DESPITE mounting challenges, four newcomers have arrived on the competitive F&B scene armed with their own modern European concepts.
ROOTS KITCHEN BAR
30 Dickson Road
Open Wed to Mon, 11am to 11pm,
closed on Tues
Wander a little further east from Little India and you may chance upon a fancy eatery just off Jalan Besar. Ah, just another hipster cafe, you might think.
All the signs are there: the industrial-chic decor, a brunch menu and a bar offering speciality beers complete with a gleaming coffee machine.
But the team behind Roots Kitchen Bar have some chops.
Chef owner Alvin Tan started his career with the Les Amis group at Au Jardin. He went on to join Boathouse by Hidden Door Concepts at Fullerton Hotel, where he catapulted to head chef after his predecessor quit.
"It was tough going at first, I was only around 24 then, the youngest in the team of seven - it took time to gain their trust," said the 28-year-old.
After three years, the Shatec graduate moved overseas to private island resort Velassaru Maldives as sous chef, where he managed seven F&B concepts as third in charge.
He left last May and considered setting up shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, while holidaying there.
But ex-colleague at Boathouse Derek Ong, 28, convinced him to return to Singapore for a joint venture with two other partners.
Opened last September, the restaurant combines Mr Ong's business experience with chef Tan's upmarket sensibilities. While they do cater to the cafe- hopping crowd with items such as eggs benedict and caviar ($15), their menu puts them closer to Saveur than Toby's Estate. Best-sellers are in fact the soups and the mains.
"We're all about returning to the basics of cooking: We use real ingredients, we clean and fillet whole fishes ourselves, our soups are made from scratch and made to order - the mushroom, for instance, uses porcini - and we use a lot of root vegetables, it's all good, simple ingredients," said Mr Tan.
The idea is to keep costs down with oft-neglected ingredients while also sparing no effort or time in preparation.
"Take beef flank as an example: People misunderstand it as a cheap cut but it can compete with cuts with more marbling when done right. We butter-baste it after searing and layer the flavours on."
The flank is served as London broil, a full portion at just $22. Done French style, the well-seasoned steak is accompanied by creamy mash potatoes with heirloom carrots. Then, there are soups such as the roast tomato, with roasted peppers, chorizo and crab guacamole ($12).
Other dishes are likewise affordable versions of classic items on fine-dining menus. There is ocean crab pasta ($18), which is capellini coated in an intense lobster bisque sauce and topped with crab, or seared Atlantic sea bass served on a seafood fricassee ($24).
These offerings are a hit with expats and tourists, probably due to the surrounding boutique hotels and their strong presence on travel site TripAdvisor. It is encouraging, given that they hope to change foreign perceptions of the local scene.
"When I travel, I hear Westerners comment that standards in Asia are compromised by higher menu prices, lower service standards and poor quality of imported produce," said Mr Ong.
"And in Singapore, we don't have much room to fail - there are three main bugbears: rentals, labour and food cost. All are on the high side compared with, say, Indonesia, where only one or two components are costly."
Despite concerns, they are looking to expand by the end of the year, though plans are kept flexible for now.
21 Duxton Hill
Opens Mon to Sun, 5pm to midnight
The general consensus is Singaporeans are a tough bunch to please, especially when it comes to food. But the Russian-born owners of tapas bar La Champaneria - Anna and Sergey Apalkov - beg to differ.
The couple own two restaurants back home - an Italian coffeeshop and a French tapas bistro - and recently opened their first establishment here.
"In Russia, we have pictures of the food in our menu, and when something is just a little bit different, people say: 'I don't want this, bring me what's exactly in the picture.' Even if it's a difference of two or three leaves of salad," said Mr Apalkov.
"Or they might complain on the Internet and give two or three out of 10 points just because of, say, the toilet.
"But, in Singapore, people are more forgiving - at the very most, they send me a private message about it," said Mrs Apalkov.
The pair started their first restaurant about 10 years ago and at one point had four. They closed two of them and continued to run the other two as an alternative source of income even after moving to Singapore in 2008.
They were inspired to start La Champaneria after visiting a famous champaneria in Barcelona, Spain, and set up an exclusive agreement with a Catalunian manufacturer of Cava - a bubbly which is made using the same technology as French champagne.
Their menu carries four kinds of Cava, ranging from a Cava Brut ($6.50/glass, $30/bottle), to a Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva ($8.50/glass, $42/bottle) as well as some Cava-based cocktails ($10-13).
As for the food, they focus mostly on European-style tapas such as grilled octopus ($15), cured salmon on rosti ($14) and mussels in wine tomato sauce ($18).
They also have their own creations like a chilli crab dip ($18).
"I work with the chef and give him the direction because this place is like my home - I want it to have my personality," said Mrs Apalkov.
Her dream is to run a chain based on the same concept of Spanish Cava and tapas. And she remains unfazed by the manpower shortage that plagues the industry. "It's like this everywhere. It's not a Singaporean problem," she said.
"In Russia, the staff are less consistent in quality but more creative.
"Here, it's the other way around. There are pluses and minuses."
GILLS N SHELLS
500 Jalan Sultan, #01-19
Open Sun to Thurs, 11am to 11pm; Fri, Sat, eve of PH, 11am to 1am
Self-taught chef Podisingho Xavier has been in the F&B industry for almost two decades - a path he started on as a teenager when he had to cook for his three younger brothers after his dad died.
So it was a dream come true when he had the chance to open his own establishment - a modern European seafood restaurant named Gills N Shells.
"I never went to any culinary school - during my time, we never had those things. It's something I just had a passion for, that's why I wanted to open my own place," said the 42-year-old.
Gills N Shells opened about three weeks ago on the first floor of the new Hotel Boss at Jalan Sultan, with an al fresco area facing the Rochor River. It is run by Mr Xavier and his two co-founders - Jayson and Coreen Tan.
While Mr Tan still keeps his full-time job in sales and helps out with the backend work in his free time, his wife left her job in marketing to run the front-of-house.
At first glance, the menu seems typical of a seafood bistro.
It serves things such as live oysters ($22.90 for six, $39.90 for 12), clams and mussels in a clear spicy white wine broth ($15.90) and prawn aglio olio ($15.90).
But it also features some of chef Xavier's own creations, like baked oysters with bacon and cheese ($25.90 for six) and a pan-seared and baked cod ($24.90) topped with braised turnip infused with rum and chilli padi.
According to Mr Tan, one of the things that set their restaurant apart is that most of their food components are made in-house.
He said: "Everywhere, you have nicely decorated restaurants serving the same food because everyone gets it from the same supplier.
"But we want something that tastes different. Our burger bun is made here, the beef patty is made here, the tiramisu, the garlic bread, even the garlic spread - it's all made by our chef and kitchen staff."
Added chef Xavier: "I believe selling good food comes from the heart so I try to make my own things instead of buying them from a store."
999.99 (FIVE NINES)
29 Keong Saik Road
Open Mon to Sun, 6.30pm to midnight
It is not every day we hear of an IT company going into F&B but Japanese web marketing firm Stylez has launched eatery 999.99 in dining hot spot Keong Saik Road.
What connects the two businesses is just a passion for food, said Stylez chief executive Ryo Ito.
While noting that difficulties abound, particularly the scarcity of quality European produce, he believes that a strong Japanese ethos of Kaizen (improvement) will add to the industry.
"Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world in a wide variety of cuisines," he said, observing that the competition means only the best survive.
"There's an opportunity to bring that Japanese style of management and operation to Singapore - by offering better quality food and service at lower costs, compared with current offerings here."
Just over two months old, the 62-seater has got that industrial-chic look down pat so hipster foodies will feel right at home. There are exposed brick and cement walls, gold pipe detail, quirky lamps and a bar counter overlooking the open kitchen.
At the helm is head chef Masanao Saito, previously the Japanese ambassador's chef in Sweden.
His versatile menu seems designed to accommodate sit-down diners without alienating those who just want a chat over wine. It features an adequate selection of old and new world labels, while foodwise, there are cheese platters, charcuterie, crab croquettes, even oyster ajillo (all from $5 to $14), which make decent starters or bites.
For instance, in the king prawn kadaif ($12), the shrimps are wrapped delicately in shredded and deep-fried pastry, and served with a mild red pepper sauce reminiscent of sriracha.
For more satiating fare, there are mains ($16 to $23) which would not be out of place on a fine-dining menu - at least conceptually speaking.
The lamb chops and eggplant ($18) arrives dramatically under a bell jar filled with smoke.
It is the five-course set dinner which is a real steal at $59, comprising tuna, scallops, red snapper and a choice of either striploin steak, pork belly or lamb chops, plus dessert.
The eatery is already packed on weekends, which bodes well for its mix of culinary ambition and affordable prices.
THE BUSINESS TIMES