Michelin Guide Singapore 18 Trilogy Reviews #3 - Winners Take It All?

Much has been said about what getting a star or two on the Michelin Guide can do for a chef's career. Reflecting common industry views, 1 stars could purportedly raise a chef's profile, 2 stars is likely to guarantee a grand following and 3 stars, well, that's the highest accolade a chef can dream of.

Nonetheless, for Singapore, expectations and realities have proven to be rather mismatched so far. Singapore's only 3 star Michelin restaurant Joel Robuchon exited the island nation on 7 June 18 along with its 2 star establishment L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Another 2 star restaurant, the hugely successful Restaurant Andre shuttered just 4 months prior. Why weren't the highest honours of the gourmet world enough to sustain these highly lauded restaurants? And what can winning a star actually do for restaurants listed on the guide?

One of the most common claims circulating the market is that a Michelin star would greatly enhance the popularity of a restaurant and make reservations impossible in the proceeding months after the guide is announced. When I was on the review rounds for our LCO Shanghai and Bangkok Top 10 Lists, we reviewed many Michelin starred restaurants and found that besides 3 star Tang Court at Langham Shanghai and the 2 star Le Normandie in MO Bangkok, both #1 restaurant on our lists, were really packed and booked for weeks, most of the other 1 star restaurants were relatively empty, covering only 3-6 tables, hovering under 20% of capacity, when we visited.

Many Michelin starred restaurants in Singapore also boasted of impossible waiting lists. To verify these claims, we did some investigative work and found that we were able to get a lunch sitting at the 2 star grandee Waku Ghin within 24 hours. We could also get a reservation at Burnt Ends, a new 1 star entrant with very limited seating, within short notice, albeit via 'the right channels'.

Even as the waiting list may be long, the experience may not measure up as well.

"Although the atmosphere is rather 'modern' and you feel like it's a special culinary experience, roast meat isn't something you devour every day so I am not in a hurry to revisit Burnt Ends, especially since we had the counter seats which weren't very comfortable and the food is rather expensive." Shared Ms Wendy Low, a Singaporean gourmand who managed to get a sitting at the newly minted 1 star restaurant for dinner in February within a short time, a few months before the guide was released.

In the last of our trilogy reviews, we visited 3 Michelin starred establishments and spoke to the chefs to understand how their fortunes have fared since attaining a coveted listing on Michelin Guide Singapore 18.

Anthony Charmetant (left) and Mathieu Escoffier looking jubilant with their Paris Brest at 1 star Ma Cuisine

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle (1 star since 2016)

Waiting time - Queues can stretch for hours from 1030am before food runs out around 2pm

A sensation since Chan Hon Meng became the world's first Michelin starred hawker in the first edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore in 2016, the diminutive man with a large stature currently has fortune resting squarely on his sails.

Besides having an incredibly long queue hankering for his signature soya sauce chicken from 1030am each morning (except Wednesdays), Chan had partnered with Hersing Culinary, a Singaporean based company that's spent millions opening branches serving Chan's signature hawker fares around the region.

"When I started in 2009 I was only a hawker. Currently we have 10 branches in cities like Melbourne, Bangkok and Manila and more will come. I am of course very happy with this development as this is a partnership that can bring my delicacies to more people around the region. Being the first Michelin starred hawker has definitely opened up roads for me."

When we visited the famous stall at Chinatown Complex at around noon, the queue has already snaked out of sight. Chan informed us that the queues will form from 1030am when they open for the day.

We sampled a trio of his signatures - roast pork, barbecue ribs and soya sauce chicken served with rice and noodles. The textures were very good, with tastes that are rather sweet and mild. What does Chan think of the somewhat negative reviews his branch, opened last year on Smith Street, is garnering online for being pricey and reductive in taste?

"What I serve at the branch cost more because the rentals are definitely a lot higher. As for the taste of the food, since everything we serve comes from my recipes, they are essentially the same. I think people's expectations just change when they suspect I am not the one cooking. I am still very involved in the kitchen and have not sold out."

After our tasting of the signatures at Chinatown Complex, we visited the Smith Street outlet and found that it was just as impossibly crowded. A lesser version or not, the world's first Michelin hawker remains a sensation in Singapore.

Chan Hon Meng, the world's first Michelin starred hawker, photographed with his signature dishes and a long queue behind him at Chinatown Complex.

Michelin Starred hawker fares of soya chicken, roast pork and BBQ ribs at Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

Chef Kang (1 star since 2017)

Waiting Time - Weeks, if not months depending on the chef's engagements and traveling schedule

Chef Ang Song Kang is a veteran chef with an enormous reputation - an outstanding chef since he was working at reputable restaurants like Lei Garden in Singapore and Hong Kong, Kang has over 20 years of experience running a string of successful restaurants after striking out on his own. About 12 years ago calamity struck one after another as he was diagnosed with cancer and also declared a bankrupt stemming from bad investments.

Since his recovery from cancer which Kang claims is miraculous, he's opened Chef Kang, a three room private diner, as his career swansong. With his trademark candour, he shared his current outlook of life after hitting rock bottom.

"When you have a brush with death, your views on life will change. For me it was always work first. Now I have other priorities. I travel, I rest and I still have my kitchen but it does not run my life anymore."

Chef Kang is notoriously hard to score a reservation. Firstly, Kang does not intend to take every booking - "it really depends on my mood", he joked. Then there's the space constraint which limits bookings to just 3 parties per session. His travels also take up a lot of his time, a hobby he finds both relaxing and educational. And Kang can afford to be picky with his clientele. He is a veteran chef with an impressive clientele list, and there are picture frames beaming with their faces, from former PM of Singapore Goh Chok Tong to Valencia CF's billionaire owner Peter Lim, hanging all over the restaurant as attestations

It took me 4 weeks to finally gain entrance to his small restaurant on the outskirts of Singapore's downtown. The tiny space was packed with boxes of mooncakes that have just arrived from Hong Kong and Kang had cancelled bookings that afternoon to concentrate on our review session as well as the planning for a private wine event he had accepted. In between our candid conversations, we sampled his signature dishes like crispy sliced belly with prawn paste and steamed wild Patin fish. Whilst common laments garnered from internet reviews tend to compare Kang's cuisine with 'Zi Char' or 'Dai Pai Dong' style cooking, a study on the details proved otherwise.

Patin fish is not an uncommon delicacy from Malaysia's fresh waterways but only the highest grade (the fruit eating species) from Borneo is used by Kang in his gloriously delicate steamed dish flavoured only with ginger, mushroom and pickled 'tree seed', a fermented fruit found in Taiwan. The deep fried pork belly boasts of texture and taste, a deeply satisfying crunchy dish imbued with well balanced notes of the usually overpowering prawn paste. The bean curd with dried scallops may have served up scant traces of conpoy, but the home made tofu is firm, smooth and tasty. Like most veteran Yue chefs worth their salt, Kang has returned to the roots of the cuisine to create simplified yet elevated dishes.

Will garnering a star for 2 years running change his outlook anytime soon?

"I am appreciative of the honour but life is too short to hold on to delusions. I only do what I do because I enjoy the process and will continue until I decide it's time to stop."

Chef Kang at last year's Michelin presentation ceremony where he received his first of 2 stars

Patin fish given the lightly steamed Teochew treatment at Chef Kang

Ma Cuisine (1 star since 2018)

Waiting time - 1 week ahead is recommended

This new entrant to Michelin Guide Singapore is purportedly the first and only gastro-wine bar in Asia to be awarded the 1 star honour. And the most unexpectedly listed restaurants often receive the greatest attention.

"We weren’t expecting to receive this, especially after having been opened for just 7 months! Without a doubt, receiving the star definitely changes things for the business. We are humbled by all the new interest in our wine-centric experience and Ma Cuisine has been fully booked every day since the list was announced." Anthony Charmetant, one part of the dynamic duo shared.

"We are immensely grateful to be recognised as the first and only Michelin-starred gastro wine bar concept in Asia and are excited to share our passion for guiding guests to make new discoveries with our extensive wines paired with classic French comfort food. Receiving the star doesn’t change how we define our cuisine, we will continue to prepare simple, uncomplicated dishes for wine lovers." Mathieu Escoffier, chef and co-owner added.

Although Ma Cuisine has been widely popular for their wine selection, with a 45-page wine list that features over 3000 prized bottles from many prime wine producing regions including France, Spain, Italy and the new world, the spirited French cuisine dished out by Escoffier definitely has a significant role to play in the bar's popularity and Michelin success.

Over a sitting by the bar, we sampled a succession of finely presented French favourites, starting with a crispy organic prawn with herbs and spicy mayonnaise paired with a dry sherry 'Fino Inocente Single Vineyard Valdespino NV', followed by the Jambon Persille, a homemade terrine of braised pork shoulder with garlic and parsley paired with a Chardonnay Maison Leroy 2016 and a milk-fed baby lamb shoulder cocotte accompanied by coquillettes with black truffles paired with Domaine de Montcalmes 2015. The meal was capped with a selection of locally processed cheeses from The Cheese Ark and a slice of Paris Brest, gorgeously piped by Escoffier, paired with the Barao de Vilar 1990, a lovely port with fruity rich notes.

The rarity of sterling classical French food in Singapore alone is already a good reason for the success of this new establishment. With the talents of Escoffier, the funky ambience of Ma Cuisine (trendy, casual with a music playlist by French station Radio Meuh) and all the good wines money can buy in a gilded town like Singapore, we suspect that the waiting list here will continue to prolong for quite some time.

Mathieu Escoffier plating his classically French creations at Ma Cuisine

Jambon Persille, a homemade terrine of braised pork shoulder with garlic and parsley paired with a Chardonnay Maison Leroy 2016