Tatler Dining Singapore's content director contemplates a few well-loved dishes and what they say about the evolution of some of Singapore’s finest restaurants
We all have our favourite restaurants—destinations that brought us some of the best meals we’ve ever had. Explaining it might even involve a few dramatisations, and possibly vocalisations to emphasise our delight. We may also enthuse about a particular dish. It may not be the main course, but it is a dish that has not only swept us off our feet, but one we continue to find new reasons to love. It’s a dish that continues to feature prominently on the menu, evolved and sometimes elevated to affirm its role in the success of a restaurant.
Some chefs, though, prefer to avoid labelling such standouts a signature dish—especially when their well-earned standing as arbiters of good taste supports the luxury they enjoy as constant innovators. Yet these very dishes seem to speak the loudest about a chef’s winning style, not to mention its ability to stand the test of time.
I remember the first time I tried the English Garden at Jaan By Kirk Westaway, introduced as part of the chef’s take on modern British fare. This was two years ago, and the deceptively humble salad continues to shine. At the very least it is a celebration of the season’s bounty. And there’s a few—at least 36 ingredients the last time I checked—that include 11 cooked vegetables (from white and purple cauliflower to baby carrots and Hokkaido corn); six raw vegetables (black radish, Japanese kabu, and more); nine herbs, such as red oxalis, citrus mint and even locally grown wild tarragon and edible flowers. A balancing act of five condiments brought all the amazingly fresh flavours together, led by the savoury anchovy dressing and a light watering of a broth made with Scottish kombu.
“I never planned for it to be a signature dish; I planned for it to be special, but didn’t expect the huge response it gained,” Westaway muses. Despite it being “more of a spring or summer dish”, the Devon native also acknowledges his surprise at how the dish continues to evolve while remaining a crafty showcase of his “reinventing British” concept that returning guests look forward to. It helps that his is a cuisine style that isn’t solely dependent on British produce. Instead, it’s aimed at changing the diner’s idea of what might be classified as British cuisine.
Sense of Place
A similar evolution is also noticeable in the creative culinary style of acclaimed chef Julien Royer. “While our cuisine at Odette remains French in its DNA, over the years we’ve consistently infused a sense of place, which is at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, through products, technique and flavours,” Royer shares. He adds how the team is meticulous in their approach to sourcing from boutique producers around the world, including farms in Singapore. There’s even a variety of native spices and citrus from across the region that Royer has fallen in love with.
This approach has inspired new and exciting “possibilities and creations for the global diner”. It is also perfectly embodied in his signature serving of pigeon from Brittany, France that he coats with Kampot pepper. The dish comprises confit pigeon leg, its breast pan-seared to finish, a pigeon liver parfait, barbecued pigeon heart tempura, or alternatively a heart and liver samosa. This particular pepper, he explains, imparts a delicate yet distinctive fragrance and flavour that lingers. Growing up eating it, the pigeon is also one of Royer’s favourite game meats to work with, and he prefers to use Fabien Deneour’s limited and sustainably raised birds.
This pigeon dish is five years old and has enjoyed a few changes, from being hay-roasted to being sous-vide and barbecued, and now back to being roasted, but this time encrusted in organically grown pepper from Cambodia and finished in the Josper. He explored how the pepper’s delicate aroma complemented the pigeon’s tender meat, ultimately arriving at a recipe that he believes achieves the right balance of complexity and contrast of flavours. The dish’s varying accompaniments—spring peas, sweet summer cherries as well as fresh almonds, figs in fall and warm root vegetables in winter—make it a dish for all seasons.
He notes that while the team continues to try and bring something new and surprising to the table every season, ultimately, “it’s really our guests who decide what they enjoy and what becomes a signature”.
Artful and Emotive
Over at Pollen, executive chef Michael Wilson describes his cuisine style as “artful yet approachable”, featuring dishes that are “created to inspire diners to be curious about the flavours, textures and origins of food”. So, it’s no surprise to find a signature dish, one he had created while working in Shanghai, China, on the new menu.
He explains: “The neck of a duck is hardly used by chefs and often discarded, so I was keen to use it, but the challenge I faced was that there is not much meat around that area. After some experimenting, I decided to treat the neck like a sausage by stuffing it with foie gras and spiced duck meat.” It might seem like there’s a cheeky message embedded in this idea, but Wilson was quick to affirm the reasons for stuffing the neck with goose liver. “I wanted to create something luxurious, and foie gras adds a really silky mouthfeel and a nice punch of flavour,” he continues, pointing to the fact that he was also looking for a way to use parts of the duck to minimise waste.
“At Pollen, the duck neck sausage dish has since evolved to include a serving of seven-day dry-aged duck breast as well. In Shanghai it was possible to only purchase duck necks, but here in Singapore we have to purchase the entire bird, hence I’ve included a portion of duck breast to the dish, making it even better.”
Speaking of creating dishes that evoke the right emotions, chef Anne-Sophie Pic says her signature Berlingots dish perfectly embodies her culinary philosophy, which is about “aromatic complexity, combinations of flavours and powerful tastes”. She adds that while there is a version of the Berlingots in each of her restaurants around the world, each one is unique with slight adaptations to reflect the flavour and ingredients of its locale. “The Berlingots presented at La Dame de Pic, Raffles Singapore features herb of grace, a slightly bitter herb which I had discovered in Singapore’s Chinatown,” she shares.
The dish is named after the triangular-shaped traditional hard candies Pic used to enjoy as a little girl. “Inspired by this childhood memory, I created a pyramidal pasta parcel and incorporated different fillings and sauces to create my iconic Berlingots,” she adds. Singapore edition, she notes, are refreshed from time to time to feature seasonal ingredients. On the restaurant’s latest autumn menu, for instance, the Berlingots are filled with its signature molten filling of French cheeses and paired with a beautiful beetroot kombu broth infused with herb of grace and Pu-er tea leaves.
She muses: “In the process of creating a dish, I sometimes just know that something special is happening. It is a feeling that the dish will greatly impact my cuisine. An intense emotion created by a new flavour or culinary technique used.”
Granted, many of the more contemporary menus are often defined by the ever-evolving experience they proffer. “I wouldn’t say Zén has a signature dish, but we do have some dishes that stay on the menu and with only a change of garnish seasonally,” asserts restaurant Zén’s executive chef Tristin Farmer. And the dish he thinks is worth highlighting is the restaurant’s rendition of the chawanmushi. “We wanted to update our chawanmushi and decided to rework the classic from Frantzèn in Stockholm, which was served when the restaurant relaunched in 2016,” he tells. This resulted in a recipe that combined Hokkaido milk infused with konbu for the custard, with Japanese snow crab from Fukui grilled over binchotan, hot smoked pork broth, foie gras and sudachi, and topped with Zén prestige caviar.
This dish, he shares, is umami driven with deep and rich flavours and very textural. The dashi features a traditional base infused with pork belly that is brined in mirin and soy, hot smoked and then dry aged for 100 days. Interestingly, the dish was developed in Singapore “over many WhatsApp video calls with chef-owner Björn (Frantzén) and Marcus (development chef)”.
Of course, the most apt ingredient to crown this signature creation is the Zén prestige caviar—produced by Rossini caviar in Copenhagen, using (3rd cycle) Schrenckii sturgeon eggs salted to Frantzén’s recipe. “This caviar (used in both Frantzen and Zén) has an amazing depth of flavour and stand up well used in hot food, which is very Zén; we always have caviar on the menu and mainly in hot dishes,” he shares.
The Weight of Caviar
French fine dining stalwart Les Amis also boasts a signature dish with the use of caviar, which began as a humble starter. Its la pomme de terre roseval au caviar is essentially specially selected Kaviari caviar served on petals of Roseval potatoes alongside traditional condiments and fresh herbs.
Director of culinary and operations, chef Sebastien Lepinoy recalled how he had wanted to serve a dish with caviar but didn’t want to accompany it with blini. So, he replaced it with potatoes but kept the classic condiments, such as cream, smoked salmon, capers, onions and chives. He first served this at one-Michelin starred restaurant Cépage in Hong Kong in 2010. “The dish was pretty… but if you think about it very deeply, the dish was not at the level of two or three-Michelin stars,” he says. He served the same dish at Les Amis when he took over the reins in 2013, noting as well how he couldn’t at the time afford to have an expensive menu.
Then news of the Michelin guide arriving in Singapore broke in 2015, and Lepinoy began to wonder if the popular dish in question—a potato salad with caviar—had the right personality. He quickly realised that he needed to “change the balance” of the dish, from one with too much potato and not enough caviar to a classic worthy of a Michelin star. “Before, it was eight grams of caviar per dish, and the amount doubled when Les Amis earned its second star,” he shares, adding how he has been serving 22 grams of caviar the last two years. Diners found the dish even more interesting “because the weight of the potatoes was almost the same as the weight of the caviar,” he laughs, noting that the evolution of the restaurant to its current three Michelin star standing is reflected in the evolution of the dish. How apt indeed.