed.
Vibe: Country cooking taken way, way uptown.
Price: Five courses $170, seven courses $200; à la carte main courses $50-$100.
Plus: Possibly the best food in town, with service to boot, and stunning views.
Minus: Running the hotel-lobby gauntlet to get there; seriously expensive.
Level 70, Equinox Complex, Swissôtel The Stamford, +65 6837 3322.
Shinji by Kanesaka
Few places outside Japan come close to offering a true Tokyo-style sushi experience. Los Angeles and New York? Yes. London? Maybe Australia? No. Shinji, an offshoot of revered Ginza establishment Sushi Kanesaka, opened at Raffles in 2010 and has ignited a fervour in Singapore for the real Edomae-style thing. And with the monastic devotion of its chefs, the artisanship of its small, windowless room, its 100 per cent Japanese produce and gargantuan bills, Shinji is just that. Sit down at the single piece of hinoki timber that serves as the sushi bar and there's no suggestion you could be anywhere other than Ginza (except that the chefs speak English and don't mind if you take pictures). It's easy to appreciate the wow-factor in the various cuts of house-aged tuna or the generous serves of Hokkaido urchin roe folded into the rice bowl at the end of the meal with salmon roe, but the impressive thing here is that the same care goes into the likes of figs, crisply cut and sauced with sesame, or the slice of musk melon offered as dessert with kyoho grapes and Okinawan mango. Truly sublime.
Price: Lunch menus $65-$155; dinner $185-$380.
Plus: Authentic Ginza attention to every detail.
Minus: Authentic Ginza prices.
02-20 Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Rd (enter via Seah St lobby), +65 6338 6131.
Raised in Taiwan and trained in France, André Chiang is in many ways the perfect spokesman for the new Singapore dining scene.
At the small, elegant restaurant that he opened in a 1920s shophouse on a hip street on the fringes of Chinatown in 2010, Chiang has made good on his promise to shake things up. Chiang and sommelier Ken Hasegawa conspire to present not only a surprise menu, but surprise wine matches as well, only revealing the bottles once each glass is well under way. It's a challenging way to drink, not least of all in a town where, as Chiang says, "people are often drinking the label rather than the wine".
The cellar is 100 per cent French with a tight focus on artisanal producers, so the excellent barracuda, langoustine tail, green apple and artichoke number, spiced with olives and Espelette chilli, comes paired with a nutty Sancerre made in the oxidative style by Sébastien Riffault. Chiang's take on the Snickers bar, meanwhile - nuts, caramel, chocolate and nougat sealed in a crisp, clear sugar shell - finds its match in a glass of Rivesaltes Ambre, a complex fortified white blend from Languedoc-Roussillon. It's an involved meal, but the hits are impressive.
Vibe: Intimate and expensive. Not one for those who like their meals short or straightforward.
Price: "Octaphilosophy" menu $255.
Plus: Vinous exotica.
Minus: Staggeringly pretentious, incomprehensible chef "philosophy" statement.
41 Bukit Pasoh Rd, +65 6534 8880.
Here is one of the grander older men of Singapore's dining scene, a perennial favourite with those inclined to eat big and drink bigger. The Les Amis of 2013 has a new face, however. It's now home to Sébastien Lepinoy, who comes to Singapore from Hong Kong, where he ran the kitchen of one of Joël Robuchon's better-regarded ateliers. There are nods to his alma mater in his tempura langoustine, and the pairing of eel and foie gras, and he's as exacting in his standards as his mentor. Simplicity of expression is the key to his brand of luxe dining: little petals of roseval potato heaped with Iranian beluga caviar, say. Best of all, he has the confidence to present a roast chicken, the Bresse bird expertly carved tableside by a Crazy 88 band of crisply suited waiters, the perfect pretext to dive ever deeper into Les Amis' substantial Burgundy holdings.
Vibe: Corporate class.
Price: Lunch $38; dinner menus $130-$235.
Plus: Serious service.
Minus: Truffle oil on caviar? The definition of déclassé.
1 Scotts Rd, 02-14/16 Shaw Centre, +65 6733 2225.
Backed by hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, Jason Atherton is all over Singapore. The El Bulli-trained British chef is best known for opening the original Maze back when he worked for Gordon Ramsay, and has won praise for Pollen Street Social, the Mayfair restaurant he opened in 2011. Here he has a hand in Pollen, located, fittingly enough, in the Flower Dome of the new Gardens by the Bay; Keong Saik Snacks, a diner in Chinatown; and The Library, its speak-easy offshoot. The best regarded of the bunch, though, is his tapas bar, Esquina. With most of the seating crammed Barcelona-style around the open kitchen, and with bass-heavy tunes by The Black Keys and Steppenwolf blaring from the speakers, it has a vibe like few other local venues. The food is pretty good: chipirones, tiny, thumb-sized squid, are flash-fried tender in a spicy batter and served with a striking ink-stained alioli, while the Ibérico pork and foie gras burger, served on a skewer, is San Miguel-friendly fat on a stick. Fun is the intention here, not authenticity. Play it Spanish-ish with Manchego custard and black-olive crumb for dessert, or delve into Atherton's greatest-hits archive with the peanut butter and jam sandwich.
Vibe: Cal Pep meets Coachella.
Price: Share plates $16-$35.
Plus: Great atmosphere.
Minus: Overworked food.
16 Jiak Chuan Rd, +65 6222 1616.