Akmal Anuar

Photo: John Marsland

It will be a sweet homecoming for Singaporean chef Akmal Anuar, who will open his first restaurant in his home country — 12 years after packing his bags for Dubai in search of greener pastures. 

The 41-year-old, who is based in Dubai, runs his F&B consultancy firm, which comprises six restaurants in the United Arab Emirates and New York City, including international grill restaurant 11 Woodfire in Dubai. It managed to retain a Michelin star for the second time this year. Prior to his move to Dubai, Akmal had worked in top restaurants in Singapore — he was the head chef at Iggy’s in the 2000s, and had stints at Les Amis and Saint Pierre. 

His latest concept is his most personal one yet — he will open Harummanis, a contemporary Asian restaurant in Sultan Gate in Kampong Glam that will showcase his innovative take on the flavours of Malay cuisine. The 40-seat shophouse restaurant opens on November 20. 

The upcoming restaurant shares the same name with his family’s nasi padang stall, which has been running in Teck Whye for more than 30 years. The stall is currently run by his younger brother and sister, who will also be involved in the operations of the restaurant. 

Speaking to The Peak over Zoom, Akmal shared that despite requests from his sister over the years, opening a restaurant back home didn’t resonate with him as he lives abroad and was turned off by the perennial challenge of hiring restaurant staff here.  

He shares: “It was only earlier this year when my dad finally asked why I didn’t want to open something with the family, while I have started restaurants overseas and that struck me. I decided to do something related to Malay cuisine to continue the legacy of my parents’ shop.”

Related: Overlooked at home, this Singaporean chef found his culinary calling in Dubai

Pushing the envelope with his interpretation of Malay cuisine

At Harummanis restaurant, diners can expect Akmal’s bold interpretation of Malay cuisine, which is based on his perspectives, travels and experiences of growing up in Singapore and his rich experience of cooking cuisines from Japanese to modern European.

He points out that he will not be doing elevated versions of classic Malay dishes such as nasi lemak or rendang. Instead, the dishes will feature “twists and nuances of my roots” and produce and spices from Southeast Asia. He sums up: “It will be a smart casual place for serious foodies.” 

Dishes from the a la carte menu include Hirame Kobujime (white flat fish sandwiched with layers of kelp) served with asam gelugur ponzu, kacang botol (winged beans) and limau purek (Kaffir lime) for a refreshing finish.

Another highlight is Minangka-Bao, his take on rendang, which originated from Minangkabau in West Sumatra. The fried mantou bun is filled with beef shank rendang, avocado, red onions and coriander salsa. He adds that there will be two dishes, which are a riff off his mother’s dishes at the stall, where he holds fond memories of helping out when he was growing up.

He says: “I come from a place and pedigree where I don’t want to do what has been done before. I might be right or wrong, but I want to put diners on the edge, stir up conversations about the food and push the envelope a bit.” 

The restaurant’s decor will be inspired by the rich cultural heritage of Malay prints and patterns, and feature royal colours such as gold and yellow. A key feature of the private dining room will be a huge dining table made from Suar wood from raintrees in Singapore.

I come from a place and pedigree where I don’t want to do what has been done before. I might be right or wrong, but I want to put diners on the edge, stir up conversations about food and push the envelope a bit.

Chef Akmal Anuar

Re-connecting with Singapore

On what took him so long to open a restaurant in his home country, Akmal shares that it was only in the recent post-pandemic years that he felt more re-connected to Singapore. It stemmed from making more frequent trips back home to see his parents, who are in their mid-70s, and getting to know chef-friends in the local food community. “The more I went back, the more attached I became,” he shares. He reveals that plans to start a restaurant here were only firmed up in August. 

It also helps that he is returning to the local food scene on a better footing, having amassed over a decade’s worth of experience of running his restaurants. He says: “We have our own capital, the know-how of operating restaurants and finding good staff.”

Under his F&B consultancy White Rice’s stable are 11 Woodfire, Goldfish Sushi and Yakitori, and patisserie Sam Tarts in Dubai; modern Japanese concept Otoro in Abu Dhabi; Mavia Cafe & Restaurant in the Al Faya desert; contemporary dining experience Chie in Sharjah; and contemporary Asian restaurant 53 in New York City. He will continue to be based in Dubai and will make more frequent trips here.

Akmal shares that his family has always been supportive of his career, having visited his restaurants overseas. While they might not fully understand the concept and menu entirely, they know that it is a step in the right direction.

He shares: “We are Malay-Muslims — we don’t serve alcohol or offer entertainment. Although we are conservative, we can also move ahead, be modern and look into new and cool things. When I proposed the idea, I don’t think they fully understood it, but they got the idea. It is my responsibility to make the concept more user-friendly to them so that they can understand what are in the dishes. Now, everyone’s excited about the upcoming restaurant.”

He adds: “My parents’ eyes light up as Harummanis takes the next step to modern cuisine and gets the opportunity to be showcased globally.”