November 22, 2018

It’s that time of the year again. Messy hair, endless scrolling, as I frantically deliberate where to celebrate mine and my partner’s birthday (it’s fortuitous that the two fall in succession). The annoying festive season rubs extra salt into the wound, which means that prices go up at most restaurants including tasting menus.

I recall our last birthdays spent together, perched on high stools at Spanish Tapas joint Dehesa—enraptured not only by the sight of Chef Jean-Philippe Patruno torching translucent sheets of lardo over grilled octopus, but also by the aroma of fat wafting through the air. 5 months later, the restaurant has shuttered its doors. And this is just one of many that have bitten the dust this year, alongside a few high profile names that have left most foodies in shock.

Once perceived as the hottest concept in Singapore, the idea of modern Australian gastronomy sprung up like wild mushrooms all over our small island, with restaurants like Salted and Hung, Whitegrass, Blackwattle, Stellar at 1-Altitude planting their foot firmly to advocate contemporary Australian cuisine. While some have failed to fill their seats on a daily basis, others have no choice but to call it a day even if it’s hard to justify the blood spilled in the kitchen. Either way, numbers have dwindled over the last year with the latest victim being one-Michelin starred Whitegrass in CHIJMES, which has been around for 3 years.

This forces us to take a closer look at the fine dining industry. The recent and rather rampant opening of new concepts signal a blurring of lines between the realms of high-end dining and modern bistronomy, albeit with similar caveats of monetary setbacks. Does this mean the imminent death of high-end dining—where white starched linen tablecloths and elegant stemware are making way for casual elements and sensible glassware? Are we giving up the traditional concept of fine dining in favour of more contemporary and invigorating concepts, and what are the pay-offs in such an exchange?

There was a time when the height of luxury was a degustation dinner in the most coveted and probably the most elevated dining room sporting unrivalled views of the cityscape. Now, it is getting reservations (sans the scrambling) at the hottest new openings in town, barely days after the dust has settled from the renovation works. On a weekly basis, the rapid rate of restaurants opening is mind-boggling and quite frankly, hard to keep track of—driving consumer behaviour to change drastically. In food-obsessed Singapore, we have one of the highest number of restaurants per capita in the world, that statistic alone doesn’t bode well for customer loyalty, making dining out less of a luxury than ever before. 

From experience, once a restaurant chooses not to employ haughty waitstaff to watch over you, in exchange for an informal style of service with a contemporary swing to its dance routine, queues will form out the door. Do not, however, expect marked down pricing. If that does not sound like a fine dining identity crisis to you, I’m not sure if we speak the same language. 

The departure of Joël Robuchon and Restaurant André have dampened the image of Singapore as a food capital. However, in my opinion, that forces the younger, more ambitious chefs to rise to the occasion. And many restaurants have got their work cut out for them. It starts with education and the subtle art of conditioning consumers to accept haute cuisine as part of their lives. Excellent produce and professional service must go hand in hand to convey the chef’s philosophy—and only then will this niche market continue to thrive, putting a stop to this vicious cycle of restaurant closures.

Despite the murky waters that lie ahead, there have been a few noteworthy new entries like Restaurant JAG, top Swedish Chef Bjorn Frantzén’s Zén, Basque Kitchen by Aitor, monochrome-themed Preludio and finally modern Kappo-style restaurant ESORA, which greatly impressed me during my most recent visit. The new wave seems to debunk tired tropes in place of more fashionable statements with chefs adamant on demonstrating their ethos in all facets of the restaurant right down to their playlists.

I remain positive that there will be still a few players who will continue to set the standards for fine dining in Singapore. However, I’m not betting my bottom dollar on a new restaurant for my upcoming celebrations. Instead, I’ll be putting my money where I’ve derived countless glorious gastronomical experiences in the past and a recent example is the 4-hands collaboration meal with Barrafina London and 7-year-old Esquina. At the end of the day, restaurants with staying power have a clear vision, consistency and the agility to adapt in a highly saturated industry where the success of today could be easily forgotten tomorrow.