Cover Tatler Dining Guide reviewer Raelene Tan

Tan, who has been a Tatler reviewer for 25 years, looks back on how the island's dining scene has changed and where she anticipates it going next

Her rise to eminence was a rather fortuitous one. In 1980, Australia-born Raelene Tan was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student in the kitchen of Violet Oon, expanding her culinary dictionary under the tutelage of Oon. Led by an interest in Asian cooking styles and tastes, she continued pursuing the lessons with great zeal. Tan, who was in her 40s then, had come to Singapore from Australia almost a decade earlier. Later, when the grande dame of Singaporean cooking launched the now-defunct The Food Paper, she invited Tan to contribute as a writer. Tan’s first published article, chronicling the “correct way” to drink Japanese sake caught the eye of Landmark Books. The boutique publishing house then commissioned her to write a series of five books on Singapore-style etiquette. What transpired after was an over three-decade-long career which solidified her position as a culinary and etiquette savant.
 
The prolific writer, whose hobbies include eating (but of course), travelling and spending time with her grandchildren playing Monopoly, has also charmed Singaporeans with her fairytale marriage to Tan Soo Ren, an enthralling cross-cultural love story spanning across 50 years. The couple had first met at a boarding house in West Hampstead, London when he was studying architecture and she was working at the Australian High Commission, before finally settling down in Singapore. In spite of her Western heritage, Tan’s culinary heart truly belongs to Singapore, a place where her tastebuds evolved gradually to relish fresh chilli and various curries.

We had a rich and delicious conversation with the dining doyenne about her experience as a venerated Tatler reviewer. Read on below.

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How did you start reviewing for the Tatler Dining Guide?

Raelene Tan (RT): The Tatler bureau chief made contact in 1997, after reading my series of books on etiquette, and also reading various newspaper articles on food that I had written. He extended an invitation to join Tatler’s reviewing team, which I accepted with pleasure. And now, 25 years have flown by!
 
How has the role of the reviewer changed over the years?

RT: The role is now that of a reviewer, rather than a critic, ascertaining the overall general mood of a restaurant. Previously, the focus was almost solely on food, whereas now a wider scope is emphasised. For example, the reservation handling, the welcome accorded, answers by staff to questions posed by a reviewer, and providing tips for readers, such as best table locations for romance or for business discussions, or a memorable vegetarian dish, or particular wines to try.

Which is the restaurant that you reviewed the most as a Tatler reviewer? How has it changed over the years?

RT: Over many years, I have reviewed Oso Ristorante several times. Though the Italian restaurant has remained consistent with the same two owners, it has changed its address and decor. The menu has also evolved but retains favourite items that diners appreciate. What has not changed is the warmth of the two owners Diego Chiarini and Stephane Colleoni, who are the chef and manager respectively. They remember regular diners’ names and their preferences, in a lively Italian welcoming way.
 
What restaurant was the most ground-breaking in your time?

RT: Les Amis originally opened in 1994. Its up-market image of exquisite French cuisine, fine table settings, elegant decor and much-admired wine collection, plus attentive service, in Orchard Road, led to reservations being sought after. I am comfortable in such surroundings and enjoyed the opportunity to review Les Amis, which did not disappoint.

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Could you highlight some restaurants that you enjoyed reviewing? Which ones have endured?

RT: 25 years ago, restaurants primarily served local food, in particular Chinese food. Western food was then mainly prepared by Hainanese cooks. Gradually, restaurants offering other cuisines appeared in Singapore. Possibly the oldest, in the 1890s, and still operating, is the Tiffin Room at Raffles Singapore. Other restaurants that have endured include Foster’s Steak House, since 1960, originally located in Amber Mansion at the bottom end of Orchard Road, of which I have fond memories.

Foster’s is still going strong in Holland Village, due to reliable steaks at affordable prices and a fuss-free setting. Tandoor at Holiday Inn Park View opened in 1985 and continues to welcome diners with genuine hospitality and Indian food that is comfortingly familiar. Prego the Italian restaurant at Fairmont Singapore has been going strong since 1994, adapting the menu and decor to suit current trends. It remains embedded in many people’s minds as the place for Italian fare. Patara Fine Thai restaurant has been a resident in Tanglin Mall since 1995. It has outlived several other Thai restaurants by providing continuity with its genteel decor, quietly efficient staff and authentic cuisine.

There are other restaurants, of course, with long-standing attributes, remaining the same yet adapting in a way that regular diners appreciate and continue to feel as ease with, such as Pine Court, now known as Shisen Hanten by Chen Kentaro, at Mandarin Hotel Orchard since 1973, Pete’s Place circa 1973 at Grand Hyatt Singapore and Min Jiang at Goodwood Park Hotel since 2003. Restaurants with fancy fare that is perhaps not easily recognisable, do not do as well or endure for so long, in my humble opinion, as those restaurants that consistently offer comfort/ familiar food. Likewise, when the welcome and service are pretentious, diners will sense that and return to restaurants that feel sincere.

What have been some of your most memorable meals?

RT: One of my most memorable meals was dinner at Kunio Tokuoka, a Japanese restaurant on Sentosa, which sadly is no longer in Singapore. From beginning to end, it was a faultless dining experience. Feeling a little cold, I was spontaneously offered a shawl during the meal by a waiter, and it matched my unusually coloured magenta dress perfectly. The food presentation was meticulous. I felt energised by the whole dining experience of quiet professionalism coupled with consideration and empathy.

Another memorable meal was at a French restaurant, also in Sentosa. However, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Throughout the meal, my fellow reviewer and I felt invisible, as the manager did not greet us, even though only one other table was occupied, by one diner. The sommelier, after serving our initial glass of wine, did not reappear throughout the evening. It was a let-down for a Michelin-star restaurant, which is no longer in Singapore.

At a Chinese restaurant in a five-star hotel, my glass of red wine was noticeably acidic. I mentioned this to the young waitress, who went to alert the restaurant manager. The waitress innocently commented to me that the wine bottle was only opened the week before and placed in the service room!

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Who would you regard as your food heroes?

RT: Chef Chan Chen Hei is probably at the top of the list of chefs I admire. His creativity in planning special events promoting Chinese food never failed to impress. He made a name for himself during more than a decade at Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore from the late 1980s, and then with his own restaurants, including Chef Chan's at the National Museum of Singapore. He also found time to write cookbooks that contained interesting snippets about the history and culture of Chinese dishes, as well as amass a large antique collection. Chef Chan is now in China researching further into the cuisine he enjoys cooking.

Executive Chef Charles Benz, who was with Mandarin Orchard Singapore, Orchard Road, from 1977 and retired in 1995, continued making the hotel's famous buffet meals popular. I liked his way of being a disciplinarian as well as showing understanding and empathy for those he worked with. His rotund shape was testimony to his skills! Chef Eric Teo is someone I admire for his genuine sincerity in imparting his skills to those who aspire to be chefs. Apart from his well-known cooking prowess, he never fails to extend courtesy to those he comes into contact with. Chef Eric is not only a chef, but also a trusted mentor.

How has the dining scene changed? Does anything surprise you about today’s dining scene?

RT: When I began reviewing restaurants in 1997, the emphasis was on food rather than wine, service and decor. The atmosphere in many restaurants was informal, friendly and welcoming. The scene changed along the way to embrace more formal dining with its accompanying innuendos and higher prices. Then the scene changed again, reverting to a less formal style. Now it is a happy medium, with both styles available. It still surprises me that ‘dressing-up’ is not high on the list of things to do for many people dining at grand restaurants. To better understand basic etiquette applicable to various cuisines would add to the enjoyment, I feel, though this does not seem to be a priority for many diners, which is a pity.

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What is a local dish that best describes yourself and why?

RT: Mee Sua is a dish that my mother-in-law prepared as a regular birthday treat for her son, my husband, when he was a child. She taught me how to prepare this Hokkien noodle dish and I continue the birthday tradition. It has become a family favourite with its warm, soft, fragrant tastes that remind me of the importance of family love and traditions.

What will the dining scene look like in the next few years?

RT: Perhaps the next few years will see more restaurants adopting al fresco seating, or indoors but with more natural ventilation, due to concerns over health matters. I also feel that more ‘foreign’ cuisines will make their appearance here as the world becomes more interconnected. Young Singaporeans have the adaptability and interest to explore cooking styles other than familiar local styles, and it is my hope that they will persevere and succeed, which will augur well for our already good image as a country of and for food lovers.

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