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How to Holiday like a Crazy Rich Asian

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SkyPark Infinity Pool at Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Sarah Jessica Parker once remarked that New York was the fifth star of Sex and the City, similar could be said of Singapore in the Crazy Rich Asians movie. Not only does the Lion City hold its own among the ensemble cast that includes Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Contance Wu and Michelle Yeoh, it’s a veritable scene stealer.

Based on the book by Kevin Kwan the film is about a young American Chinese woman, Rachel Chu, visiting the home land of her fellow Chinese New Yorker boyfriend, Nicholas Young, and discovering his family and friends are part of the super rich Singapore elite.  The small, tropical city state dazzles in sweeping shots of the Marina Bay area and skyline although most of the movie was filmed in neighbouring Malaysia (sometimes masquerading as Singapore or New York).

You won’t find Tyersall Park, Nick’s grandmother’s estate, in Singapore for example. The location is two heritage houses, Carcosa Seri Negara,  in the botanical gardens in Kuala Lumpur . The mahjong showdown between Rachel and Nick’s mother was filmed in Penang and the beach scenes on Langkawi. Here’s where to find them all:

Raffles Hotel Singapore

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Raffles lobby and Drawing Room

 

Of course Nick Young “the Prince Harry of Asia” takes his girlfriend Rachel to stay at the grandest hotel in town: Raffles. Their scenes were shot in the Drawing Room above the lobby and the Sarkies Suite, one of the hotel’s two presidential suites named after the original owners and where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed. And when Nick’s mother visits him there they stand on the private verandah overlooking the Palm Court. The suite costs upwards of £5,000 per night plus 17 per cent taxes but you can’t check in just yet – Raffles is currently closed until early 2019.

 

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Nick (Henry Golding) and Rachel (Constance Wu) at the Sarkies Suite Raffles

 

It should be worth the wait though, a major refurb is underway which promises to keep the old world glamour while adding modern amenities and tech. One big change is that the spectacular lobby which was previously only accessible to hotel residents will become a new lounge area where afternoon tea will be served to non guests. Restaurants overseen by the much Michelin starred Anne Sophie Pic and Alain Ducasse are also opening.

 

The Fullerton Hotel

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The Fullerton Hotel

 

If you can’t wait until next year to make your trip you could book the Fullerton Hotel instead. This handsome columned building (formerly the post office HQ) on the river and near the bay crops up as a back drop throughout Crazy Rich Asians. Most notably in two key scenes between Nick and Rachel and Nick’s elegant cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her husband.

 

Newton Food Centre

Any film set in Singapore has to feature hawker centres, outdoor food courts with stalls selling a medley of Asian street cuisines that the city is famous for. Kwan’s novel has Nick scorning Newton Food Centre as “only for expats and tourists” and championing Lau Pa Sat instead. Ironically though it’s the latter with its easy location next to the Central Business District (CBD) and charming Victorian wrought iron structure that is usually dismissed this way by Singaporeans. And Newton is the actual location for the street food fest in the film that’s had critics salivating.

 

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Newton Food Centre

Foodies’ favourites are Maxwell and East Coast centres but hawker food guru KF Seetoh, author of the Makansutra guide, rates many a stall at Newton as well. Seetoh recommends Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelette, Kwee Heng Duck Noodle, Kwang Kee Teochew Fish Porridge, Bee Heng Popiah, Soon Wah Fishball Kway Teow Mee (for fishball noodles) and Chong Pang Huat for barbecued chicken wings.

The travel tissue packs in the Crazy Rich Asians scene are authentic. Locals always take them to the hawker centres not only to use as napkins but also to reserve a table. And if you’re thinking how unlikely it seems for UHNWIs to eat here, literally everyone in Singapore does – or they send their maid and driver to pick up.

Four Seasons Langkawi

 

Four Seasons Langkawi

Royal Beach Villa at the Four Seasons Langkawi

 

It girl Araminta Lee’s lavish hen do on “Samsara Island” was in reality filmed on Malaysia’s Langkawi. More specifically at the stunning, Bill Bensley designed, Four Seasons which is set between a white sandy beach and soaring limestone cliffs synonymous with the Malaysian archipelago. You’ll need to book the Royal Beach Villa if you want one of the enviable pads Araminta stayed in.

The spa here is even more gorgeous than shown in the film: the spacious treatment pavilions are set over water and have a dramatic close up view of the limestone cliffs.

 

Chijmes

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Araminta Lee walks down the aisle in Chijmes Hall

 

Across the road from Raffles this colonial era compound (strangely spelt due to Singaporeans’ love of acronyms but pronounced Chimes) was variously a convent and a school and in its most recent incarnation is populated with F&B outlets. At its heart, the 19th century gothic chapel renamed Chijmes Hall and now turned into a function space is the location for glamorous couple Colin Khoo and Araminta Lee’s society nuptials, “the event of the century”.

The white wedding cake architecture, shown as backdrop to the red carpet arrival of the guests in the film,  is worth a look but while you’re here don’t miss Whitegrass, one of Singapore’s truly outstanding restaurants. Chef Sam Aisbett fuses ingredients from his home country of Australia as well as Japan with some Asian flavours to create a fantastic contemporary menu.

 

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Australian jade tiger abalone with three treasures at Whitegrass

 

Bukit Pasoh Road

This picturesque stretch in Tanjong Pagar, part of Chinatown, is lined with preserved Peranakan shophouses making a photogenic al fresco meeting point for Rachel and her college friend Peik Lin. The actual spot is the terrace outside Humpback seafood restaurant, across the road from The Reading Room (a coffee house by day and bar by night).

 

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A few doors down is The Straits Clan one of Singapore’s new breed of private members clubs housed in the attractive building that was until recently the New Majestic Hotel. Although members only, its street facing Straits Cafe is open to the public. Bukit Pasoh used to be known as “the street of clans” and this slice of heritage Singapore makes a welcome change for anyone suffering shopping mall fatigue.

 

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The Straits Clan, Bukit Pasoh Road

 

The Blue Mansion, George Town

While the exterior implies it’s on Ang Siang Hill in Singapore, that exquisite courtyard setting where Nick’s ice maiden mother played by Michelle Yeoh meets Rachel over the traditional Chinese game mahjong is actually in Malaysia. George Town, the capital of Penang province, is a picturesque little place filled with brightly painted “shop houses” with shuttered windows.

The Blue Mansion

Among them you’ll find the grander Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion, named after the 19thcentury tycoon who lived there (14, Leith Street, George Town +604 262 0006). Also known as The Blue Mansion, this scene of the mahjong showdown is a boutique hotel (rooms from £100 per night) so you can check in and enjoy the mansion when all the day trippers have gone.

Supertree Grove at Gardens By the Bay

Supertrees

 

Colin and Araminta’s Gatsbyesque evening wedding reception was held at Singapore’s man made, multi million dollar Gardens By the Bay amid the Supertrees. And night time is really the only time to visit these man made, multi-million dollar gardens (the outdoor sites are open until 2am). During the day the Supertree Grove is punishingly hot so arrive in the evening when the extraordinary “tree” structures – between 25 and 50 metres tall and covered with plants – are illuminated and the delightfully OTT music and light show takes place at 7.45pm and 8.45pm nightly.

 

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Eleanor Young (played by Michelle Yeoh) at the Supertree Grove

 

Make a booking for dinner at Pollen in the nearby Flower Dome with its Mediterranean climate and associated flora. The pretty setting and excellent mod Med cooking aside, the beauty of dining here is that you can walk around the Dome after all the visitors have gone at 9pm.

 

Marina Bay Sands SkyPark

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Infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands hotel

 

Sweeping vistas of Singapore’s Marina Bay area and Marina Bay Sands hotel, the building that looks like a ship marooned on top of three skyscrapers, abound in the film and the finale was shot around the hotel’s SkyPark infinity pool on the 57th floor.

Whatever you do don’t buy a ticket to the SkyPark observation deck – you won’t get anywhere near the swimming pool. Access to the pool area requires a room key card so to swim in the pool (and take that obligatory selfie with the skyscrapers as a backdrop) you’ll need to check into the hotel but is it worth it? The vast scale of MBS attracts large tour groups and the infinity pool, like many Insta famous locations, is always jam packed. Even or especially at night.

Better to have a cocktail at adjacent Ce La Vi which serves one of the best Singapore Slings in the city and has a panoramic view of Singapore’s skyline. To overlook the infinity pool you’ll need to be in The Sky Deck area of the Club Lounge (not to be confused with the Sky Bar). If you want fireworks thrown in, coincide your visit with the Formula One Night Race (September 16th this year) or National Day (August 9th).

 

 

 

Raymond Blanc Gardening School launches Japanese Garden Course at Le Manoir

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The Japanese Tea Garden at Le Manoir

When chef Raymond Blanc bought the manor house and grounds in the English countryside which he transformed into Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons two Michelin starred restaurant and luxury hotel, the first thing he did was create a vegetable garden. Having grown up helping his mother grow produce at their family home in France he wanted to recreate the “living larder” of his childhood.

Thirty years on the grounds have flourished and encompass vegetable, salad and herb gardens, apple orchards and a mushroom “valley”. This year [2017] Blanc has responded to requests from guests and opened a gardening school – the first to be set in a hotel.

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Raymond Blanc

The link between the kitchen and garden at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is palpable. On the front of the dining menu, namechecked alongside the chefs is Anne Marie Owens, Head Gardener. “The admiration I have for gardeners is beyond measure,” says Blanc. “The gardens are an essential part of Belmond Le Manoir – you will spend as much time in the garden as you will at the table.”

Looking at the menu itself, whether it’s fresh apple juice at breakfast, herbs and salads in a side dish or vegetables as the star such as the signature Beetroot Terrine; as much produce as possible is garnered from the grounds. Head Chef Gary Jones has a walk about every Tuesday and comes up with a “picking list” of produce and at 8am every day the chefs take it in turns to attend the cropping with the gardeners.

Chefs are also encouraged to take some time out in the gardens before service and many can be found in the Japanese Tea Garden. Blanc was inspired to create the garden following a visit to Japan. Working with landscaper and gardener Robert Ketchell, who studied in Japan, he learned that gardens are both an art form and healing space that can help with the stress.

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Produce at the Raymond Blanc Gardening School

Set in a handsome glasshouse in Le Manoir’s grounds, The Raymond Blanc Gardening School offers half day and full day hands on courses including growing your own vegetables, mushrooms, micro herbs and edible flowers as well as classes for children. Instruction is given by Le Manoir’s own gardeners as well as visiting experts and the courses are tailored to the season, in keeping with the hotel’s ethos.

This summer sees the introduction of the Japanese Garden course. Guests will also get the chance to take a walk around the Japanese Tea Garden with Ketchell to find out about the traditions and practices involved with creating a Japanese garden.

 

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A suite at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons

For the ultimate horticultural experience, book one of the hotel’s Garden Suites for your stay – the theme of each room is reflected in the plants and flowers enveloping your private terrace. Paradise.

[UPDATE: The Japanese Garden course at Belmond Le Manoir takes place on 21 August 2018 and costs £235 per person. The day includes tea and coffee on arrival, materials and guidance to create a ‘trayscape’ garden and lunch with accompanying wines, coffee and petit fours.]

https://www.belmond.com/hotels/europe/uk/oxfordshire/belmond-le-manoir-aux-quat-saisons/

A version of this piece was originally published by the Robb Report Singapore

 

 

A Cut Above: a Taste of Chinoiserie on Park Lane

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Cut at 45 Park Lane

[UPDATE: Wolfgang Puck is bringing his signature Asian French fusion dishes from his Santa Monica restaurant Chinois to Cut at 45 Park Lane, London for a pop up celebrating the restaurant’s 35th anniversary. From today until 30th June the menu, featuring Asian flavours fused with French techniques, will include Shanghai lobster with curry sauce and whole sizzling sea bass with ginger and ponzu sauce. As well as an a la carte lunch there’s two tasting dinner menus – six courses priced at £115 per person and eight courses £165 per person including a welcome cocktail.]

Wolfgang Puck, one of the most famous of the world famous chefs, is reflecting on how times have changed for his profession; “When I moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s I used to go to discotheques,” he recalls. “Once I asked a girl to dance, she asked me what I did for a living and I told her ‘I’m a cook’. When the song was over, she left! Nowadays that scenario probably wouldn’t happen.”

He is more than likely right – since then chefs have become celebrities and Puck has become as famous as the stars who flock to his LA restaurants. Though the native Austrian, who learnt to cook from his mother and trained at Michelin starred restaurants in France, is not entirely comfortable with that either.

“I don’t like the name celebrity chef but I think that television has put chefs in the public. Television has really helped elevate our profession. I think it’s great because this has become an important profession, before it wasn’t,” he says. “Fifty years ago, you probably wouldn’t know who the chef was anywhere. Now chefs are like rock n roll stars.”

But for Puck, whose empire includes Cut, Spago and Chinois restaurants around the world, being a great chef still comes down to learning the basics. “The funny thing is, a lot of these television people, they don’t know how to cook,” he says. “I did a programme a few years ago where I asked the six chef contestants to make me an omelette. And you know what? None of them could make me a good omelette. That’s the problem with a lot of younger chefs today – they don’t start with the proper foundation.”

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Wolfgang Puck

“Learning how to cook is like learning how to paint,” he continues in the first of many arty analogies (he has said that he would have liked to have been an artist if he hadn’t been a chef). “When you learn how to paint, you learn how to mix colours. Cooking is the same. If I have ginger, garlic and scallion, a dish would taste more Chinese. If I add basil and remove scallion, it would taste more Italian. When you really boil it down, it’s really not that complex. That comes with experience and, of course, a full understanding of the basics.”

Having mastered the basics, Puck eschews recipe books for his own instincts. “I know a certain flavour I want to have, then I try to get there my way. I don’t want to look at a cookbook to find how the Chinese, Indian or Vietnamese make it, I want to make it my own style,” he says.

“It’s just like writing a song, or painting. If you paint like Picasso nobody cares but if you created your own style, people would say, ‘oh, that’s interesting.’ Or if you’re a singer and you sing Lionel Richie songs all day long, you’re never going to become Lionel Richie – no matter how well you sing it. It’s the same with food – you can use lamb, fish, whatever but you still have to create a dish out of it your way.”

It’s an ethos that Puck encourages from the head chefs across his restaurant empire. “I create two lines here, and I let the chefs operate in between these lines. They have been working with me for many years, so they think like me anyway. But I want them to be creative, I want them to add something of their own to the menu.”

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Steak at Cut

At Spago Singapore, the first in Asia and Puck’s second restaurant at Marina Bay Sands in the city state following Cut, the global fusion elements he describes can be found on the menu alongside American classics. “I opened Spago in Los Angeles in 1982 and then I opened Chinois in 1983 – essentially I opened an Asian restaurant but not in the traditional way. I made it my style,” Puck says.

The global menu at Spago Marina Bay Sands includes versions of two Singapore specialities: kaya toast and laksa. “We take something that’s already popular here and make it our own. And people still like it!” says Puck. As well as the luxurious versions of foie gras kaya toast and lobster laksa available at dinner, there’s a chicken “laksa” spring roll on the lunch and bar bites menus.

Big Eye Tuna Tartare

Big Eye Tuna Tartare at Spago

As well as the dinner menu, Spago has several lunch options to choose from depending on your mood and time allowance. Alternatively, a compact selection, still offering signature classics such as the tuna tartare cones and hand cut agnolotti, is available in the terrace lounge and at the al fresco rooftop bar. Perhaps to go with a cocktail or two although Puck prefers champagne. “I drink cocktails but not too much. With champagne, I can drink a whole bottle and still feel fine.”

When it comes to his own tastes Puck says he prefers strong flavours including chilli and spices in his food. “For me, French food is too subtle. One or two French dishes are fine but if I had to eat eight, I’d fall asleep.” While he has often tried chilli crab and fish head curry in Singapore these days he likes to stick to his own restaurants in Marina Bay Sands. “Even in my home country I go out less than I used to,” he says. “Here, if I want to have a really good meal I ask my chefs to cook me something.”

Although, or perhaps because, Wolfgang Puck has a couple of Michelin stars under his belt, he seems unfazed by the launch of the prestigious restaurant guide in Singapore later this year. “We don’t open a restaurant with the aim of earning Michelin stars. I know what I should do if I wanted to get the stars – open a restaurant that serves only 30 people a night and prepare 10 or 12 course meals. But I would only get people who try us once,” he says.

“For me, the stars are our customers,” he continues. “They are the ones who are going to come back, they are the ones who pay me and the rest of the people. So if the Michelin Guide gave me three stars but I have no customers those stars wouldn’t mean anything. I’m not saying Michelin stars are useless, but the most important thing for me is taking care of the customers.”

Great hospitality is a recurring theme for the chef and restaurateur. He sees good service as just as vital as good food. “Like any major city today, Singapore has a lot of great restaurants so to set ourselves apart we don’t just focus on the food. I think it’s important that people get recognised, that people feel like they are at home,” he emphasises.

“Yesterday at Cut, I saw a German family who has been living in Singapore for 40 years. I remember them from last time I was here. They came up to me and said, ‘Oh, it’s so good to see you again. We come here at least twice a month.’ That to me is more important than earning Michelin stars.”

[A version of this story was originally published in 2016]

Catch Le Mout, Taiwan, While You Can

Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan

Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan

[UPDATE: Make a booking at Le Mout while you – Lanshu Chen has announced she is closing the restaurant this year.]

Taiwanese born, French trained chef, Lanshu Chen is describing her favourite meal to eat off duty: “Yaki soba. It’s a childhood memory – my favourite dish from my mother. It accompanied me many times when I stayed up late studying.”

The yaki soba-fuelled late nights and hard work have paid off. At 33 years old, not only is Chen owner and head chef of Le Mout, a fine dining, Relais & Chateaux restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan, she has been named Asia’s Best Female Chef.

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Alain Ducasse returns to stellar form in Hong Kong with Rech restaurant

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[UDATE Rech by Alain Ducasse at the InterContinental Hong Kong has been awarded one star in the Hong Kong and Macau 2018 Michelin Guide.]

Legendary chef Alain Ducasse’s first foray into food was not a runaway success. As a child growing up in France he would watch his grandmother cooking and aged about 11 he decided to make a chocolate roulade himself. “My grandmother let me attempt this, although I was not up to the task,” Ducasse recalls. “Chocolate ended up everywhere and in the end the cake did not resemble a roulade at all!”

Luckily for the culinary world Ducasse was not put off by his early endeavour. Last month saw the opening of his 25th restaurant worldwide. He has chosen Asia for the first international outpost of Rech Alain Ducasse, a French seafood restaurant replacing his Spoon concept at the Intercontinental hotel in Hong Kong.

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