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Patrick Heuberger has come full circle. It’s as if the stars have mapped out a career plan for him since his arrival in Singapore in 2001 to helm the fine dining French restaurant Au Petit Salut – one of the pioneer tenants in hipster colony Dempsey Village. Now, 17 years and a varied career later, he’s back where he began, to take over the now tired-looking three storey structure and revive it as a place of his own.
As far as chefs go, chef Heuberger hasn’t strayed far from the path of classic, rustic French cooking. And his concept for his new restaurant Atout – French for “trump card”, “chance of success” – revolves around fresh, seasonal ingredients and casual food you can nibble on during the day, or sit-down meals for lunch and dinner.
Now 44, chef Heuberger had his eye on the space when he decided to go back into the restaurant business after working at Huber’s Butchery for almost two years.
“My ex-boss, Alice Low, had renovated the restaurant last year, but I decided to approach her, since you never know until you try.” As it turned out, Ms Low agreed, as she had plans to retire. “But I didn’t want to take over the Au Petit Salut branding,” says chef Heuberger. “It’s too upmarket. I wanted to do something more casual, where you can come at any time of the day, and you don’t have to have a full meal.”
Soft-opened on Mar 12, Atout takes up two of three floors (the top level is rented out to a new bar concept) and has three dining areas, one of them outdoors. The chef himself will man a charcuterie counter serving salads, rillettes and cold cuts, most of them made in-house by him. The hot kitchen will be manned by executive chef Nelson Chua, a Les Amis alumnus who was last at the Poulet group of casual restaurants. He’s cooking up Heuberger classics such as 40-garlic roasted chicken, duck confit, six kinds of grain and grass-fed beef and a good seafood selection cooked over a charcoal grill.
One specialty they’re bringing in is smoked cod liver, which supposedly tastes just like foie gras at a fraction of the price. There’s also a retail shop, and they are also bringing in lots of lesser known old world wines, priced from S$60 to S$80.
Finally, the chef feels he has finally settled into a groove since he quit the highly successful Bistro du Sommelier that he opened four years ago after leaving Au Petit Salut. It was doing well, but he was over-worked, which was affecting his ability to conceive a child with his wife.
Wanting a slower pace of life and to fulfil his dream of learning charcuterie in France, he sold out and took off to Paris to hone his skills, where he represented Singapore in the Best Caterer of the world contest – placing third after France and Switzerland. He came back to start a small retail outlet in a Clementi condo development, which morphed into a restaurant and again, became hard to control. His wife was pregnant at the time, and he decided to join Huber’s for regular working hours and to learn more about meat. “It was a great training opportunity, but now I feel I’m ready to go out on my own again. I already have a reputation for charcuterie and meat, with a lot of followers. I’m still young enough – I have at least another 10 years.”
(RELATED: Patrick Heuberger on Asian-style charcuterie)
He’s backed by a local investor who has been a friend and supporter since Bistro du Sommelier days, while the front of house is managed by fellow Frenchman Jean-Philippe Joye, a veteran who’s worked at Culina and five-star hotels around the world.
“My motto is ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’,” says chef Heuberger. Hopefully, he’ll have a good few happy years to pursue that.
LES AMIS GROUP
The Les Amis Group is at it again. Just when it seemed to be in a lull in its expansion activities, it’s kickstarted again with a slew of openings in Singapore over the next couple of months.
The sleepy second floor of Shaw Centre will come alive with the highly-anticipated opening of Mui Kee, the permanent outpost of the famous Hong Kong congee eatery, after a successful pop-up at Casa Verde in Botanic Gardens. Opening end March, it offers fans of the velvety smooth Cantonese congee a wider menu to choose from including claypot dishes, steamed rice noodles and side items.
And if it’s hard to find a niche in the proliferation of Japanese restaurants in town, the new Jinjo is set to buck the trend of sushi and ramen joints. Scheduled to open in April, this modern sumiyaki emphasises the art of grilling, where the quality of ingredients is the main draw. Fresh supplies are expected to come four times a week, featuring signatures such as Alaskan king crab and black throat sea perch from Ishikawa.
Another first is its donabe menu – featuring beef, truffle, uni or crab rice cooked in traditional claypots.
Its acclaimed pastry chef Cheryl Koh has also moved her tiny Tarte shop from her ground floor spot to a larger space on the second floor, with dine-in options. The menu is larger, incorporating savoury croissant sandwiches and cakes in addition to her signature tarts.
Her old space has been taken over by La Strada, the group’s Italian restaurant, which is being renovated and will re-open at the end of the month.
According to a group spokesperson, part of the reason for the expansion is to bring more buzz to the second floor of Shaw Centre. “With the departure of Vinum, which used to occupy three shop spaces, we had the opportunity to launch three more concepts in its place.
We are also busy refreshing some of our older concepts which have been around for over 10 years, such as Bistro Du Vin and Peperoni Pizzeria.”
It’s also adding on to its overseas operations with a new NamNam Noodle Bar in Seminyak Bali, “a full-service, mid-market casual restaurant with full bar service”.
“The group is always on the lookout for interesting concepts to introduce to those residing in Singapore, and even abroad. To us, it is all about launching a concept that serves good food, regardless of the cuisine and price point.”
Fat Lulu’s – that cult favourite of hipster diners drawn to the “#noburnnotaste” Asian barbecue by Sam Chablani and desserts by Pang Ji Shuang – is closing down on Mar 18. But wait – not for good, as the duo is set to open Version 2.0 in larger premises, although chef Chablani is tight-lipped about what the new place will be like and even if the name will stay.
“We started two years ago on a tiny opening budget and took a gamble on my cuisine, Asian barbecue,” says chef Chablani. “A restaurant with two chefs – barbecue and dessert – has always been a hard sell, but we now know more than ever Singaporeans love our food.”
While profitable, servicing and maintenance of the conservation building it’s in has eaten into its balance sheet to the point that “moving away to another location would better serve our concept”.
Chef Chablani will take a break for a few months to “come up with new stuff” and re-open in the fourth quarter of the year in an undisclosed location but it will “definitely be a central location”.
And as a teaser, “We will continue to work with premium meats and specially sourced seafood as part of our main menu. We do not believe in exorbitant prices, it’s always about value – an approachable dining experience with funky yet familiar food and desserts in an unpretentious setting.” They haven’t decided on a name yet, “but it will be focused on the spirit of Lulu’s”.
Chef Chablani freely admits it’s tough going in the F&B business. “Quoting Elon Musk, ‘You gotta be wired for this.’ In the last two years, the restaurant has drained me physically, mentally and socially. It’s pushed me not only as a chef, but also into thinking how to bring value and more revenue to the restaurant. But I’m blessed with friends who have supported my style of cooking and enabled me to take my food to the next level.”
This story was originally published in The Business Times.