When news broke of the closure of Sky on 57 to make way for a new concept, many wondered what chef Justin Quek’s next move would be.
His culinary comeback in Singapore continues with a much-anticipated new chapter – two restaurant openings at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands Singapore, one in May and the other in June. This time, on his own terms.
While the two restaurants with distinct concepts (Justin – Flavours of Asia, and Chinoiserie) are at opposite ends of the price spectrum, they are still quintessentially Justin Quek. “I appreciate hawker fare as much as I do fine cuisine. I believe that good food is not defined by its price tag, which is why I’ve created two concepts at different price levels. Breakfast at Justin starts from $8, lunch from $12 and dinner from $25,” he says.
Quek is widely acknowledged as the person who proved that home-grown chefs can cook at the highest level, with the opening of French fine-dining restaurant Les Amis in 1994, starting a culinary revolution in the Singapore food scene and inspiring many young chefs in the process. After a decade at the helm, he left and spread his culinary wings overseas. The invitation by Marina Bay Sands (MBS) to be the principal chef at Sky on 57 in 2010 marked his culinary homecoming, and he remains among the constellation of celebrity chefs at MBS. “After spending seven years at Sky on 57, I know the crowd and their demands thoroughly. I like the diversity of the audience,” he says. At Justin (it opened in May) and Chinoiserie, he will be building on what he started at Sky on 57 but pushing the envelope as much as possible.
On the ground level near the event plaza where MBS’ Spectra – Light and Water Show takes place twice every evening, against a backdrop of the Singapore skyline and the Fullerton Heritage precinct across Marina Bay, patrons at the casual all-day-dining restaurant Justin enjoy a changing panorama of scenes throughout the day, from breakfast to supper (it closes at 2am). The Asylum- designed 50-seater, split between indoors and outdoors, serves Quek’s take on Singaporean classics. “There is no better location for locals and travellers to have a 360-degree immersive experience of Singapore,” he says.
“ JUSTIN AND CHINOISERIE ARE DISTINCTLY AND UNIQUELY SINGAPOREAN – IF NOT UNIQUELY JUSTIN QUEK.”
– Justin Quek, celebrated Singapore chef
Using premium ingredients, the dishes executed at his inimitable level will open diners’ eyes to different facets of food that they thought they were familiar with.
A Singapore-style breakfast can be had: soft-boiled eggs, breakfast kaya and French butter on brioche bread, with kopi made using Vittoria coffee. There’s also prawn and pork belly noodle soup made with live crustaceans; and Quek’s signature mee siam. Express executive lunches will be available and could be nasi campur or claypot rice. When teatime comes around, order an ice cream sandwich a la Justin Quek: salted gula java ice cream on toasted brioche bread, or a Goreng Pisang “Split” of salted gula java and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and banana fritters. The happy-hour crowd can look forward to light bites such as his signature foie gras xiao long bao, and charcoal-grilled New Zealand lamb leg satay with cocktails and Asahi beer. As night falls, the wok fires up for some good ol’ zi char dishes such as Kampot Black Pepper Beef, Quek’s signature Sweet & Sour Iberico Pork “Goo Lou Yok”, and live seafood – including the iconic Singapore chilli crab – cooked to your preference. For supper, Quek offers his popular wok-fried Hokkien noodle with live Maine lobster and frog claypot porridge.
A level down is Chinoiserie, a name that evokes Quek’s Chinese roots and his French culinary training. The 75-seater is also designed by Asylum and will be plush, luxurious and decked out in valuable artwork, featuring fine linen, silverware, crystalware, Limoges show plates and ikebana-esque pieces.
“This is my return to the fine-dining scene where I first made my mark, and it could not be further from Les Amis. It is not just about presentation or gueridon service; the French fine-dining spirit is part and parcel of the restaurant and guides us in the selection of ingredients, execution in the kitchen and service of what are essentially Asian dishes. It’s a harmonious integration of the West with the East,” says Quek. “The wine list is compact, with just over a hundred wines, but it will feature rare wines with sought-after vintages and large formats.”
The prix fixe menus that showcase Chinoiserie’s highlights start at $128, but there’s also a family set menu at a friendlier price point. You could also request the omakase menu, for which the sky is the limit. “I have done $1,000 per head menus before, but I truly believe in delivering value and keeping it reasonably accessible,” says Quek. Examples of dishes appearing on the prix fixe menus are steamed egg custard with mud crab in a superior broth for amuse bouche, nam yu- braised wagyu oxtail with sea cucumber and chestnut for main, and durian fritter with coconut anglaise for dessert. (Nam yu is red fermented beancurd.)
With 35 years of cooking experience under his belt, Quek considers these two concepts to represent that he has come full circle. “This is a representation of who I am: a true-blue Singaporean Teochew who loves Asian and Chinese food, yet with an embedded spirit of French haute cuisine. I am a different person now – older and wiser, more travelled, having seen and tasted so much more.”
Having observed global trends, he believes in these two concepts and the popularity of Singaporean and South-east Asian flavours, so much so that he opened 星洲老 (Xing Zhou Lao Ye, as Justin is called in Chinese) in Beijing last year. He will be launching many more concepts showcasing South-east Asian flavours across China in the coming months. He’s also put prawn noodles and nasi campur on the business class menu of Hainan Airlines. He says: “Justin and Chinoiserie are distinctly and uniquely Singaporean – if not uniquely Justin Quek!” Singapore’s dining scene is about to get even more exciting, and we can’t wait.
French pastry-trained chef Pang Kok Keong digs deep into his Hakka roots.
When one thinks of Antoinette chef-owner Pang Kok Keong, macarons and multi- tiered wedding cakes are more likely to come to mind than traditional Hakka kueh. Recently though, he’s started Hakka Snacks; check out the availability on Facebook, order via Whatsapp and pick up your order at the alley behind Antoinette in Penhas Road. Questioned on this unusual method of collection, he jokingly answered: “Because we are hipster?”
For the past two years, Pang, who is Hakka, has participated in the annual Kueh Appreciation Day, organised by Slow Food (Singapore) as part of Singapore Food Festival, selling his homemade Hakka kueh and abacus seeds.
“With the encouraging response, I felt that I could channel the same energy and commitment I create pastry into making my heritage dishes,” he says. “I research a lot, talk to my mum, and conducted tests to create the taste of yesteryear.” So far, he’s produced steamed leek kueh, abacus seeds, yam cake and the recently released mugwort kueh.
As he creates the recipes from scratch, Pang does tweak the texture of the dough and upgrades the ingredients used for a finer touch. His leek kueh are delicate sealed rice-flour pockets of stir-fried Chinese leek, dried shrimp, beancurd and garlic. The mugwort-flavoured plump glutinous pouches are filled with a generous amount of ingredients including white radish, turnip, Chinese mushroom, minced pork and dried shrimp. “These are the items that I feel are good enough to sell; we’ll be adding products periodically,” he says
Chef Willin Low constantly redraws the cuisine he puts on the Singapore map.
“When I coined the term Mod-Sin to describe my cuisine 13 years ago, some people thought that it was going to be a trend or a fad. However, today, it is clear that it’s no longer considered having a cult following, but is mainstream,” says chef-owner Willin Low of Wild Rocket. Not only has Low proven the longevity of his concept, he is often held up as the poster boy for a style of food that other local chefs are trying to create, though whether they’ll have the same degree of success remains to be seen.
His latest menu refresh shows how much he has matured in terms of his creativity: A trio of mushrooms ravioli in a truffle and shiitake consomme is intense and layered, black vinegar Iberico pork jowl “ter kar chor” is smoky and balanced. “Over the years, my flavour profiles have become a little more understated,” says Low. His other omakase creations that have been injected with much finesse include his modern version of the Teochew orh nee dessert: dollops of yam paste and purple sweet potato puree with puff pastry, share plate space with a sprinkling of sweet and savoury aromatic shallots and candied lard.
Sometimes dishes evolve. “Our chendol started as a pandan panna cotta with gula melaka and became an instant hit – the late chef Charlie Trotter loved it. And then one day, we added salt to the gula melaka syrup and the dish sang. A couple of years later, we made coconut ice cream with pure coconut milk and served it with the chendol. Later, we made crunchy honeycomb with gula melaka to add on to it. We still keep true to the spirit of the original dish,” Low elaborates.