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Indie Diners Take An Alternative Approach

In a dining scene dominated by Goliaths, independent restaurants are playing their part by adding pops of colour to the landscape in their own unique ways.

HOME TRUTHS
Immigrants Gastrobar | www.immigrants-gastrobar.com

Immigrants-Gastrobar

Its humble-looking yet flavour-packed buah keluak fried rice ignited a passionate debate about the value of local cuisine. “With Immigrants, we have chosen a different path that allows us to follow our passion,” says co-owner Michael Tay (left), 55, of the two- and-a-half-year-old gastrobar. “In our own independent way, we are seeking answers to a few simple questions: How do you keep our Singapore heritage dishes alive? How do you educate Singaporeans to value our own cuisine? It is an uphill task trying to correct the widely held assumption that only Western/European food can achieve gourmet quality and are therefore worth paying for.”

Indeed, Immigrants is Tay and chef-partner Damian D’Silva’s (far left) way of keeping the forgotten foods of Singapore alive and educating the public about its intricacies. “We cook dishes from every ethnic group in Singapore. For a chef to be competent to do this takes years. My head chef, who has been with me for 10 years, is capable of executing maybe 30 per cent of my repertoire. In comparison, a chef working in a European kitchen would be able to grasp about 90 per cent of the knowledge on his restaurant’s cuisine within five years,” analyses D’Silva.

Some would say that they are taking the hard way out. For Tay and D’Silva, 58, it’s about sticking to their purpose – which has more to it than that of large corporations whose sole objective is profit. “Independent restaurants truly hold the key to Singapore’s culinary future,” says Tay. “They tend to have an intimate gourmet mission to achieve, a unique concept to purvey, a young chef to showcase, a camaraderie of friends taking a risk…all of which make for a more vibrant local scene.” D’Silva admits that independent start-ups would probably not make money as quickly or as easily – “but the satisfaction of having repeat customers, especially when people mention that your dishes are better than grandma’s, is priceless”.

LATE-NIGHT BROOKLYN BISTRO
Fordham & Grand | www.fng.com.sg

Fordham-&-Grand

Considering owner-manager Timothy Lim’s background in fine dining (one recalls names such as Tetsuya’s in Sydney and Restaurant Andre), an intimate speakeasy-cum-supper joint serving bistro-style fare was not quite what the industry expected of his first independent move in January 2013. But we’re glad he stuck by Fordham & Grand: Where else would we have our fix of lobster linguine and steak and frites at 2am? It’s a place for friends by friendly folk, and Lim attributes it to the intimate size of the team. “Being small allows us to be intimate – rather than intimidating – with our guests on most levels, from how the food and cocktails are prepared to the way service is delivered,” he says. For Lim, 32, independent restaurants like Fordham & Grand play a critical role in providing much-needed variety in the food and beverage landscape, in terms of “vibe, energy and choices”. However, he also throws in practical advice for those eager to jump into the trade. “F&B is very competitive in Singapore. Being able to survive the first year before carrying on to the next requires nerve, passion and sufficient finances. Hang in there!”

THE ORIGINAL MOORISH REBEL
Artichoke | www.artichoke.com.sg

Artichoke

Defying the odds for a four-year-old restaurant in a fickle market where diners flock to the newest and trendiest, Middle Eastern-inspired Artichoke remains firmly on the radar of local gastronomes. Fans swear by irreverent chef-owner Bjorn Shen’s outrageously generous and robust-flavoured dishes such as the Lambgasm (slow-roasted 2.8kg lamb leg with fall-off-the-bone meat, accompanied with a selection of mezzes) and a ridiculously thick-cut maple-smoked bacon chop. Matched with an unpretentious vibe and a stiff commitment to local produce, it’s a winning formula.

Shen – a self-trained chef and self-styled restaurateur with no experience in the F&B trade, prior to opening Artichoke – quotes a lack of red tape and the ability to react to spontaneity as the main benefits of being a free-standing restaurant, believing that Artichoke’s constant evolution is the reason why it is still a top pick after so many years. Sticking to one restaurant also allows him to be extremely involved and thus steer the ship to success, something that he
feels “an executer” can’t do as well as the visionary – or the one who has money at stake. And of course, the 32-year-old realises that many support Artichoke “because we’re the underdog… a small restaurant doing something cool”. His advice to new independent restaurateurs: “Don’t try to recreate Momofuku or attempt to be French Laundry – be 100 per cent yourself and stick to your guns. Don’t diversify just to get bums on seats!”

INDO-FRENCH REVOLUTION
Table at 7 | www.tableat7.com

Table-at-7

Armed with 60 years of experience between them, Karl Dobler and Eugenia Ong, both in their early 50s, set out to serve both European and modern Indonesian cuisine under the same roof when they opened Table at 7. Four years later, a steady stream of regulars and new customers is proving their unconventional concept successful. The duo also specialises in catering for private events, serving signature dishes like twice cooked, Manado-style Kurobuta pork to esteemed guests, including Singapore’s president and ministers and their foreign counterparts.

Ong admits that their modest scale means they have a hands-on approach to everything, from cooking behind the stoves to handling the marketing of the restaurant, but, “though the multi-tasking is challenging, it is also really satisfying”. Staying small not only lets both chef-owners “render personal attention to every detail”, but also allows them to “mingle and befriend customers”. She is fully convinced that establishments such as theirs have bright futures ahead, as long as they have passion and commitment, because “independent restaurants are like artists… We pursue perfection, offer unique and authentic creations, and continuously innovate to keep patrons interested”.

SINGAPOREAN DREAM 2.0
Labyrinth | www.labyrinth.com.sg

Labyrinth

The 29-year-old Han Li Guang’s molecular riff on chilli crab and his chendol xiao long bao creation made waves when his restaurant opened its doors in February this year. It has been a while since anyone attempted the dicy cuisine of “Mod-Sin” , but the chef-owner (together with three minority shareholders) decided to challenge the stigma – and emerged triumphant.

Han embraces his autonomy as he thrives on creativity: “It is great to have no corporate- management structure telling you what to do.” After all, to create an inventive menu like Labyrinth’s, “boundaries are pushed and sometimes we fail – but at least there are no strings pulling us back”. This freedom is not only good for the owners – Labyrinth’s diminutive size of just 20 seats means that every staff has “a true voice”. And with such a small team, “there’s no need to play politics, as hard work and talent speak for themselves – especially when the boss is in the kitchen every day!” He also heaves a sigh of relief because, unlike big companies, “there is no pressure to reach short-term profits by cutting costs, lowering prices or compromising on the quality of produce”.