Take a stroll along Kensington Street in Sydney’s latest lifestyle precinct of Chippendale, and you might stumble upon a semi-open air food street called Kopitiam Spice Alley. Ah, the Aussies have finally jumped on the South-east Asian street food bandwagon, you think. But no. There is a bona fide Singaporean connection.
The area, now lovingly referred to by locals as “Chippo”, was once a gritty, inner-city working class quarter filled with workers’ cottages, abandoned warehouses and a beer brewery. It was snapped up by Frasers Property Australia chief Dr Stanley Quek in 2007 and transformed into a A$2 billion (S$2.07 billion) mixed- use development anchored by a Jean Nouvel-designed condominium and a boutique hotel, The Old Clare, owned by Unlisted Collection’s Loh Lik Peng. There, another Singaporean name.
“I liked the Chippendale neighbourhood because it was gritty. At the same time, there was a cool vibe to the place.”
– Loh Lik Peng
Set in two heritage-listed structures – The Clare Hotel pub and the Carlton & United Breweries administration building – the 62-room property is Loh’s first foray into the Australian hospitality market. “I wasn’t considering Australia at all, until Stanley called and said to go have a look,” he explains. “So I went and had a look. I liked the neighbourhood because it was gritty. At the same time, there was a cool vibe to the place. I had an inkling that the neighbourhood would be revived.” That gut feel proved to be right. Gentrification set in quickly, as art galleries and wine bars began colonising the turf.
Soon, Loh found himself in the thick of the action. And he, too, was about to add his own flavour to the trendy cocktail with, not one, but three, on-site restaurants. On hindsight, he admits to being overambitious. He says: “To be honest, it was a bit foolhardy. I just saw the space and thought, ‘Great, I can do three restaurants!’ The space on the ground floor was ideal for two restaurants, because it led out onto Kensington Street. The space on the second floor, with its configuration and natural light, was also perfect. I didn’t think of the consequences. It’s tough to do three restaurants and a boutique hotel at the same time!”
The hotel welcomed its first guests last September, and its restaurants – Automata and Kensington Street Social on the ground floor, and Silvereye on the second – soon after. Automata is helmed by chef Clayton Wells of ex-Momofuku Seiobo fame. Wells had also worked with Loh in the now- defunct Viajante in London, so there was a familiarity and ease between the two. In fact, it was Sydney native Wells who showed Loh around his city, introducing him to local eats. “He was a bit unsure about Chippendale at first, but, in the end, he was the first to sign up!” recalls Loh.
With Kensington Street Social, the hotel’s all-day dining venue, Loh turned to frequent collaborator Jason Atherton (Esquina, Pollen, The Study in Singapore and The Commune Social in Shanghai, among others). Atherton had never been to Sydney before but, on his first visit there for a food festival, Loh invited him to tour the site (then under construction), after which he promptly agreed to the venture. Australia-born executive chef Rob Daniels holds the reins when Atherton is away.
For Silvereye, Loh sought the smarts of Sam Miller, who trained under Rene Redzepi at Noma. The pair had known each other for some time, and kept in regular touch. Silvereye came about around the time that Miller was about to leave Noma. Naturally, Loh struck while the proverbial iron was hot. “There comes a time in a chef’s career when you know he’s ready to (strike out on his own). When I heard that he was leaving Noma, I knew he was looking for a challenge. I e-mailed him asking him to come take a look. He spent a week in Sydney. And that was it.”
Loh has proven his mettle in the global dining arena, but having three marquee chefs in one location still exerts the pressure to meet – and exceed – expectations. Together, Atherton, Miller and Wells are names not to be taken lightly, whether to the serious foodie or the casual gourmand. To assuage local palates and appeal to enthusiasts, Loh and the chefs made the conscious decision to inject a healthy dose of local flair into the cuisine, wine list and ambience.
Loh needn’t have worried too much. Wells, a born-and-bred Sydneysider, already has a cult following. UK-born Atherton, meanwhile, has a signature English style, but Australia’s close cultural ties with the UK mean that his food is not a huge challenge for local taste buds. Even British-born Miller, the most experimental of the three, has a menu designed around local ingredients. “So we have a very strong Australian core in all three restaurants, but in very different styles,” says Loh.
Ultimately, Loh maintains that Sydney has a very progressive dining scene. “If you look at recent openings like Noma (which ran a 10-week-long pop-up in Barangaroo in January 2016), it’s one of the most sophisticated dining markets in the world. What do we add to that? Nothing. We’re not looking to change the scene. We’re not that pretentious! We just want to succeed, carve our own little niche. We want to be part of the landscape.”
Judging by the favourable reviews he has received so far, Loh seems well on his way to success. So much so that should an opportunity arise to start a new project in Sydney or Melbourne, he would “do it in a heartbeat”.
“It’s a good market for us to be in!”, he says. And the market will be all the better for it, we say.
Chippo’s Latest Haunts, Plus Other Top Tables in Sydney
A two-hour drive north of Sydney takes you into Hunter Valley, the heart of New South Wales’ wine country. Here are some not-to-be-missed vineyards and cellar doors.
DRINK IN THE VIEW
In a setting that could well be the backdrop for a Ralph Lauren ad, fourth-generation boutique winemaker Keith Tulloch produces some of the region’s finest semillons at his eponymous winery. Drunk young, they have a crisp quality with vibrant citrus notes; aged, they develop complex, toasty, vanilla flavours. We recommend lunching at the on- site restaurant Muse and popping into the adjacent gourmet chocolatier, Cocoa Nib. Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. www.keithtullochwine.com.au
Sprawled across 28ha of land, Tallavera Grove resembles (and rivals) the best that Tuscany or Provence has to offer. Sagrantinos, shirazes, vermentinos and verdelhos are the order of the day here, with our bet going to the 2014 Shiraz – it has a rounded character that mellows out into a long, elegant finish. The adjacent Bistro Molines provides a setting worthy of Vogue Living. 749 Mount View Road, Mount View. www.tallaveragrove.com.au
160 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE
One of Australia’s best-known labels is also one of its oldest: Tyrrell’s Wines was established almost 160 years ago and is still owned by the founding family. Occupying 106ha in a prime Hunter Valley locale, the vineyard produces chardonnays, pinot noirs, semillons and shirazes. Highly prized right now are the 2010 and 2014 vintages of Vat 1 Semillon, the latter winning the 2014 Wine of Provenance Trophy in Adelaide. 1838 Broke Road, Pokolbin. www.tyrrells.com.au
MULTIPLE SWEET ENDINGS
A relative newcomer to the scene with just over 20 years of production behind it, this boutique winery is loved for its Bluegrass Cabernet Sauvignon – a big, muscular, fruit-driven varietal that, according to winemaker Brett Woodward, is the one that keeps ‘em coming back for more. But we also suggest trying the luscious dessert wines such as muscat exclusive and sauternes supreme. 15 Marrowbone Road, Pokolbin. www.saddlerscreek.com
SAVOUR THE INTENSITY
Almost a quarter of Brokenwood Wines’ 64ha of vineyards is devoted to the production of its flagship varietal, the Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, named after original plans for the site which was earmarked as a cemetery for the town of Pokolbin, although it was never used as such. Boasting extraordinarily concentrated berry flavours, the wine has been rated Exceptional by the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine every year since 2010. 401-427 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin. www.brokenwood.com.au.