You found a hidden gem? A place for celebration? A kitchen that speaks your love language?
DINERS' CHOICE 2019 wants you to relive your food memories by dining out at restaurants you love.
Take a gastronomic trip down memory lane with some of our favourite Singapore foodies.
Flushed cheeks, beads of sweat and locked eyes — a blossoming romance, or a night out at a mala buffet?
Clichés are generous when it comes to how food and love intertwine, and we submit to all of them. After all, we know how important it is to find the right partner, just like how we need to have a restaurant that’s our ride or die.
|Who was the person who was instrumental to the start of your food journey?
My mum taught me how to cook since I was very young. Food was a necessity because we grew up humbly. I learnt how to cook a Cantonese-Hakka hybrid — simple stuff like rice and soup. When I started living on my own, I started experimenting and learned how to cook Western cuisine.
mezza9’s your usual hangout whenever you’re in town. What’s special about this place?
I’ve always enjoyed coming to the Hyatt. Before StraitsKitchen’s renovation, it was called PLUMS, a favourite hangout after theatre back in the ‘90s. We used to finish around 11pm, so this was one of the very few hotels that had food available for all the hungry actors after the show.
A lot of people don’t realise that the Japanese counter at mezza9 has omakase — it’s not on the menu. I would just come to the chef and say, “Okay chef, I don’t know what to order, I’m hungry”, and he would whip up this amazing omakase. I know the chef for so many years, and the servers are all my friends. I feel like I’m home.
|How did your love affair with Japanese food begin?
When I was younger, Japanese food was expensive. Sashimi and sushi were very foreign to me. The thought of raw fish was always, “Kill me!”, you know? But now when I get to eat fresh food like that, it’s a real treat — I do my happy bum dance! Besides the Japanese counter, I also order the Hong Kong-style steamed fish from the Chinese counter. It’s fresh and sustainable, which I think is important.
Life is meant to be lived out loud — on the ‘gram or IRL. Whether you’re capturing inside jokes or showering in confetti at your favourite bar, your favourite place has been there, done that.
| Have you recreated dishes that you’ve tried in restaurants before?
Very rarely, actually, but there’s a Joel Robuchon dish that I’ve tried. It’s a mille-feuille of crab and tomato. It requires very precise knife skills and at the end, it should look very pretty. I could never get it right. It’s a dish that I’ve tried to replicate five or six times. It’s still not as pretty as the original, but it’s a challenge and I kind of like that.
Why is Cheek Bistro one of your favourite restaurants in Singapore?
Rishi and Manuela [husband-and-wife team behind the restaurant] are good friends. They’re incredible people, and Cheek holds a lot of memories for me. There’s an energy that is hard to replicate in Singapore. I think few restaurants do it right.
I like the laksa ice cream with pomelo and spicy green chilli sauce. That was a conversation starter when Cheek first started. No one was doing anything even close to it. It’s a dish that is difficult to comprehend, but when you actually eat it, it all comes together and makes sense.
|Where’s a restaurant in Singapore that you always go for celebrations?
Odette is number one because the food is always amazing. Not just the food, but the front-of-house is probably the best in Singapore. It always makes sure you’re well taken care of. If you tell them it’s a special celebration, they’ll do something special for you, and I think that’s what it’s all about.
Fine dining is not accessible to everyone — I think most people do it once or twice a year. And if you do go to a restaurant, you want to make sure that you’re going to have a good time. Odette delivers on all fronts. Julien Royer’s an incredible chef. This past year has been incredible for him — number one in Asia and three Michelin stars — and I think there’s no one else that deserves it.
Where is your happy place? Everyone has that one spot in Singapore where you can totally be yourself, escape humdrum routines in a sweet sanctuary, and tuck into comfort food in a place that feels like home.
|What is comfort food to you, and where in Singapore do you go?
It’s Teochew Muay at Ye Shang Hai. It’s pretty much just a coffee shop underneath a block. I first had it when I was visiting Singapore during school holidays from Perth — maybe when I was 10? I remember thinking, “There’s so much variety!”. My mum is Teochew, and there were certain dishes she chose that are the same dishes I eat till now: Chai po egg, salted egg, and luffa, a vegetable that’s a type of gourd.
Is there a restaurant in Singapore where the staff know you by name and know your order each time?
I think the first place where I noticed this was at Ronin, and that was because it was the coffeeshop right opposite my office. It’s also the first place I started drinking coffee. I had never drank coffee before — I was a solid tea drinker. They knew me as the soy latte girl. Vincent, the owner, and his staff, were very personable.
Is there a restaurant in Singapore that you love to be alone at — where you can really unwind?
I’m not really a solitary diner. That said, the place where I’ve had the most solitary meals — because I might be there working — would be Straits Clan, whether it’s at Clan Cafe or at the bar. Typically, there’s always somebody who will drop in and chat, so it ends up going from a solitary meal to one with friends.
Before I sit down, the staff will ask, “Oh, is it the XO fish bee hoon today? Or the bak kut teh?”. I’m a sucker for the otah sandwich at Clan Café.
You’ve been craving for Spanish food ever since your trip to Primavera Sound in Barcelona in 2018! What makes Olivia Restaurant & Lounge legit?
The first time I came, I felt transported before I even tried the food. It was the service. Everyone had a personality. Whether it was the waiter who came over or the person who sat me, everyone had an opinion on what to order. I find that refreshing. I’m not a fan of subservient service, which I think is very Asian.
Every dish I’ve ever had here was like, “Woah”. If you can keep coming back to a restaurant and discover something else that you’ve not tried that is amazing — that is a good restaurant.
Olivia Restaurant & Lounge
Ye Shang Hai
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of discovering something for the first time. Whether it’s a chef who’s reimagined your childhood dish, trying a new cuisine that’s sparked wanderlust in you, here’s to restaurants that constantly surprise you.
When was the last time you tried a dish that really left an impression?
I’ve been to Shisen Hanten by Chen Kentaro a few times and I always order the same thing. That one time, they had the turbot and garoupa in a milky fish broth with Szechuan and Shishito peppers.
Do you remember a meal you had recently that changed your perspective about an ingredient?
I had some mustard at Le Bon Funk. I’ve never had mustard like that, and it was a mustard that chef Keirin Buck made himself. It surprised me. He served it with charcuterie, and obviously when it comes to charcuterie, his is one of the best you’ll get. I never thought I’d make my own mustard. It was pretty on point — the flavour and texture… there’s a freshness to it. You knew that it was not store-bought mustard.
|Is there a chef who really shares your ethos on food and cooking?
Sam Aisbett, who used to be at Whitegrass. I know he’s not in Singapore anymore, but we both agree on food philosophy. I work with logic when it comes to food — the fact that you need acidity, sweetness and sourness. It’s about balancing all these things around it, and then giving it an edge that you can’t get anywhere else. He’s the same as well. We both like to make things a little prettier than it should be.
Chefs don’t get to dine out as often as people think they do. Where do you go when you have the time?
I love Imperial Treasure. I usually go back to my staples. We only get Sunday off, so there aren't many places that are open on Sunday. Imperial Treasure always is. I get their peking duck, and I love their deep fried soon hock with soy sauce and scallions.
Shisen Hanten by Chen Kentaro
Le Bon Funk