It’s been a busy February for Waku Ghin, even though it doesn’t officially reopen until March 1. But after almost two years since the 10-year-old Singapore flagship restaurant of Tetsuya Wakuda closed for ‘renovations’, regulars have been drawn to its newly-lit premises like fireflies, enjoying cocktails and snacks at the bar while they wait for the real dining experience to begin proper next week.
“We’ve had old customers who were dining at the Chinese restaurant (on the same floor)and walked past and saw our lights on,” says Chef Wakuda. “They came in and asked, ‘are you open’? We’re not, but still we welcome them with a drink at the bar and snacks, and they end up having a second dinner!”
The stalwart of Marina Bay Sands’ fine dining portfolio is the highest profile new restaurant opening in Singapore this year as the dining scene gains momentum especially in the mid-high to fine dining segment.
It’s a sign of the growing appetite for dining experiences as travel plans remain in limbo and restaurants have a captive audience of well-heeled diners prepared to spend on a good meal. Despite losing out on a tourist crowd, high-end restaurants have been supported by strong local demand, even if competition and the traditionally slow months after the festive peak periods may still have a longer term impact.
Brand name openings and reopenings
Besides Waku Ghin, other big names set to make their presence felt include Joel Robuchon and Mauro Colagreco – the latter having teamed up with local restaurateur Beppe De Vito to open a casual sustainable burger eatery on Amoy Street. Named Carne, it opened on Feb 25 to offer free range beef burgers and vegetables from local farms with a view to lowering carbon footprint.
The Joel Robuchon name is also expected to return later this year with the owners of Japanese sushi restaurant Sushi Kou having signed a deal to open a cafe and fine dining concept, although no exact details have been released as yet.
On the home front, three Michelin-starred Odette’s Julien Royer has been tapped to take over The White Rabbit in Dempsey Hill – one of the oldest eateries in the Lo & Behold Group. Slated to open towards the end of this year, the restaurant will undergo a retrofit and be renamed, with a menu focusing on “a relaxed style of dining and serving à la carte French cuisine” said a group statement.
While it has yet to unveil the new concept, there are parallels between The White Rabbit (which will close on Apr 30) and Chef Royer’s one Michelin-starred restaurant Louise in Hong Kong. Both are housed in heritage properties, and Louise emphasises a more approachable version of French dining.
Meanwhile, one Michelin-starred Basque Kitchen by Aitor will be moving out of its Amoy Street premises to take up residence at the Fullerton Waterboat House in April. Its last service is on Feb 27. Chef Aitor Jeronimo Orive says that the lease on the Amoy premises was up and he wanted “the opportunity to move to a better space in a landmark building”. There was no issue with his landlords, he adds, just that the timing was right to move to bigger premises. He’s looking forward to the new opportunity after a tough year in which “we managed to survive and keep our staff through a lot of sacrifice, hard work and deliveries”. The new place will still emphasise “reinvented and refined Basque cuisine, using seasonal produce from Japan and Europe, and from the Basque region whenever possible”.
New dining concepts
During last year’s Circuit Breaker, Raffles Hotel Singapore’s BBR by Alain Ducasse restaurant was barely eight months in operation when it had to close down along with every other F&B outlet in the city. It currently remains closed, even though other restaurants in the hotel are back in operation. For its head chef Louis Pacquelin, the lockdown was a nerve-wracking time when the 30-something suddenly found himself not working for the first time since he started his culinary career at the age of 15.
But now, the Ducasse alumnus is set to open his own restaurant, Clos Pasoh, on March 1 in the conservation Bukit Pasoh neighbourhood. ‘Clos’ refers to a ‘walled vineyard’ in French while Pasoh is a nod to its address. Explaining the concept, he says, “I return to the roots of my training in the French brasserie classics of Lyon, as well as the home cooking I grew up with. However, I reinterpret them to reflect what we think diners are looking for today – comfort and familiarity.”
For the chef who arrived in Singapore in 2019, “It is a reflection of our French heritage and a tribute to the things we love in Singapore.”
Over at Hong Kong Street, where the now-defunct Vianney Massot restaurant stands, a new Japanese-style kappo concept will replace the black-and-white tiled French fine dining eatery when it opens at the end of April. Owned by the Ebb & Flow group, it follows the footsteps of its fine dining restaurant Sommer, which opened at the end of January.
Called Willow, it will be helmed by first time head chef Nicolas Tam, who has worked as sous chef in restaurants such as Joel Robuchon Restaurant, Esora and Zen. “We’ll be renovating it into a comfortable Asian-style restaurant in warm wood and terracotta, with a small counter in the middle of the kitchen, almost like a chef’s table,” says chef Tam. The food won’t be typical Japanese kappo (‘cut and cook’). “It will be based on my past working experiences, for example, the French taught me technique and discipline, while the Swedes instilled in me the importance of warmth and the personal touch. The Japanese taught me how to respect ingredients and seasonality. I also want to explore my Chinese roots by incorporating some of its flavours and ingredients in the menu.”
More Japanese dining
Of course, the Japanese infatuation continues, with Sushi Kou planning to open another high end sushi eatery after the success of its flagship which is currently fully booked until August. Owner Aimi Shibuya says that “business has been better than expected since we opened, and we didn’t expect reservations to be fully booked up four to six months in advance”. It’s partly because the restaurant is tiny with only eight seats and a private room for five people. But diners have not flinched at its pricing which ranges from S$380 to S$600 even at lunch, with the average expenditure being S$500 without drinks.
Japanese F&B operators have been quick to open new concepts such as the just- opened Sakemaru Artisan Hideout – a subscription sake service turned restaurant – and Rockon Tokyo, a mid-high kappo concept.
Abe Taichi, founder of Sakemaru, says that Singapore is a prime location largely because of its small size and “the leisure options are fewer than in other countries”. Despite the challenges in terms of defining their dining concept and construction delays, “we felt it was worth trying, because F&B is even more important during the pandemic.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.