Caesar salad and steak tartare are typical brasserie dishes, but at Brasserie Astoria, which showcases acclaimed Swedish chef-restaurateur Bjorn Frantzen’s take on casual French dining, the perennial starters are taken a notch up. Trolleys dot the show-stoppingly elegant restaurant at Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, anchored by imposing Corinthian columns, quirky art pieces, and chic booth seats that snake across the cavernous space.
The Caesar salad is a salivating spectacle — it is prepared tableside on a trolley with kale, grilled chicken breast, smoked pork belly, and 24-month aged parmesan tossed a la minute.
During a recent visit to Singapore, Frantzen, who also runs three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Zen, explains why he decided to bring some kitchen action to the fore. He says: “The reason why some dishes taste better at home than in restaurants is because they are made and eaten straight away. Once you start mixing the salad with vinaigrette and dressing, starch breaks down quickly. The steak tartare also gets so much fluffier and lighter. I like to dig down to the bottom of these dishes to see the difference between making dishes in front of guests.” He adds with a wry smile: “We need to be a little mental sometimes to create dishes.”
Brasserie Astoria, which started in an erstwhile cinema building in Stockholm, is where Frantzen lets his hair down from the high-octane world of fine-dining. The former footballer, who is known for his modern Nordic-Asian cuisine at his flagship three-starred Restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm, relishes the “freedom and flexibility” that brasserie cuisine offers, away from the precision and regiment that fine-dining demands.
He lets in: “Some recipes have been on my computer for seven years, but I couldn’t find a fun place to put them in until I started the brasserie.” The Singapore-exclusive Kebab Pizza is a play on Mediterranean cuisine, with duck confit topped with lashings of harissa yoghurt, while the waffle ice cream (Pistachio waffle sandwich with oolong ice cream) continues from Zen’s popular takeaway menu during the pandemic. Other elevated brasserie dishes include steak frites, grilled spring chicken, and whisky-flambeed beef (also prepared tableside).
Opening more casual concepts such as Brasserie Astoria here and Studio Frantzen on top of Harrods Department Store in London does not mean that Frantzen is moving away from his fine-dining roots. Instead, he explains that it is part and parcel of expanding a restaurant empire.
He says: “We have been getting offers to start restaurants, and it cannot be three-starred restaurants all the time. It is a different cup of tea to ‘go full monty’ and roll out such restaurants as they are more personal and require more work. If you open too many fine-dining restaurants, you lose their unique element.” He adds that there will always be “an interest in fine-dining” as long as one is in the right markets, such as Singapore, Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo.
That said, the Frantzen Group will be opening its third fine-dining concept, FZN, at Hotel Atlantis in Dubai next year. It will also open the second iteration of Studio Frantzen in Dubai, which presents new Nordic cuisine infused with Asian produce and influences, coupled with a Nordic-orientated bar programme.
He shares: “I’ve been visiting Dubai with my family for winter holidays in the past eight years. It has strengthened its position as a dining destination recently. I have had offers to open there for many years, but now I felt it was the right partner and timing.”
Growing within the group
One of the main reasons behind the rapid global growth of the Frantzen Group is its staff retention strategy. He explains that opening new restaurants creates more pathways for employees to progress within the group. He says: “After putting in the years, the staff might want to earn more money and take up a managerial role. By opening restaurants and creating new roles, it is my way of saying ‘thank you’ for spending years with me and for working hard. This progression has to happen organically, or else people will just quit.”
Testament to this, Zen’s executive chef Tristin Farmer stepped up to oversee the opening of Brasserie Astoria’s Singapore outpost with its general manager and beverage director Aaron Jacobson. Brasserie Astoria’s head chef Emil Cecil Ess had spent 2.5 years at Zen before assuming the position.
The restaurant group is known for pioneering forward-thinking employee retention policies, such as a four-day work week here, with Zen closed on Mondays and the weekends. It has not encountered a staff shortage, which is prevalent in the dining industry.
The straight-talking Frantzen says: “When I was younger, the atmosphere in the kitchen was not nice — there was a lot of screaming and shouting. I have also gone to work on Saturdays for many years, which meant that I missed birthday parties and football matches with the kids. With the worldwide manpower shortage in restaurants, you have to treat staff nicely and the way you want to be treated yourself. You can be tough but also fair and clear on expectations. In short, don’t be an asshole.”