From 2018, a new designation has been introduced to further confuse what it means to be a Michelin listed restaurant. Previously, restaurants are ranked 3, 2 and 1 star according to their culinary distinctions by anonymous inspectors making their rounds in cities with their own Michelin Guide. Restaurants that didn't win a star but deemed capable of dishing out a good meal for good value at around $40 or less are awarded a Bib Gourmand. From this year, restaurants 'where inspectors have discovered quality food' will be deemed as 1 plate, or L’Assiette Michelin establishments.
With this latest development, there is now more cause for wonder on the validity of Michelin's authority on Singapore's gourmet scene. 150 establishments, mostly street food, now inhabit the new extension of this guide with several renowned restaurants that didn't earn a star in this and previous editions. One would indeed be naive to call this a heartening consolation when one considers how restaurants with a 10 page menu featuring exquisite creations are now branded by Michelin as equal to a hawker stall proffering banana fritters (Lim Kee Orchard), or more bewilderingly, gelato (Birds of Paradise), which the guide classifies as 'street food'.
We review 7 top restaurants in Singapore, 2 with Michelin stars and 5 without, to try and uncover the mysterious quality that gets one included or kept out of this arcane guide.
Braised whole fresh abalone, one of the expertly prepared traditional dishes at Shang Palace, Shangri-la Singapore that convinced me that there are more deserving restaurant left out rather than included in the 3rd edition of Michelin Guide Singapore.
Shisen Hanten by Chen Kentaro (2 Stars), Meritus Mandarin Orchard
Fronted by Chen Kentaro, scion of the family of famous chefs largely credited with the popularisation of Szechuan food in Japan, Shisen Hanten is the only overseas branch of the prolific Japanese chain, and the only to snag a 2 stars honour in the Michelin Guide. When the inaugural honours were first announced in 2016, even Chen was flabbergasted. “It was unbelievable,” chef Kentaro told the Michelin Guide. “I was hoping for one star; I always felt we were up for one star. But two stars, it's like watching Japan win the World Cup - it’s a miracle!”
His own surprise has since echoed through the consciousness of industry watchers over the past 3 editions of the Michelin Guide Singapore. As the only Chinese restaurant, Japanese managed no less, to garner 2 stars in the Southeast Asian bastion of Chinese culinary heritage, Shisen Hanten certainly has grand expectations to live up to. We visited the lofty restaurant dripping with stunning chandeliers over a week night after the list was released and found it quite packed with patrons, business as usual.
Attentively assisted by a trio of staff who took our orders, recommended wine and waited at our table, a succession of chef's signatures arrived expertly timed. Piquant flavours were firstly introduced with the chilled century egg beancurd with Szechuan sauce before more distinct notes of hot and sour were served up with the Szechuan seafood soup. Other crowd pleasers including char siew and roast pork, roasted London duck and sauteed chicken with chilli pepper arrived before the meal was capped with highlight dishes of aromatic sweet and soup pork with black vinegar and Chen's signature Mapo Tofu, the dish every Japanese associates with Chinese food in Japan.
Whilst the food was skillfully prepared with distinctive notes of exoticism derived both from Szechuan cuisine's penchant for addictive peppers and Chen's subtle modification of the region's strong flavours, a sitting here is gratifying but if there were elements that set it above other Chinese restaurants in Singapore, we cannot discern it.
At the very least, for a restaurant that has maintained a 2 stars rating over 3 editions, one would have expected more rarefied touches, like homemade tofu perhaps.
Sweet and soup pork with black vinegar, Shisen Hanten, Meritus Mandarin Singapore
Summer Palace (1 star), Regent Hotel Singapore
Executive chef Liu Ching Hai has clocked over 20 years of experience in Cantonese cuisine and brings to the menu here signatures like deep fried chicken fillets with almond flakes and lemon sauce, smoked chicken with jasmine tea leaves and Hong Kong crispy roasted duck. The dim sums here are also famous for their innovative flavours, with the glutinous rice with baby abalone wrapped in lotus leaf, baked chicken tart with baby abalone and barbecue pork buns decided favourites.
Over 2 sittings spanning the past 6 months, our experience at this old time favourite can best be described as uneven, with culinary notes that range from deeply satisfying to barely memorable. Over a lunch that included a lovely fish maw soup with aweto flowers and silky fowl, flavoursome deep fried spare ribs and assorted dim sums, there were highlights just as there were let downs. The texture of the roasted pork was good but parts of the crackling were slightly burnt. The glutinous rice with baby abalone was so memorable from the previous session that my disappointment was doubly heightened biting into a bland version over this visit. And generally the presentations were overtly simplistic, and lacked visual appeal.
If consistency is a cornerstone factor for bestowing restaurants with stars, there are definitely other players out in the field that's kept a tighter ship sailing.
Glutinous rice with baby abalone wrapped in lotus leaf, Summer Palace, Regent Hotel Singapore
Majestic Restaurant (1 plate)
Veteran Cantonese chef Yong Bing Ngen has made his name at such reputable restaurants like Jiang Nan Chun and Hai Tian Lou that when the Michelin Guide Singapore was first launched, the snub for his hugely popular Majestic Restaurant was sharply felt.
With the latest edition of the guide and the restaurant's inclusion in the Michelin plate section, this slight is even more pronounced. A masterful chef who is widely respected for his studied treatments of Cantonese cuisine, Chef Yong has steered the restaurant into critical and commercial success since 2006 with its current premises at Marina One packed for lunches and dinners even at a brand new location.
At the contemporary space with an open kitchen and glass exterior, chef Yong dishes out his signatures that largely stayed true to traditional recipes. His five spice pork belly is an upgraded version with tender and fine textured Kurobuta pork whilst his vegetable dumpling is topped with a slice of truffle that makes the comely parcel incredibly aromatic as well. The smoked French corn-fed chicken arrives encased within a veil of hickory smoke, rather gimmicky one might think, until the glass bell is lifted and the subtle fragrance is released to whet the appetite. His sweet and sour pork with pomegranate and strawberry is another winner, the crispy slivers rendered from a slab of belly with just the right balance of fat and lean meat.
By the time one finishes the session with a heavenly black truffles and egg white fried rice and a trio of desserts featuring durian, one remains resolutely perplexed why a veteran in command of such highly lauded skills can be slighted thus.
Smoked French corn-fed chicken with salt and hickory, Majestic Restaurant Singapore
Shang Palace, Shangri-la Singapore (1 Plate)
Executive chef Mok Kit Keung is a busy man. After spending 7 years steering Shang Palace at Kowloon Shangri-la towards its 2 stars accolade, the illustrious chef who's cooked for kings and presidents is now back in Singapore to direct the chain's first Shang Palace whilst still keeping his eyes on the Kowloon restaurant. Juggling his duties between the 2 islands, he is also expected to visit Paris regularly on a consultant role to the 1 star counterpart there.
After considering the man and all his achievements, it remains even more confounding why Shang Palace in Singapore is still deemed unequal to even 1 star for the local Michelin Guide.
Even after revamping the menu at Shang Palace Singapore, the perfectionist chef is still endlessly sourcing for more quality ingredients to bring to his clientele base in the Lion City. According to him, the lovely roasted pork with its perfectly crunchy crackling still needs to be slightly fattier. The meat used for the amazing chicken dishes need to have more bite, like the texture of premium Shalan chickens preferred in Hong Kong. Even the ginger used to accompany the century eggs must be pickled by himself. The dedication to details and the quest for perfection is highly laudable, as is the standard of culinary excellence already entrenched here since the chef's arrival barely a year before.
After a sampling of more exemplary dishes like double boiled fish maw broth with almond, braised abalone with fish maw and goose web, chicken wings stuffed with mushroom and abalone and baked sea cucumber with cheese, the superbly prepared braised whole fresh abalone from Australia, one of the most trying dishes to prepare from the old Cantonese volumes, arrived to reinforce the fact that it is utterly without merit to equate a chef of Mok's caliber with even an expert of street fares.
Braised abalone with fish maw and goose web, Shang Palace, Shangri-la Singapore
Wan Hao, Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel
Since its inception decades ago, Wan Hao has been regarded as a culinary landmark on the Chinese fine dining scene of Singapore. Over the years its popularity had momentarily waned due to a lack of capable chefs. Since executive chef Brian Wong's appointment 2 years ago, the restaurant's situation had speedily improved by leaps and bounds.
By any yardstick chef Wong is an intrepid risk taker who wouldn't think twice about sous-viding abalones or baking glutinous rice cakes in tarts. He hatches audacious ideas that marry culinary heritage with elaborate fantasies and sees them to fruition with uncommon zeal and tenacity. You may not have heard of him yet, but you will soon hear of his exquisite dim sums (black truffles taro dumplings) and his conceptual mooncakes (Serrano ham with chrysanthemum). In fact, in a dining landscape that is generally averse to changes, Wong intends to stake it out as a game changer.
Out of the 4 review sessions I've had at Wan Hao over the past year, not a single dish was ever repeated. The exquisitely designed dim sums here always evolve with the seasons, or the chef's mood, whether it is a new way to temper a crunchier shell or the injection of outrageous colours derived from natural ingredients, there is always an element of surprise, and an elevation of the senses. Tofu and prawns were blended into a comely parcel gorgeously stained with saffron. Fish maw was treated to an almond bath grandly perfumed by Boletus mushrooms. A fatty duck was sourced from Ireland for a succulent roast accented by black garlic. Sea urchin was utterly amalgamated onto every grain of lovely rice fried with lobster.
With such an intense interest in creating tastes and textures so exceptionally bold, Wan Hao is still one of the best haunts in town for the plumpest siew mai and the softest, most fragrant char siew pau. How could Michelin inspectors have lost sight of such an emerging force in this landscape much stifled by mediocrity?
Double boiled fish maw with Botelus mushrooms in almond puree, Wan Hao, Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza
Rang Mahal (1 plate), Pan Pacific Singapore
Singapore's only Michelin starred Indian restaurant, The Song of India, was started by chef Milind Sovani after he parted ways with Rang Mahal a decade ago. He has since left the 1 star restaurant to return to India to pursue his dream of owning a string of diners there before returning here to resume his lead at Rang Mahal last July.
According to the veteran chef, the menu he'd created and left behind for his successor at the thrice awarded restaurant is still being served today, which begs the question, why isn't Sovani able to replicate the same success for one of Singapore's most renowed fine dining Indian restaurant yet?
The answer may well elude us, at least for another year, as a sampling of the highly respected chef's revamped menu at Rang Mahal only strengthened his claim for due recognition. Departing from his younger days when he's creatively transformed Indian cuisine for the fine dining table, the chef's current menu features mostly traditional entrees with creative yet subtle treatments and presentations. The meal started with a tomato Saar, an earthy Indian soup cleverly incorporated with a Mulethi herb foam for appetising aroma. An ensemble of kebabs was served with garlic naan and a tandoori flavoured cheese fondue. Even though the succulent morsels were good enough on their own, the mildly flavoured sauce paired well with the roasted meats. The Dhuwandaar lamb chops, the restaurant's best seller according to Sovani, did not disappoint with its robust flavours and great texture.
A dessert duo of flaming Gulab Jamun and freezing lychee kulfi provided the sweet round notes to end the meal that effectively announces chef Sovani's triumphant return to Singapore.
Gulab Jamun Flambé, Rang Mahal, Pan Pacific Singapore
Osteria Art (1 plate)
Beppe de Vito is a veteran restaurateur and chef with a string of successful bars and restaurants under his belt. His intimate diner, Braci, has won him 1 Michelin star 2 years in a row. While he toils tirelessly between his restaurants to ensure that his exacting standards are imprinted on every joint, one wonders aloud what is it about his 1-star restaurant that differs from his other quality establishments?
We caught up with de Vito once again at his very popular Osteria Art to try and make sense of the situation. If there are issues with this often packed Italian fine diner that renders it inconsistent with the winning standards maintained at Braci, we want to get to the gist of it.
Tucking into a succession of classical Italian courses over lunch, there is no ambiguity that the culinary standards here are at the very least on par with Braci. Sampled from the current menu are an expertly grilled Sicilian asparagus with almond cream and crispy egg, a comforting Prosciutto di Parma with Italian Rock Melon and hazelnuut oil and a gorgeously plated Pacific cod with romanesco, confit tomatoes and scampi sauce. These are all hearty flavours of Italy gorgeously presented as gourmet fares. Moving on to chef Beppe's new menu comprising of whisky-aged Occelli cheese ravioli with marsala jus & black truffle, Sicilian red prawn, foie gras, Amalfi lemon and seaweed as well as a solid slab of pork tomahawk carved from a sizzling bed of rosemary, one is convinced by these impressive and winsome ensembles that Osteria Art definitely deserves a higher place on Michelin Guide Singapore.
It is just incomprehensible how so many deserving restaurants helmed by hugely reputable and talented chefs can be blithely ignored by a dining guide that is supposed to know good food and laud quality restaurants.
Pacific cod with romanesco, confit tomatoes and scampi sauce, Osteria Art Singapore