297 River Valley Road
Tel: 9236 5002
Why mess with a formula when you’ve got a good thing going? That was the main question the owners of ½-year-old Five & Dime faced when they decided to close their cafe in April. How they came to their decision however, was not that simple.
“When we started out, there were just about 30 brunch cafes in Singapore… Now, there are like two or three hundred offering almost the same things we did. And young people nowadays have a shorter attention span, so after a while, we realised we couldn’t just focus on that,” explains co-owner Hsu Chen Kang, 34.
“The turning point was a dip in business that we never really recovered from after the haze last year. It reached a point when I felt that if we don’t do something, there may not even be a Five & Dime anymore,” he says.
So instead of sticking around until they started losing money, Hsu and his business partner decided to take the pre-emptive step of closing the shop, doing renovations, and relaunching with a new concept – all on their own terms.
That’s how they eventually came up with Fat Lulu’s – a modern Asian barbecue restaurant with a dessert bar. Gone are the days of mentaiko pasta and chilli crab burgers, says Hsu: “The main focus of Fat Lulu’s is the grilled meats, vegetables, seafood, and we also have a proper dessert menu. We’re moving away from the cafe and coffee culture which everyone is doing right now, and going back to basics.”
Their new head chef is Sam Chablani, 31, who graduated from New York’s Culinary Institute of America and previously worked at restaurants like db Bistro Moderne in New York City, as well as Halia and Lolla in Singapore.
Of the new menu, he says: “We’ll be doing a lot of slow-cooking, fast-cooking, over a grill by controlling the fire. But it’s not just an East Coast Park barbecue, there’s real technique and properly marinated food.”
They intend to keep their prices similar to what you’d expect to spend at Five & Dime, too. This means about $18 for six grilled prawn skewers in an Asian cajun rub, and $22 for a sambal-marinated pork chop with burnt corn and fries. According to the chef, the strategy is to go for good quality meats, but skip the prime cuts and go for the less popular ones.
“My favourite thing on the menu right now is a sambal-marinated pork collar. We take the pork neck – which is usually used in char siew – from a nice Mangalica pig, and it costs about $20-plus per kg. No pork loins that cost $50 to $60 per kg that we have to sell at S$38,” he says.
Says Hsu: “I think no matter how confident you are of your food, you have to recognise the environment you are in now. There are so many options in Singapore now, plus with the Michelin guide coming out soon, all the attention will be there. If you sell S$40 to S$50 ribeye steaks that are not the best in the market, will people come all the way back for you after they eat one? I don’t think so.”
2. Ding Dong
115 Amoy Street
115 Amoy Street
Perhaps it was serendipity that led Spa Esprit Group’s CEO Cynthia Chua to relocate two of her restaurants – South-east Asian bar Ding Dong, and Argentinian restaurant Bochinche – to a corner shophouse space at Amoy Street.
(Related: Cynthia Chua expand Spa Esprit growth in London.)
For a start, the leases for both the three-year-old establishments came up around the same time, just as she found some available units that also happened to be where her own uncle previously ran a restaurant named Beng Hiang.
“It was a good opportunity (to move) as we see how the products for both brands have matured throughout the years and the identity becoming more formative,” says Chua.
For Ding Dong, the shift was motivated partly because the restaurant’s three-storey layout had proven to be operationally challenging, plus the spiral staircase took up a lot of space. Also, Chua adds that she “didn’t actually quite like how Club Street is developing, because it’s become very mainstream”.
“I like how it was before, but after three years I feel that the vibe has changed,” she says.
When it reopens on June 20, Ding Dong’s concept will still stick to modern twists on South-east Asian flavours, but about 80 per cent of the menu will be different. Signature dishes such as the crispy duck curry and assam pedas salted barramundi will stay, while new dishes include a homemade banana bread with duck liver and kimchi, as well as a chargrilled ocean trout with spiced quinoa and green mango salad. And instead of spanning three floors, it will now be spread across one 1,300 sq ft space, with an open kitchen.
Similarly, Bochinche will also be taking up a 1,300 sq ft space, and retain its focus on Argentinian food. About half the menu will likely be different, plus it will be introducing a wood charcoal grill as the highlight when it reopens on June 21. New dishes include braised cuttlefish, chorizo and fennel, as well as lamb rump, artichokes, goat’s cheese and dates.
According to Chua, the reason for the move is: “The space we had was too big to capture the mood and ambience we wanted… Bochinche does very well for brunch and dinner, but we could not capture the lunch crowd in (Martin Road).”
By moving to Amoy Street, she hopes to add more variety to the lunch offerings with the Argentinian cuisine, and perhaps drive a weekend brunch crowd to the area which is otherwise dead on weekends. “I feel like there could be potential because the shophouses are so beautiful. I would rather go there – it’s easy to park, and I can have brunch without having to fight the traffic,” she says.
Ultimately, it makes sense operationally as well. Says Chua: “Putting the two together only strengthens the positioning of both brands. If one is fully booked I wouldn’t mind hopping to the next.”
4. Salted & Hung
12 Purvis Street
Tel: 6358 3130
If Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, does it also mean that a restaurant that changes its name (and location) would serve food that is just as good?
Chef Drew Nocente of the now-defunct 5th Quarter restaurant will be heading a new kitchen at the contemporary Australian restaurant Salted & Hung on Purvis Street. While the concept remains somewhat the same, Nocente says this change in backdrop would mark a “fresh new start”.
“You’ve got the curing techniques, some nose-to-tail elements as well as grilling. The feel of the space though is entirely different – it will be more casual, more freestyle and laid back. Aussie-style basically,” says the chef.
Those who enjoyed the popular salt and pepper tripe will be glad to know it’s one of the old dishes that will remain on the menu, along with the pork jowl and short rib, which will be slightly tweaked. Some new items include the ocean trout with macadamia and avocado ($16), octopus with saltbrush and ink ($18), kangaroo tartar with beets and juniper ($16), and chicken liver with guanciale and hearts ($12).
“5th Quarter didn’t trade well and there were probably a variety of reasons,” says Loh Lik Peng, director of Unlisted Collection which runs Salted & Hung, as well as other local establishments such as Pollen, Esquina, Restaurant Ember, and Cheek By Jowl.
“Location was one factor and admittedly perhaps we didn’t find the right concept for the location. We always got great reviews but business was not good. For that reason we decided to end 5th Quarter’s run.”
He clarifies however, that “we’re not relocating, (Salted & Hung) is a brand new restaurant”. While some elements are similar, the new concept is meant to be more casual and family-oriented, while the old one catered to couples.
So for instance, you won’t be finding the plush armchairs and dim lighting that were present at 5th Quarter in Vagabond Hotel. Instead, Salted & Hung will have a more raw, industrial look, with concrete floors and bare walls featuring graffiti art.
“The idea is to make people feel more relaxed in the space, you don’t feel like you have to dress up or anything. You can turn up in shorts and t-shirt,” says Loh. “I would say at least 50 per cent of the menu is different. From the plates to the setting, to the cutlery, it’s much more stripped-down. The portions will be a bit larger, much less fancy. The whole idea is to strip the concept to its bare bones, make it much more approachable. So there are no frills.”
Adapted from The Business Times.