Pollen and Riviera Forlino—amongst other restaurants—were caught in the thick of a pandemic when Singapore’s circuit breaker hit. We check in on them

The period before Singapore’s circuit breaker in April to stem the spread of Covid-19 was a tumultuous time for restaurants as they watched their fates hang in the balance. For those that had just invested in new chefs and on the cusp of marketing revitalised concepts, the uncertainty was even more pronounced. Today, however, as life returns to a different kind of normal and the dark skies begin to clear, these same restaurants are gems in our locked jewel box, offering new experiences to enjoy within our closed borders.

Take stalwart Italian restaurant Forlino. Late last year, its parent company Déliciae Hospitality Management made the decision to refresh the 12-year-old brand. It hired French-Italian executive chef Remy Carmignani and enlivened its dated dining room with lighter furnishings and a sexier vibe. By March, Carmignani had put together an impressive menu of elegant Mediterranean-inspired fare and the restaurant was renamed Riviera Forlino to reflect its younger and brighter identity.

Similarly, modern European restaurant Pollen, set in the charming Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay, installed new executive chef Michael Wilson and general manager Ashwan Suppiah at its helm in March. French-Asian chef David Thien, too, had just stepped up to the mantle at Corner House, taking over from former executive chef Jason Tan who plans to open his own restaurant before the end of the year.

The industry pick-up has been good post-circuit breaker and I think it is largely because people cannot travel, hence they are spending their resources dining out with family and friends—Michael Wilson

Suffice it to say, the circuit breaker threw a spanner in the nation’s works. Yet in hindsight, it proved a productive time for many restaurants, especially with government grants making up for staff salaries and business shortfalls.

Riviera Forlino’s Carmignani, for one, took the two months to perfect dishes he had dreamed up for his menu. “While it wasn’t exactly a scenario any of us wished for, I guess [the circuit breaker] was a period that afforded us time to look inwards. I was able to work on new dishes conceptually and take time to perfect existing creations on our menu,” said the 33-year-old, whose resume spans restaurants across France, Qatar and Morocco, including a stint at the feted La Mamounia in Marrakech. 

Pollen’s Wilson said he spent much of the time devouring books such as Cooking with the Bible: Recipes for Biblical Meals and 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine. “Before anything goes on my menu,” he explained, “I spend a lot of time researching the history of the ingredients and cooking techniques … I’m naturally curious about traditional cooking techniques and am constantly thinking of ways to interpret them into new dishes.”

Corner House’s Thien, meanwhile, spent the time working with key individuals in his team to research and develop his ideas. He shared that while there is more to be done, “priority is to sustain the restaurant’s financial health”.

My name is synonymous with sushi, but I’ve always wanted to do something different and mix things like French, Spanish and Italian techniques and ingredients into my [Japanese-style] food— Kenjiro Hashida

And then there were chefs like Kenjiro “Hatch” Hashida, whose popular Hashida Sushi closed in April when he parted ways with his business partners. For him, the circuit breaker was a time that bubbled with nervous excitement. He quickly forged a new partnership with the OUE Group and began dreaming up ideas which he has parlayed to a pop-up restaurant called Hashida Private Dining located at OUE Social Kitchen.

“My name is synonymous with sushi, but I’ve always wanted to do something different and mix things like French, Spanish and Italian techniques and ingredients into my [Japanese-style] food,” the decidedly unconventional chef explained. Hashida Private Dining, therefore, serves as a temporary playground for him to experiment with said concepts before he settles back into the confines of Japanese omakase cuisine when his new restaurant opens early next year in Amoy Street.   

Evidently, the forced pause has had a positive effect on these chefs and many more restaurants across town. Pollen, Riviera Forlino and their peers are now serving up the best dining experiences that they ever have.

Wilson’s food is contemporary and nuanced, yet punchy with flavour and techniques that wield that elusive ability to surprise even jaded diners. Dishes like an Ebro delta smoked eel brightened with seaweed vinegar, briny sea succulents and a keropok-like squid ink “fish net” elicit that hushed thrill of discovering a cuisine that is at once delicious and truly original. 

Carmignani’s elegant renditions of Mediterranean delicacies have been further refined with the likes of toothsome morsels of handmade tortellini stuffed with tangia-style lamb shoulder, and lobster and shellfish bouillabaisse with flavours that start off slow and positively radiate as the meal progresses. The service at both restaurants, too, is more polished, confident yet unobtrusive.

Now that the city is pretty much back in business, numerous high-end restaurants have reported strong sales and regular full houses. Hashida Private Dining, for one, is fully booked till mid-November.

“The industry pick-up has been good post-circuit breaker and I think it is largely because people cannot travel, hence they are spending their resources dining out with family and friends,” said Wilson. “At Pollen, we are grateful to have the strong support of our regulars and we’ve garnered interest from new diners who are keen to visit after hearing that the restaurant has welcomed a new chef.”

Olivier Bendel, CEO of Déliciae Hospitality Management, reported similar developments. He shared: “We have seen business improve since the end of the circuit breaker, but we can’t say we are doing the best sales since opening because a significant part of our revenue has generally been derived from events.

“Since social distancing measures are still in place, we haven’t been able to utilise the restaurant for that purpose. But we have seen business improving, with more enquiries trickling in for small-scale gatherings that adhere to distancing regulations like wedding solemnisations.”

Covid-19 has taught us the importance of flexibility and adaptability. It has reminded us of the value of our staff, team and family in our group —Olivier Bendel

Careful optimism remains the order of the day as 2020 continues to drive home the lesson that you never can tell what danger might be lurking around the next corner.

“As with every restaurant, I believe we share the same concern: that business may drop,” said Wilson. “But our priority at Pollen is to keep the team safe. Should the situation change in the coming months, our priority is to keep the team together and continue to be innovative, creative and flexible to adapt to the ‘new normal.’”

Bendel added, “Covid-19 has taught us the importance of flexibility and adaptability. It has reminded us of the value of our staff, team and family in our group. The future is uncertain, and we are not out of the woods just yet. But our team’s passion for what we do and our dedication to providing the best experience for our customers keep us moving forward.”

Without a doubt, good hospitality begins from within, and perhaps the most important lesson gleaned from these tough times is that taking care of our own first is the bravest thing that we all can do.

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