Prestige takes a deep dive into the dining trends developing in this region’s most vibrant culinary capitals. Find out what’s firing up the restaurant scenes in Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur, and prepare to have your appetite whetted.
It’s no secret that Bangkok is a city of food fanatics, which is why the fine-dining scene here is so vibrant and varied. And as the local roster of restaurants continues to grow, it becomes apparent that some significant trends have begun to evolve.
When it comes to chefs telling stories via culinary experiences, you can’t get much more personal than the narrative woven by Chef Pichaya “Pam” Utharntharm at her restaurant, Potong. First there’s the five storey, Sino-Portuguese shophouse building itself, which is where her family ancestors built their Chinese herbal medicine empire. Lovingly restored, while still maintaining some Chinatown grit, it’s a multi-room museum that doubles as a modern fine dining venue. Secondly there’s Chef Pam’s 20-course set dinner menus, which evocatively explore the unique fusion that is Thai-Chinese cuisine; revealing it to diners in elevated, progressive, and often mind boggling ways (now using 100 percent local produce to boot). Even Opium, the restaurant’s sensuous upstairs cocktail bar, is so named because the fourth floor was once a place for smoking opium… when it was still legal. All things considered, it’s easy to see why Potong made it to Condé Nast Traveler’s Best New Restaurants in the World: 2022 Hot List.
A highly personal story also underscores the memorable menus created by Chef Deepanker “DK” Khosla at his urban farm restaurant, Haoma. “We cook Neo-Indian cuisine using sustainable and local produce,” he explains, adding that he grows vegetables, herbs, and even raises fish on the restaurant’s premises, creating a zero-waste flow in the process. His passion for achieving food sustainability makes Haoma a “dream come true”, but while the ingredients are firmly rooted in Thai soil, the dishes themselves fully reflect DK’s Indian identity. In his current 10-course tasting menu, entitled ‘Heritage | Roots | Culture’, an informative introduction precedes each creatively concocted dish, elaborating on both its ancient culinary origins and the chef ’s own childhood remembrances.
At Aksorn, acclaimed chef David Thompson combines two intertwining stories; beginning with an exploration of recipes found in his collection of midcentury Thai cookbooks – published circa 1940-1970 – which were often written by very prominent cooks but published anonymously. It was a time when Thailand was emerging from its ancient Siamese past, and these recipes reflected the more modern incorporation of Western and other Asiatic influences. In addition, the cookbook theme at this one-Michelin-starred, fifth-floor restaurant also references the building it’s in, which was the site of the original Central store (which grew into today’s Central Department Store empire). When that first store opened, back in 1950, it was cosmopolitan Bangkok’s favourite bookshop.
While the aforementioned Haoma takes “hyper-local” to delicious extremes, they’re certainly not the only restaurant flying the sustainability flag by sourcing as much produce as possible from within Thailand. At the recently opened Small Dinner Club on Charoenkrung Road, chef-owner Sareen Rojanametin creates multi-course tasting menus that explore Thai cuisine not through traditional recipes but via unexpected flavour combinations (with all ingredients remaining a mystery until after the meal concludes). His deconstructed dishes feature not only familiar Thai ingredients, sourced 100-percent locally – banana, rice, prawn, papaya, coconut, squid – but also less commonly used items, like pickled edible plumeria (frangipani) flowers and mun-prao, an old native variety of potato from Chaiyaphum province.
At Taan, the 25th-floor fine dining restaurant at the Siam@Siam Design Hotel, Chef Monthep “Thep” Kamolsilp’s original menus actually listed the number of kilometres each main ingredient travelled to appear on the plate. His newer gourmet tasting menus no longer list that info, but they do remain 100-percent locally sourced – right down to the ice cream (which uses sticky rice as an emulsifier). Then there’s the one-Michelin-starred Canvas, where Chef Riley Sanders’ current 22-course set menu highlights local, sustainable seafood, lamb, pigeon, and even Thai Wagyu beef. “We have one dish called ‘Bounty’, which has more than 50 varieties of vegetables that change every day, based on seasonality,” the red-headed chef proudly points out.
When restaurateurs choose to open in Bangkok’s historic Old Town areas, they instantly imbue their dining spots with atmosphere and character. A perfect example is Nusara, which Chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn launched in mid-2020. Located on the beautifully remodelled upper floor of a traditional shophouse that, in turn, sits in the shadows of Wat Pho – one of the city’s most revered historic temples – this fabulous fine-dining spot is currently ranked No. 10 on the Asia’s 50 Best list.
Bangkok’s lovably chaotic Chinatown is another prized locale for restaurateurs, with Potong being the area’s most high-profile opening as of late. However, right around the corner from Potong you’ll find the delightful E-ga (which translates as “crow”), where old-school Thai recipes are enjoyed samrub (sharing) style amidst the appealingly eccentric – but always upscale – shabby chic décor. Then there’s Contento Caffé e Cucina, an Osteria-type bistro on the fringes of Chinatown that recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. It’s but one of the three socialising spots found within ‘Rong Samran’, the collective name given to a multi-level block of shophouses being magnificently refurbished by local creative maverick Ou Baholyodhin.
Over the past few years, a significant number of high-profile chefs have opened restaurants in Bangkok that bear their name, showing decisively that having a foothold in the Thai capital is as important now as having a New York, London, or Paris address. One of the newest to arrive on the scene is Villa Frantzén, masterminded by Swedish superstar chef Björn Frantzén of Stockholm’s Frantzén and Singapore’s Zén (both of which hold three-Michelin star ratings). Meanwhile, December 2021 saw the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok hotel’s famed Le Normandie restaurant re christened as Le Normandie by Alain Roux, recreating the culinary experience that can be had at the chef ’s legendary three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn restaurant in the UK.
Slightly older – but not by much – are Côte by Mauro Colagreco, Capella Bangkok’s signature fine-dining venue, and Blue by Alain Ducasse, which lies nestled within the riverside IconSiam complex. Both restaurants currently hold a one-Michelin Star rating, and both have proved the perfect stage to showcase the incredible talents of their resident chefs: Davide Garavaglia at Côte, and Wilfrid Hocquet at Blue.
(Words: Bruce Scott)
Amid the buzzing, ever-changing dining landscape in this city, a number of trends are taking shape as chefs become authors, Korean cuisine gets an artful, contemporary makeover, and mezcal gains ground.
A culinary movement sparked by the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià over a decade ago, author’s cuisine is, as its name suggests, storytelling through food. Chefs have absolute freedom in creating flavours, colours, textures and aromas that are bound neither by genres, cultures or geographical locations. In other words, anything and everything goes.
While not the first in Singapore with this unbridled approach (the now-defunct Restaurant André is a notable forerunner), Preludio at Duo Tower is responsible for introducing author’s cuisine into the local culinary lexicon. Opened in November 2018, the restaurant is a gastronomical autobiography of Colombian-Italian chef-owner Fernando Arévalo, who has worked in New York, Hong Kong and now Singapore. Like a novel, it debuted with “chapters” in place of menus. Beginning with ‘Monochrome’, where Arévalo and his team explored the rudimentary idea of black and white with plates void of colour. The next chapter, unveiled a year later, is themed around time, to mark growth and invite possibilities. In February this year, it launched its third and final instalment with “Two Roads”, which examines duality, choices and the butterfly effect. Preludio may have since retired the concept of chapters, but author’s cuisine remains as the restaurant’s calling card through its sophisticated lunch and dinner experiences.
A more recent champion of this culinary style is Chef Zor Tan, protégé of celebrity chef André Chiang. At his three-month-old restaurant Born, he pays homage to the Circle of Life philosophy (that endings are beginnings and vice versa) with an elaborate menu that reflects his personal journey from childhood to being a chef and a father. There is a course of chicken liver, smoked oil and forest mushroom that honours Chiang, his mentor; a soul-hugging fish maw soup with Chinese cabbage and smoked eel that recalls a confinement dish his wife had after the birth of their first child; as well as a savoury tang yuan (rice ball) filled with Alaskan king crab meat inspired by the family reunions Tan had as a child in Perak. The drinks are just as thoughtful, with exquisite reds and whites from renowned labels like Bouchard and less-known vineyards in Uruguay and China, and a range of delicious in-house ferments to complement the dishes.
The oldest spirit in the Americas is now the drink du jour and we are not the only ones calling it. Robert Parker Wine Advocate has branched out of its wine domain with the release of a special report on mezcal in July, affirming the rise of the agave-based distillate. Adds CEO Nicolas Achard, “Mezcal and tequila have shown up as one of the fastest-growing spirits categories of the past few years. Robert Parker Wine Advocate’s new mezcal report on this category complements our latest initiatives to provide consumers with timely, expert opinions on global drinks trends.”
Titled ‘Mezcal Review’ and written by prolific drink journalist Emma Janzen, the inaugural guide spotlights 20 different brands, including Montelobos Ensamble, a certified organic beginner-friendly mezcal available at Cellarbration, and Grulani Tobalá, said to have a great depth of flavour. Another avenue to explore the fascinating world of mezcal is through La Mexicana, a local purveyor of Mexican products. Noteworthy in its inventory of Mexican liquor is Elemental from Oaxaca, which boast notes of spiced flavours with a slightly bitter and sweet finish.
If you’re keen on a sweet mezcal, consider Del Maguey’s Crema de Mezcal available at La Maison du Whisky. Infused with a good amount of natural agave syrup, it has a nose of roast maguey (an agave plant), with hints of vanilla, pear, almond, apple, coffee, pineapple and a long, sweet smoky orange finish.
There was a time in Singapore when Korean cuisine was limited to barbecue, homestyle dishes (army stew, scallion pancakes, spicy rice cakes) and fried chicken. Then, in 2016, Meta arrived on scene with a contemporary Korean concept that expands our view of the cuisine. Echoing chef Sun Kim’s Korean heritage, travels and culinary experiences, the one-Michelin-star restaurant elevates Korean ingredients and cooking with Western-Japanese components and techniques. On the menu are a Korean abalone porridge with lily bulb and century egg, a lobster haemultang (stew) with artichoke and wild garlic, as well as a rendition of Korean BBQ with A4 Kagoshima beef, rice and white kimchi.
In the last few years, more contemporary Korean restaurants have joined the fold. Nae:um by chef Louis Han focuses on Seoul and its flavours, but expressed with the know-how of someone who has been trained in the West and worked in Lebanon, Abu Dhabi and Singapore. The result is an episodic menu that embodies the duality of Seoul as both progressive and folksy. Think somyeon (thin buckwheat noodles) with kimchi and striped jack; Korean-style grilled coral trout with canola blossom and leek; and beomuri (rice cake) with scallops and tofu in Episode 3.
At Anju, Korean alcoholic beverages take centre stage. Breaking away from the ubiquitous soju, the bustling bar-restaurant boasts a unique drinks collection that includes chung ju (rice liquor), takju (thick and unrefined grain-based liquor), fruit wines and craft beer from the country. Its food menu, which has more than just bar snacks, is designed to complement the booze. Chef Marco Kim is a master in dedicate Korean flavours, delivering modern elegant plates like an addictive black bean mascarpone with sourdough crackers; a refreshing salad of chicken breast, cabbage, pear and cucumber on an icy bed of dongchimi (radish water kimchi) sorbet; a cold Abalone Gim (roasted seaweed) Pasta; lusciously fork-tender beef short ribs; and the new Sotbap, a comforting seasoned rice dish with chunks of red snapper and radish. Desserts are also crafted with the same meticulous care by pastry chef Doreen Ting. The Hwachae, a pretty assemblage of watermelon sorbet, yuzu jelly encased in thick Apple foam, watermelon juice, mint oil, honey tuile and fresh fruits, is a must-have.
(Words: Crystal Lee)
As is the case with many fine dining hubs, the concept of narrative has become an integral part of the gourmet restaurant experience in Hong Kong. Using key ingredients to tell their stories, many of the city’s best chefs command attention by taking diners on deeply personal food forays.
Foodies these days don’t pay top dollar for good food per se, they pay top dollar for a memorable dining experience – fine or otherwise – and there’s no more unique and more worthy experience than finishing your meal feeling like you’ve gotten to know the chef a little deeper; as a person, and as a friend. Chefs today are storytellers, but instead of words, they use ingredients to take you through their culinary journey.
In fact, Leonard Cheung started his restaurant concept, Cultivate, right from his very own kitchen. A fun, one-off dinner party for his foodie friends at home went viral during the Covid lockdown in 2020, and Cheung found himself inundated with requests from people who wanted him to cater fine dining experience in their homes. By March 2021, he was able to open Cultivate, located on Elgin Street.
“There’s really no defining theme or style of cuisine,” says Cheung, who calls Cultivate a concept that is “as incoherent, incongruous and as unpredictable as my personal culinary journey.” He invites his guests to arrive with an open mind, and they’re certainly in for some surprises as Cheung and his team transform inglorious ingredients into a fine dining experience. Take the In-N-Out inspired beef tartare for example, which pays homage to the Californian burgers Cheung had in his youth growing up. The prime Brandt beef tenderloin comes from a family-owned ranch in Brawley, California, and is topped with onion cooked in a Dr. Pepper and liquorice reduction to allude to the way Cheung enjoyed his burger – paired with a Dr. Pepper ice cream float.
Clarence, meanwhile, is celebrated chef Olivier Elzer’s third restaurant in Hong Kong, and his most personal venture yet. Located on Pottinger Street, it’s a dining concept that combines his 13 years in Asia with the soul, heritage, and traditions of French cuisine. The restaurant is segmented into different areas, including a sushi bar-inspired Raw & Wine Bar, which serves unique pairings of raw seafood and wines, and the cave-like Sommelier Room, a private dining area perfect for wine flights.
Classic French dishes are evolved and modernised with the help of Asian cooking techniques including robata, steaming and cooking meat on the bone. The delightful Yakifrenchy skewers are inspired by Elzer and his wife’s love for Japanese yakitori, but done in distinctly French flavours, from duck confit and frog legs, to raclette potato and white ham.
“It’s refreshing for me, as a chef, to go outside of the box and to have the creativity to do whatever I want,” says Elzer, who says his mentor, the late Joël Robuchon, sparked the idea for him to bring an innovative touch to classic French dining. “Back in 2003, Robuchon put a teppanyaki grill, and a sushi counter with small tapas portions in a French restaurant,” muses Elzer. “I’m like okay, if he can do that with the story of his life, why don’t I put my story into Clarence? And that’s why Clarence is so personal to me.”
A personal narrative is also exceptionally strong at Estro, the debut restaurant by Antimo Maria Merone which serves Southern Italian cuisine that is deeply linked to the chef ’s cultural heritage. Located on Duddell Street, Estro – meaning “inspiration” in Italian – is Merone’s homage to his hometown of Napoli, and an ode to his memories of both the people and the place. Each dish tells a story about an ingredient, a region or a historical event, but translated here into an international language – bringing a global perspective to the Italian cuisine.
“What really intrigued me as a chef is to take inspiration from traditional food and try to get it pure, essential, without falling into minimalism,” Merone explains. In the process of extracting, concentrating, and lightening, Merone impressively brings out the essence of Napoli in dishes that look simple but are extremely sophisticated in their complexity of flavours.
One dish that nicely represents his techniques and creative process is the Homage to Salina, inspired by Merone’s favourite island. Japanese squid is carefully prepared then stuffed with premium hybrid caviar and served with a sauce of homemade almond milk, capers and colatura fish sauce. “There are five different processes to complete this dish but the result is a simple half sphere, floating on a sea of almond sauce,” the chef remarks.
Finally, over on Wellington Street you’ll find Andō, which Agustin Balbi describes as “the realisation of my journey as a chef, unifying the flavours I grew up with and the flavours I had learned and experienced very far from home in Asia.” Although he was born in Argentina, he honed his skills in Japan, and thus the name Andō itself has a dual meaning: in Spanish it refers to the act of doing, while in Japanese the word alludes to a sense of comfort. And when you step into its welcoming enclave, this one Michelin-starred eatery promises a wholly unique experience that weaves Balbi’s ancestral roots with his knowledge of Japanese and French techniques and ingredients.
Being a representation of the chef – where he comes from and his journey as not only a cook but as a person – Andō famously doesn’t have a menu where there is a description of ingredients or techniques. Instead, a local artist was commissioned to draw a compilation of cards for the restaurant, telling moments of the chef ’s life that relate to the dishes. “I understand the act of dining as a trust relationship between the guest and the chef, almost like when you go to your friend’s house,” Balbi says. “You don’t mind what’s on the menu because you have trust and just focus on enjoying yourself and having a great time. That is exactly what we want to create.”
(Words: Stephanie Ip)
Rich in diversity and flavour, it is undeniable that Malaysian food, influenced by its surrounding regions, makes for an interesting party on the palate – one that’s certainly celebrated by the country’s multicultural inhabitants. With no shortage of new restaurants opening every other month or so in the capital, there are a couple of significant trends that seem to continuously dominate and curate the path of the dining scene here.
Young and adventurous, Chef Mui Kai Quan helms a hot new dining space in town called Shhhbuuuleee, a hidden rooftop restaurant – interestingly housed in a revamped abandoned cinema – focusing on progressive East Asian cuisine with Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese influences. Driven by Chef Mui’s commitment to sustainable cooking, underrated ingredients create a dining experience that seeks to change the mindset of the masses about non-traditional cuts, especially when it comes to using all parts of an animal in order to cut down on waste and create elevated dining experiences.
An example of just such a dish is the exceptional smoked beef tongue served on skewers with jicama, shrimp paste, and peanut sauce. Carefully skinned, the beef melts in your mouth; its taste further enhanced by the generously nutty sauce. Capitalising on the forgotten culinary bounties of Borneo, another one of Chef Mui’s star creation, his ‘Drunken Cockles’ dish, uses cockles from Semporna. The chef wholeheartedly supports local industries, and the mutual benefit that comes with being able to help fisherfolk and farmers aid in his cause is the ability to bring the freshest ingredients to the table.
In a similar vein, Chef Raymond Tham’s Beta KL is constantly changing the way we look at food; honouring all the rich flavours Malaysia has to offer with produce sourced sustainably. Every foodie at one point has experienced his carefully curated ‘Tour of Malaysia’ menu, which delivers dishes composed of carefully selected ingredients that are unique to different states, such as kedondong from Penang, sweet potato from Johor, and others.
Chef Raymond’s most recent and third outpost after Beta KL, and Skillet@163, is Burnt & Co, which focuses mainly on the wonders of grilled dishes. Keeping true to his spirit of sustainability, the open-flame kitchen utilises a Josper Grill along with a Basque-style grill, and makes use of sustainably sourced mangrove woods and charcoal for the fire.
Over at Eat and Cook, the chef-owners – Lee Zhe Xi and Soh Yong Zhi – might only be 25 years old, but the restaurant’s phenomenal rise to the top saw it recently bestowed the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 American Express One to Watch award, an accolade always given to the hottest restaurant in Asia. Eat and Cook was also named No. 81 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021’s extended list.
Part of Chef Lee and Chef Soh’s success is attributed to their commitment in sourcing their produce directly from local farmers and fishermen, and finding ingredients that are in their prime. Researching about the best species of fish available for the particular season, or sourcing scallops and crabs from the East of Malaysia, is how the team ultimately decides on their upcoming menus, which are, in turn, constantly evolving depending on what produce is available at the moment. And it’s all carefully planned to make the most of everything without allowing excessive wastage.
The magnetic formula at the aforementioned Eat and Cook that keeps diners coming back for more – earning the restaurant its much-deserved cult status – is Chef Lee and Chef Soh’s undeniable talent at incorporating storytelling into the meal in order to create an elevated dining experience. With an astounding 17 small courses in total in their degustation menu, the pair relies on Malaysian accents, flavour profiles, memories, and distinctive cooking styles to highlight the local cultures. The ingredients and stories allow the chefs at Eat and Cook to create an updated menu every three to four months, with each new menu offering what they refer to as a ‘Chapter’; signifying a cuisine from a particular region in Malaysia, or memories from their own childhoods.
Recalling childhood nostalgia, Chef Raymond of Beta KL also stresses the importance on delivering storytelling that invites discussions. Growing up in the state of Negeri Sembilan, he seeks to recall the flavours that he once experienced, inserting them into the dishes he creates today. From the ingredients to the descriptions on the menu, every dish is aimed to be a conversation starter that takes you on a road trip of Malaysia, from the North down to the South.
Meanwhile, taking the Omakase experience to another level is Chef James Won’s Shin’Labo, which marries Japanese cuisine with that of French, while using carefully sourced indigenous Malaysian ingredients. Originating from Osaka, kappou is a style of Japanese multi-course cuisine that emphasises a closeness between the diner and the chef, with dishes prepared in front of the guests to stimulate all the five senses. The Shin’Kappou experience at Shin’Labo seeks to create that same intimacy in a premium fine dining experience, wherein diners are encouraged to savour and explore the seasonality of food and the quality of the ingredients – all through impeccably crafted dishes that take one on a gastronomic journey that truly exists on a different plane.
(Words: Naseem Randhawa)