The bumper crop of 11 restaurants awarded their first Michelin star at the unveiling of the Michelin Guide Singapore's second edition last Thursday was less controversial than last year's list. No hawkers were given stars and there were no shockers - such as the highly regarded Waku Ghin being given the same one star as a bak chor mee stall (Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle). If you're hungry for some bak chor mee but lack the patience to queue for Tai Hwa, here are five other joints to get your fix sorted. The Japanese fine-dining restaurant helmed by chef Tetsuya Wakuda in Marina Bay Sands has been bumped up to two stars this time.
Still, the new entrants will provoke questions on how deserving they are of the recognition. So how good are they?
Where: 05-02, 52 Boat Quay
Info: Call 6866-1933
With just 16 seats, it is the intimate dining experience that sets this Italian restaurant apart. The open kitchen takes up half the space, so dining here is almost like being in someone's home.
Chef-owner Beppe de Vito who takes pride in using ingredients that evoke memories of his childhood in the southern Italian countryside, including olive oil from his own grove in Puglia. The food may not be fine dining, but the cooking is well-executed and flavours work well most of the time.
Pasta dishes here are amazing. As is the fact that de Vito is a self- taught chef who started his career running the front-end operations of restaurants. The Michelin star should quell any lingering doubt that he can cook.
Where: 02-02B One Fullerton, 1 Fullerton Road
Info: Call 6438-0887
Since moving back to town from Sentosa early last year and repositioning itself as a fine-dining restaurant, Saint Pierre has been pushing itself really hard to get noticed. And, I suspect, earn a Michelin star.
After a shaky debut menu by chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant, an executive chef came in to help him overhaul the offerings. He left after less than a year, however, and a new head chef, Kim Kevin de Dood, now does the cooking. A team of excellent service staff was also put in place. Obviously, all these efforts have now borne fruit.
I managed to squeeze in lunch at the restaurant last week and found the $58, three-course menu very fine for its price.
Except for a slightly fishy smoked hamachi among the starters, the other dishes were well-executed and had good ingredients. I especially enjoyed the Ohmi wagyu striploin (with $18 supplement, above) for its tenderness and good flavour (and here are five other spots to get your wagyu desires satiated if you can't book a seat at Saint Pierre). My dessert of Willamette pear espuma with parmesan crumb was sublime and looked lovely too, with its velvety foam head.
It is certainly impressive how the restaurant has turned itself around after going the mid-market route during its time in Sentosa. Who says you can't get what you want if you put your heart into it.
Cheek by Jowl
Where: 21 Boon Tat Street
Info: Call 6221-1911
Sri Lanka-born chef Rishi Naleendra has been a name to watch since he arrived in Singapore two years ago from Australia. His dishes are very original as he takes influences from different parts of the world to come up with creations that surprise the palate.
There is nothing you would have eaten anywhere else before, which makes dining here an adventure to look forward to - even if you may not like every dish. The one star is well-deserved and I am glad the chef's rare talent has been recognised by the Michelin inspectors.
Where: 01-26/27 Chijmes, 30 Victoria Street
Info: Call 6837-0402
Whitegrass has been getting rave reviews since it opened early last year. Australian chef Sam Aisbett's food, which takes influences from around the world, is interesting in presentation and flavours. I remember the bronze crab that flipped its back shell open to reveal a delicious Alaskan crab roll.
Like many modern restaurants, dishes are loaded with a long list of ingredients. It takes skill and a keen sensibility to ensure everything works well together and Aisbett has that. So the diner does not wonder what a certain ingredient is doing on the plate, as very often happens.
I am not always keen to find too many things on my plate but, in the case of Whitegrass, I'll make an exception. I have not tried the latest menu, so the Michelin star is impetus for me to find out what new ideas the chef has.
Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine
Where: 03-05 Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn
Info: Call 6736-2118
This Teochew restaurant by the Imperial Treasure group moved from Takashimaya Shopping Centre last December and now boasts swish and spacious interiors that probably helped it nab its star. The cooking is just as deserving of the accolade, boasting a refinement that is closer to the Hong Kong style of Teochew cuisine than the rougher local style. Flavours are less in your face, more elegant and clean.
Try the marinated items, such as sliced duck meat, pig's intestine and pork knuckle, which are steeped in a light yet aromatic marinade. The baby oysters in flour omelette, another traditional Teochew dish, is good too.
Where: Level 3, Regent Singapore Hotel
Info: Call 6725-3288
I have been dining at Summer Palace since the 1980s and had always found it to be consistently good. So imagine my disappointment when I lunched there last weekend and found the dim sum substandard (maybe you can try this dimsum teahouse instead). The har kau (steamed shrimp dumpling) had a bland shrimp filling and the rice skin was too soft and sticky.
The squid ink dumpling, too, was almost tasteless. And the custard bun was less than fluffy, with the dough sticking to my palate.
Thankfully, the main dishes fared better. The chilled ladies' fingers with sesame sauce was a good idea and something I would try making at home. The smoked chicken was good, too, with its alluring aroma and juicy meat. I won't begrudge the restaurant its star, but it must really do something about its dim sum.
Where: Level 3 Hilton Singapore, 581 Orchard Road
Info: Call 6732-2234
I often hesitate to recommend Iggy's to friends because it has been one of the most inconsistent fine-dining restaurants in my experience. I have had wonderful meals there, followed by lacklustre ones, followed by excellent ones again. But at prices that go above $200 a person (here's a gauge of how much you might spend there), one is not inclined to take any chances. The problem is that the menu changes frequently. As does the chef, every few years.
But now with a Michelin star attached to the restaurant, perhaps chef Aitor Jeronimo Orive will stay and lend some stability to the cooking.
When I reviewed the restaurant just after he joined last September, there were minor problems - mainly to do with an overly enthusiastic use of salt. But from what I have been hearing, those problems are a thing of the past and good stuff is coming out of the kitchen.
Where: 01-02, 36 Purvis Street
Info: Call 6837-1468
This is one of the stalwarts among Italian restaurants here, having lasted 15 years in its spot in Purvis Street. It does not look dated, however, with its clean interiors of grey and brown tones that have stayed relevant all these years. The cooking by chef-owner Roberto Galetti has remained consistent too.
My four-course set dinner there last week did not unveil any surprises, just solid cooking of good ingredients such as tender and juicy roasted New Zealand baby lamb rack with broccolini and mint jelly. The spaghetti with Boston lobster, fresh tomatoes and basil was as classic as you could get, but I enjoyed the sweet lobster meat and the freshness of the sauce, as opposed to processed tomatoes. Ingredients used are seasonal (did anyone miss the white truffle season?), making sure they are the freshest of the lot.
It is all a bit old-fashioned perhaps, but as long as the food is good, that is never bad in my book.
Where: 25 Mackenzie Road
Info: Call 6238-6263
I have been a fan of chef Ang Song Kang, better known as chef Kang, for many years, having followed him through his many restaurants. It started with a zi char stall in Serangoon Central, then a Cantonese restaurant housed in a bungalow in Joo Chiat Road, then to his current three-table eatery opposite Rex cinema.
I would describe his cooking as homey dishes from a five-star chef (and we've sussed out an alternative for you should you be unable to grab reservations at Chef Kang's). A cheap and simple dish of loofah with egg white is my favourite dish here because nowhere else have I found this vegetable to be so sweet and soft.
One reason is that the chef looks for the best loofahs at the market each morning and if he does not find any he is happy with, the dish is taken off the menu that day. The soups are outstanding, too, with robust broths that are the result of meticulous, time-consuming steps that not many restaurant chefs or home cooks would invest their time in.
One of them has a chicken stuffed in a pig's stomach and boiled with peppercorns, while another has deep-fried chunks of garoupa boiled with olive seeds plus fried garlic and crispy lard added at the end to remove any hint of fishiness.
I am glad Michelin has discovered this unpolished gem that only locals knew about before. Although, now that tourists will be packing the place, I wonder what I will have to do to snag a table.
Where: 02-23 Esplanade Mall, 8 Raffles Avenue
Info: Call 6223-4098
Chef-owner Han Liguang turns Singapore's hawker dishes into Western fine-dining fare in his version of mod-sin or modern Singapore cooking (and you can find out more about mod-sin restaurants here). His ideas are cute and his technique sound. And, judging from my lunch there last week, he gets his flavours right most of the time.
Items such as a trio of starters served in a tingkat, comprising "radish cake, rojak and nasi lemak" taste spot on, even though they look nothing like the actual hawker dishes. In fact, I thought the nasi lemak looked like chwee kueh.
And his dish of Indonesian Pork Belly, inspired by Cantonese siew yoke or roast pork, boasts an amazing crispy crackling. The Michelin Guide seems to love this kind of playful cooking, which is why I think Bo Innovation in Hong Kong has been getting three stars despite the fact that the flavours of its dishes miss the mark half the time.
But Han tells me he is planning to change his direction, going towards traditional Singapore dishes and away from molecular gastronomy - even if it means the restaurant might lose its star next year. I think it is the right move. Why would anyone want to pay so much more for what imitates an Old Chang Kee curry puff (a dish called Spices in the menu) when one can buy an actual curry puff in a nearby mall?
The ideas may impress with their creativity, but not many people would go back for a second helping, with the actual hawker dishes being so cheap and readily available.
Where: 9 Keong Saik Road
Info: Call 6513-0898
This is probably the restaurant that gets the most heads shaking over its star. I had a good experience there when it opened in 2015, but it did not strike me as worthy of a Michelin star because there are so many eateries in Keong Saik Road alone that are just as good or even better.
South Korean chef Sun Kim cooks Western dishes with Asian touches and, while his technique is good, he sometimes holds back on the seasonings to avoid going too far into Asian territory. That may be a sound move, but it can also result in dishes that are neither here nor there.
So, will it follow in the footsteps of another restaurant that also focuses on using Asian ingredients in Western cooking and lose its star after a year? In the meantime, the chef still has more than six months to up his game.
This story first appeared on The Sunday Times, 2nd July 2017.