Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BTO: Shapeshifters

Business Times - 09 May 2009


One restaurant has introduced an outdoor bar to its premises, while another bar is expanding to include a cafe. By Audrey Phoon


Whispering Palms at the Song of India
33 Scotts Road
Tel 6836-0055


THERE'S something blooming in the garden of the Song of India and it's not just plants. What was initially a conversion of the restaurant's al fresco area into an outdoor Fridays- and Saturdays-only lounge called Whispering Palms has grown several unexpected business opportunities, says its director of cuisines Milind Sovani.


He explains: 'The basic reason for opening Whispering Palms was that we had a beautiful al fresco area that was quite under-utilised, and we wanted to provide a more casual alternative to the Song of India because that's all about a more formal sort of dining.


'So we thought of introducing this concept which would appeal to people who didn't want to dress formally but still wanted to enjoy our hospitality and good food, and also to Song of India diners who want to go outside and network or have drinks or cigars before or after their meals.'


Not long after Whispering Palms was launched at the end of last year, however, it began attracting requests for corporate functions and other events on the days it wasn't open. 'Right now, we've even got one lady who rented the place to hold an exhibition,' says Mr Sovani.


The demand isn't surprising, considering that the revamped al fresco lounge - which can take up to 40 seats or 80 people for a standing event - is quite an attractive chill-out area and that to rent it costs about 50 per cent less than to rent the main restaurant.


Whereas it was previously basically just a garden space, 'not really an area where you could hold functions', the lush bit of land outside of the black-and-white Song of India bungalow is now fitted with a host of comfortable outdoor furniture, better lighting and a retractable covering so that the lounge can operate come rain or shine.


It's open from 6pm onwards on Friday and Saturday evenings and when that happens, a temporary bar is set up so that drinks are mixed 'live' as orders are placed and a selection of finger food that's a chunk cheaper than the Song of India prices is available.


Along with tapas-style plates such as murg hazarvi (bite-size pieces of succulent chicken in green cardamom and a cream-and-mountain-cheese marinade; $14) and koliwada prawns (the Mumbai-style shellfish deep-fried to a crisp; $18), you can have Budweiser beer, cocktails or wines starting from $33 a bottle from a list that's separate from the main restaurant's 300-strong range.


Some nights, there are professional belly-dancing performances in between the lounge and Bollywood tunes played at Whispering Palms, but Mr Sovani has plans to make that entertainment aspect blossom even further.


'I would like to do more; maybe a three-piece band playing live music on some days,' he says. 'The plan is that every weekend, people get a different experience.'


Cafe Hacienda
13 Dempsey Road
Tanglin Village
Tel 6476-2922


THE parking's not great and many of the old antique stores that gave Dempsey its character have been pushed out because of rising rents, but some of the new tenants that are moving in promise to make visiting the area a more delicious prospect.


One such business that aims to open next month - as soon as developer Country City Investment finishes refurbishing the newly vacated spaces and constructing covered walkways around the buildings - is Cafe Hacienda, which will complement the existing Hacienda bar at Dempsey Road.


Owner Michel Lu, who also owns Superfamous at Chulia Street, Prive at Keppel Island and the temporarily-closed Brown Sugar bistro, says that he decided to expand the Hacienda concept as the bar has a 'very limited menu and a tiny little kitchen at present'.


'The opportunity presented itself,' he continues. 'We've done extremely well with our food - with Brown Sugar, Prive - and that segment seems to be doing well, so we decided to take this space, brand it Cafe Hacienda and build on what we have.'


The new cafe occupies part of what used to be Wine Network, Barossa Furnishings and Journey East, and overlooks the Singapore Cricket Club football field. It's small, just 35 seats, and is 'not there to compete with places like Jones the Grocer and PS Cafe et cetera', says Lu. In terms of design, Cafe Hacienda will adopt the same look as Hacienda (that is, intimate, casual and rustic, 'just ourselves doing it, not a professional design company') and be located next to the bar. The two businesses will be linked by path, to allow service staff to provide diners with drinks from the bar and vice versa.


Menu-wise, it sounds as if the cafe will be offering a sort of 'best of' compilation from Lu's various kitchens. There'll be burgers, because 'we've done really well with burgers from our Superfamous to our Prive burgers, so certainly we'll be doing our own version here', along with 'some of the things that were popular at Brown Sugar - sticky date pudding, quiches', shares Lu.


Pies from his Prive Bakery Cafe will also make an appearance, as will the milkshakes.

'It's going to be about things that we know work, and that people like,' says the owner, although he adds that the cafe will also 'create its own character as it goes along'.


In fact, Cafe Hacienda is already stamping its name on a house brand of coffee beans. 'We've worked with Highlander Coffee to develop our own line of coffee beans, and we'll be launching it at the cafe when it opens,' Lu says.

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