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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Western front

Sous vide cooking, spiffy decor, stylish crockery - these are just some elements that the latest wave of Western food stalls is introducing to the humble coffee shop.
The Business Times - June 11, 2011
By: Audrey Phoon & Natalie Koh
| More
Western front SAVEUR FAIRE rnFrom left: Dylan Ong, Coral Loke, and Joshua Khoo

Foodstall No 3, Ali Baba Eating House
125 East Coast Road
Tel: 9125-0124

IN a kitchen loaded with state-of-the-art equipment - a thermal immersion circulator, a salamander broiler, a vacuum packer - two young men in chef's whites are busily prepping for lunch service. One is making the paper- thin bread chips infused with foie gras oil that they will later serve with the pan-seared liver itself; the other is checking on a slab of pork belly that has been cooking, confit-style, for the past 14 hours, and that will be plated on sleek white crockery with sherry-scented lentils and a poached egg cooked at precisely 62.5 degrees Celsius.

It looks 100 per cent fine dining, until you take in the surroundings: rickety tables, red plastic chairs, and a drinks 'uncle' who wants to know if you'd like a cup of diao yu (coffee shop slang for Chinese tea) or tak kiew (Milo) to go along with your fancy French meal. Because the kitchen that the chefs are working in, in fact, is one at the back of a food stall in a coffee shop at the corner of East Coast Road and Joo Chiat Road.

The stall, which opened last month, has a suitably chi-chi name to go along with its food: Saveur, which means 'flavour' in French. But chi-chi isn't the message that owner-chefs Dylan Ong and Joshua Khoo - who trained at Shatec and between them have worked at Tetsuya's in Sydney and Guy Savoy, FiftyThree, Flutes at the Fort, and Raffles Hotel in Singapore - want to convey at all.

'Two years ago, we saw a feature on (the now defunct Western-Peranakan food stall) Big D's Grill in The New York Times, and we were like, what? Kopitiam also can make it onto NYT?' says Mr Ong. 'So we thought, since we're trained in French cooking, which is mostly reserved for high-end places, why not bring it to the masses?'

At the time, Mr Ong had just begun doing his National Service, so there was a two-year wait before the chefs could put their idea into practice. But the motivated young men put that time to good use by studying steak chain Aston's business model to try and figure out how to offer 'good cuts at low prices', as Aston's - whose concept both admire - does. On top of that, through an introduction from their church pastor, they found a financier who was willing to fund part of their $35,000 venture.

Once Mr Ong finished his army stint and everything was in place, the pair began looking for a suitable location. Their first pick was in a Jalan Tua Kong coffee shop, but that didn't work out. Then they passed by their current premises, saw that it was up for rent, and immediately called the owner.

The deal (a year-long lease) was speedily sealed and it was not until the papers had been signed that the chefs realised the serendipity of their move - the stall that Saveur is at was the same one that Aston's began in. 'It was such a huge coincidence and a great surprise when people told us. They said it's a lucky stall because that's where Aston's first shop was,' recalls Mr Ong.

Lucky or not, the chefs aren't taking any chances with the quality of their food. Everything they serve is fresh and of the best quality that their budget can afford, and no short cuts are employed. 'We don't use things like chicken powder; we're keeping everything as we did in the restaurants,' says Mr Ong.

If you take into account all that plus the techniques used in their cooking (meats done sous vide are a favourite because that brings 'another dimension and flavour to the food'), the prices at Saveur are another miracle. A smoked salmon salad - the salmon home-cured on the premises with chipwood - is just $3.50, while $4 will get you rich, tasty duck rillettes on buttery toast with salad.

Then there's tender chicken roulade stuffed with foie gras and served on basmati rice with a delicious, creamy parmesan emulsion - yours for a remarkably reasonable $8.90 - and tender beef bourguignon in red wine sauce and mashed potatoes infused with duck essence at $13.90. The recipes, say the chefs, are 'from everywhere', but made with their own spin.

According to Mr Ong: 'We do a lot of tinkering so that we don't waste food and we save money that way. Still, we're not making a lot, but all we ask is that our food brings joy to people.'

That it must, because Saveur already has a steady stream of regulars. 'Business is picking up and we are very grateful,' says Mr Ong. 'Our customers do come back and it really encourages us. We try to remember everyone because we want to give them a very personal experience.

'We don't want you to just eat the food and leave; we want to tell people where we come from, bring them into our kitchen to introduce them to the different machines . . . we're going all the way for them in food and service.'

That's plenty, even for a top-notch restaurant, but Saveur hopes to do more in time to come. Says Mr Ong: 'Joshua and I have talked about social entrepreneurship, and we hope that our business will grow in that direction.'

By Audrey Phoon

With a Pinch of Salt
480 Lorong 6 Toa Payoh
#B1-01 Gourmet Paradise Restaurant
Toa Payoh Hub

IF you're a frequent patron of Gourmet Paradise Restaurant, a typical food court at the basement of Toa Payoh Hub, you'd definitely have noticed the new stall that popped up there a few months ago. With walls decorated in white and baby blue stripes and graphics of a little girl wearing a chef's hat, it's obvious from a glance that With a Pinch of Salt isn't your typical food court stall.

A branch of a cafe in Tanjong Katong Road, the stall even has a small area behind the front counter sectioned off for its patrons, where everything follows the same whimsical theme, right down to the tabletops.

While the cafe was originally aimed at the teen demographic, owner Priscilla Long realised that the theme appealed more to families, and decided to embrace that instead. In any case, this is oddly appropriate for the former public relations manager at Form Pte Ltd (which once distributed Aaron Kwok's albums), who went into the food business because of her family ties.

Born to chef parents, it was always her dream to open her own restaurant. So when the opportunity came up, she jumped at the chance and created the Tanjong Katong menu with recipes from her relatives and a few food consultant friends.

Together with her creative director, Roy Poh, they came up with a fictional character, Kyra (named after Mr Poh's daughter), who is supposed to take over the business from her family, along with stories of her grandparents framed up on the walls, and the entire theme centring on the idea: 'It's only a cafe, don't take it seriously . . .'

When the Toa Payoh stall first opened in November last year, about 80 per cent of the menu was the same as that of the original cafe, with 'some new dishes created specially for the outlet such as our foie gras and baby back ribs, to give a feel of a five-star hotel treatment in a food court', Ms Long says.

However, she later realised that the office crowd the stall attracted couldn't spare too much time for dishes that take too long to prepare, which resulted in a revamp of the menu that now features grilled sirloin steak ($12.90); their 'special' beef stew ($11.90); escargot ($8.50), which is served atop a pile of salt crystals; and fish cordon bleu ($8.90) that sandwiches a slice of ham and melted cheese between two thick deep-fried fish fillets.

The stall also has daily specials where two dishes from their menu are picked out and offered at a promotional price of $5.50. Drinks-wise, there is a rather limited selection, but that matters little, as the drinks stall isn't too far away.

It might seem odd for a cafe to go to a food court, but Ms Long says that she was looking for ways to expand her business anyway, as she had too many customers at the Tanjong Katong branch, and many had complained about the inconvenience of the location.

So when the space at Toa Payoh Hub opened up, she was attracted to its central location, and wanted to pull in office workers - a different crowd from the usual customers her quirky cafe is used to.

Her manager, Nudeln (a nickname he was given by some European friends, which means pasta in German), who was roped in to help her with the expansion of her business, says that they wanted 'to diversify their business and explore new territory as the two businesses have very different models'.

Ms Long continues: 'People told me I was crazy because Western food stalls never work out in food courts but I wanted to prove them wrong. We've been here for five months and we're still stable.'

It's all part of a three-part plan, she says, with the first part being the cafe that they presently have, the second being the food court, and the third - a fine-dining restaurant. She even plans to tweak the concept for the restaurant to show a grown up Kyra to target 'people with bigger spending power', she laughs.

As whimsical as her business concept is, Ms Long quips her ultimate dream would be to open a theme park restaurant, at which Nudeln asks jokingly: 'Would you like a roller coaster to go with that?'

Realistically, though, they have been offered opportunities to expand overseas, like in China and Indonesia, which they're more than happy to do if 'we can find a good location and a good team'.

Obviously she's taking these opportunities with the proverbial pinch of salt, but from the looks of it, diners are going to see a lot more of Kyra pretty soon.

By Natalie Koh



Food Fest spices up