Business Times - 02 May 2009
Specialised eateries are moving into condominium developments and they're cooking up - and creating - quite a storm. By Audrey Phoon
UNTIL recently, Singapore's list of best burger places held no more surprises than the familiar sandwiches themselves: among the line-up were such usual suspects as One-Ninety at the Four Seasons, Astons, Iggy's and WineGarage. But then, last November, a tiny joint with a clumsy-sounding name opened in a place where no one would have thought to look for a good burger - and unexpectedly took a bite out of that list.
Sunshine @ Carrie's is located within the Sommerville Park condominium at Farrer Drive, and its signature dish is the Sunshine Burger made with beef, bacon and 'a bit of sunshine' - a portobello mushroom. Each patty is hand-formed and juicy, the rashers of bacon are reamed with fat, and the bun is soft and fresh, so it's no surprise that the burger is receiving rave reviews from foodies, some of whom reckon this to be Singapore's best.
Of course, as with any other food, that's arguable. What's certain, however, is that the Sommerville Park cafe signals a new age in condo eateries, one where the pau machines and quick-fix fare of yore are replaced by speciality foods.
Indeed, Sunshine @ Carrie's aside, several other decent, cuisine-focused eateries have sprung up within condo developments over the past six months. For starters, there's an as-yet-unnamed Korean restaurant at Ridgewood Condominium, and the Italian cafe Buono (opened by the owner of the similarly-named Buono restaurant at Lichfield Road in Serangoon Gardens) within Chuan Park. Over at Rodyk Street's Watermark condo, coffee specialist Kith Cafe has taken up a ground-floor unit, while Japanese seafood cafe Hokkaido Sandwich and Sashimi Bar has anchored at The Sail. Then there's Mandarin Gardens' Thai-influenced Thaipan restaurant, which recently underwent a makeover and reopened in December with a bigger kitchen.
Why pick a condo to present food that could easily win over bigger audiences in a central area? Although such locations mean that these eateries get virtually no non-resident walk-ins and have to abide by the estates' by-laws (no structural changes, no renovations without prior approval et cetera), the general consensus is that there is a lot to like about being situated within the residential developments.
Says Sunshine @ Carrie's co-owner Andrew Sim, who originally wanted to set up shop at Holland Village: 'The rental is much cheaper, for one thing.' Also, because about 80 per cent of Sommerville Park's residents are expatriates, the cafe - whose business has been 'picking up ever since people started talking about us on the Internet' - gets better feedback as the diner-residents are 'well-travelled and used to eating well'.
In any case, how brisk one's business is depends more on quality than on location, reckons Mr Sim, whose background is in food-and-beverage consulting. 'In Singapore, wherever you are, if the food is good, people will come. Look at Sunset Grill at Seletar Airbase - it's so obscure and yet you find people there.'
For Hokkaido Sandwich and Sashimi Bar, being in a CBD-situated condo ensures a flow of diners even after office workers leave for home. Ng Wai Khuan, who owns the bistro together with her husband, says that while during the day the cafe is busy with orders from those working at the nearby One Raffles Quay, the bulk of business after-hours comes from The Sail's residents. 'A lot of the other CBD stores are quiet at night, but we get residents coming down for dinner or to grab a quick bite,' she says.
In fact, condo eateries may play an even bigger part in residents' lives should the recent outbreak of swine flu worsen. Thaipan's Paul Lee remembers when his restaurant opened in 2003 during the time of the SARS epidemic. 'Our business did really well during that period because everyone was staying in, they didn't go to the supermarket, lots of shops outside were closed. But they still needed to eat so they came downstairs. So for us, that was the time everyone really got to know us.'
With many of the condo cafes open to non-residents as well though, some residents feel that the businesses are doing the estates a disservice. At Chuan Park, complaints about parking problems have surfaced, while another resident who declined to be named feels that eateries that are open to the public and located within condos raise security issues. He says: 'The restaurants bring non-residents into the estate, and it's hard to keep tabs on so many people going in and out.'
But Thaipan's Mr Lee points out: 'A condo eatery is like a swimming pool, it adds value to the estate. We provide something for the residents and we also draw non-residents who may eventually like the place enough to buy it.
'With Mandarin Gardens, for instance, they'll come in and see that the estate not only has a restaurant but also a minimart, a kindergarten and more, and this will give the place more value.'
Still, such eateries must do their part to keep the peace, he adds, explaining that Thaipan does not advertise ('so that we don't draw the crowds and inconvenience the residents') nor openly market itself. Instead, the restaurant relies on 'soft marketing tactics' such as word-of-mouth, says Mr Lee.
Sunshine @ Carrie's Mr Sim agrees. 'We close by 10pm and our last order is at 9pm so that we have time to shut down our machines and wash up by closing time,' he says. 'We do tell our diners to keep it down and the security guards appear like ninjas if it gets too noisy anyway! But we've not had any problems so far; everyone has been very cooperative. The residents have given me lots of encouragement and the management committee has been very kind to my cafe.
'I'll play by the rules because I don't want to make things difficult for all parties.'
Most of the eateries BT Weekend spoke to have also introduced delivery or takeaway services so as to minimise the amount of traffic within the condos.
It stands to reason that if a balance can be struck, everyone has something to gain, says Mandarin Gardens resident J Chua. 'The cafes will get good business without disrupting the convenience of others, the profile of the condo will be raised - that's if the restaurant is good, of course. And everyone will have one more place to get a decent meal,' she concludes.
Three of the best
Sunshine @ Carrie's
83 Farrer Drive
Sommerville Park clubhouse
WITH its simple aluminium chairs and tables, chalkboard menu and tiny counter behind which the owners cook, Sunshine @ Carrie's is a very plain joint. The burgers served here, however, are anything but. Try the signature Sunshine Burger ($16.50) that's made with a hand-formed 200g Australian beef patty, cheese, sizzling bacon and a juicy portobello mushroom. The meat (which co-owner Andrew Sim says has a marbling grade of mb1+) oozes juices which you can mop up with the chunky fries. If you're feeling adventurous, ask for the cafe's peanut butter Sunshine Burger that's got the addition of melted peanut butter on the bottom half of the bun. It sounds strange but the salty-smooth peanut butter actually goes pretty well with the meat.
Mr Sim is an F&B consultant who has had projects in New York and Bangkok, among other places, and he's of the opinion that the 'burgers in Singapore are nothing compared to those in other places'.
'The burgers here are all marinated,' he complains. 'I want to taste beef, not herbs and spices. I'm trying to educate people that it's about the meat - I think it's a cardinal sin to marinate beef.'
Got a beef with beef? The poolside cafe also serves pizzas or Mr Sim can whip up a portobello burger for you instead, but don't expect him to introduce chicken, fish or pork burgers to the menu. 'I want people to learn to eat beef burgers,' he says. 'I won't diversify into other types.'
Hokkaido Sandwich and Sashimi Bar
4 Marina Boulevard
#01-33 The Sail @ Marina Bay
ITS name says it all, really. The six-month-old Hokkaido Sandwich and Sashimi Bar at The Sail serves up the seafood that the Japanese region is so well known for, on sushi rice or specially-baked Japanese bread.
There's prawn, scallop, tuna, swordfish, salmon and salmon roe to choose from, but if you want that unique Japanese breakfast-sandwich taste, go for the egg mayonnaise with breaded Hokkaido king crab legs on white bread ($10, above).
The crab legs are plump and juicy and the egg is not too creamy, but it's the bread that makes the sandwich. Thick and slightly chewy and dense, it's got that distinct flavour that only authentic Japanese sandwiches have.
Owner Ng Wai Khuan (who is a medical doctor and also a partner in M Hotel's Hokkaido Sushi Restaurant), says a top baker hand-makes the bread with premium Japanese flour and no preservatives for the cafe. (There are also other varieties to choose from, such as ciabatta and rye, which are made by the same baker.)
Portions are on the small side, but that has not stopped the cafe earning a regular following of discerning diners. One Japanese gourmet, who lives in The Sail and has Michelin inspectors for friends, is a fan of her sandwiches, shares Mrs Ng, adding: 'If my food is good enough for him, I'm happy.'
13 Siglap Road
THERE'S decent furniture, contemporary lamps and even the odd stylised divider or two at Thaipan, but the prices inside the 'Pan Asian' restaurant - as owner Paul Lee calls it - are more hawker than anything, thanks to the low rent at its Mandarin Gardens premises.
That means you can have things like fish maw soup with crab meat, Jingdu pork and Szechuan chicken for less than $10 for a small serving, while staples such as the restaurant's fried rice and noodle dishes go for just $3.50 a portion.
As with lower-priced restaurants, there are some corners cut here and there - the fish maw soup, for instance, had very little crab meat in it, while the butter squid wasn't very fresh. But many of the dishes are very decent and prove that you don't have to pay a lot to get a good meal. The Thaipan fried rice (above), in particular, is extremely tasty. It's studded with cubes of char siew and fired up with chilli padi - and it's just $3.50.
To try and serve its customers even better, Thaipan recently expanded the size of its kitchen after a few months of renovation (and consulting with the condo management). 'The kitchen we inherited was not so conducive as it limited operation flow,' says Mr Lee. 'With the renovation, more cooks can cook at the same time.'