Sunday, May 17, 2009

STI: True flavours

May 17, 2009

True flavours

Owners of restaurant brands imported from overseas say they stick to the original taste

By Huang Lijie 


Elation gave way to hesitation when Ms Lauren Tan, 25, a postgraduate student, heard that popular French bakery Le Grenier a Pain had opened here.


She says: 'I tried its baguettes on a holiday in Paris and they were very good, so I was extremely excited about it opening in Singapore.


'But there was a 'question mark' at the back of my mind as to whether the breads would taste as authentic as the ones in France.'


Her fears, however, were unfounded and she is glad that its baguettes retain their characteristic chewiness even though the market here prefers a softer version that is commonly sold in local bakeries.


While foreign food and beverage (F&B) brands are fast popping up on the dining scene here, the question on foodies' minds is: Will the food be just like what they have tasted on their travels?


The 18 eateries LifeStyle spoke to say they have not, and do not plan to, drastically modify the food or menu to win over Singaporeans. Their selling point, after all, lies in offering a gourmet experience similar to that in their countries of origin.


For purist foodies, this is cause for cheer. Yet some are irked by this strict adherence to maintaining the food's original flavour.


Administrative executive Candy Heng, 32, for example, feels that foreign restaurant imports should consider local taste preferences since 'the customer picks what he likes most, whether or not it's true to the original taste'.


Still, Mr Minoru Shionoiri, 52, president of the Japanese izakaya (gastrobar) chain Tsubohachi, which is opening in Iluma this month, says: 'The menu offerings and the taste of the food at our Singapore outlet will be exactly the same as our shops in Japan because we want to introduce authentic Japanese cuisine to Singapore.'


Likewise, American steakhouse Morton's of Chicago, which has an outlet at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, insists on preserving the original taste of its food.


Its general manager, Mr Zyron Schoniwitz, says: 'If we were any other restaurant, we might feel the need to adapt to Singapore, but we are such an established American steakhouse that people pay what they do to have the same experience here. And the taste of the food plays a big part in this.'


A spokesman for the Indonesian doughnut chain J.CO, with shops in Raffles City Shopping Centre and Bugis Junction, adds: 'We're an international brand with 61 stores worldwide so we develop our products such that they can be accepted in many countries and not just by consumers of a specific market.'


Diners such as lawyer Axel Chan, 55, who is a fan of Paulaner Brauhaus' German sausages and pork knuckle, appreciate the authenticity.


He says: 'Singaporeans travel a lot so it would be insulting if the restaurants amended their food to local taste.'


To preserve the integrity of the taste of the food, many foreign F&B brands here use ingredients from the same source as the original eateries.


Italian confectionery specialist, Cova, founded in Milan, imports the bulk of the ingredients for its cakes and pastries, such as chocolate and nuts, from Italy.


Coffee chain Trung Nguyen with an outlet in Liang Court, prides itself on using the same coffee beans - grown in Vietnam's coffee capital of Buon Ma Thuot city - as its shops in Vietnam.


The cooks who helm international F&B brands in Singapore also receive training from their headquarters on how to cook an authentic-tasting meal.


Kitchen Language, the F&B arm of Far East Organization, which brought in American sandwich chain Quiznos to Far East Square, sent two of its managers to the United States to train at an outlet for three weeks.


There, they learnt the detailed method of making the chain's sandwiches, from slicing the meat to a particular thickness to achieving perfectly toasted sandwiches by heating them at a certain temperature and duration.


Others, such as Indian chain eatery Murugan Idli, maintain a consistent taste by sending experienced chefs from its outlets in India to cook at the shop in Syed Alwi Road.


Despite these efforts, however, the taste of the food and drinks at these eateries do not always hit the mark.


Mr Liang Tian Yong, 29, a systems engineer who is a big fan of Trung Nguyen, believes its coffee in Vietnam tastes and smells 'better' and more 'refined' than what is served here.


On such complaints, Mr Kenichi Takahashi, 52, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Japan Foods Holding, which imports Japanese F&B brands such as Ajisen ramen, says: 'The climate tends to confuse people's tastebuds and it may make people think that similarly flavoured foods taste different in different places.'


The 18 eateries LifeStyle interviewed agree on the importance of offering an authentic gastronomic experience but also acknowledge that local taste preferences cannot be completely ignored.


Mr Eric Yang, 24, the second-generation owner of Chinese restaurant Duo Le with three outlets in China's Shaanxi province, is opening an outlet at Orchard Central next month.


He says: 'We will not specially change the flavour of our food just because we hope to penetrate the Singapore market. If a dish is meant to have a slightly stronger taste, we will not purposely make it mild to suit Singaporeans. It's important for us to stay true to the style of food Duo Le represents.


'But we will definitely reduce the amount of salt and oil in the food here, because our cooking in Shaanxi is just too salty and oily. Nobody here can take it. Even if we opened in another city in China, we would have to reduce the salt and oil as well.'

Mr Takahashi of Japan Foods Holding, which brought the Aoba ramen chain from Japan to Tampines 1, shares the sentiment.


He says: 'We stuck to the original taste and did not dramatically change it, but the portion of lard in Aoba's ramen is halved in Singapore.


'That is because the original amount of lard in the recipe was meant for ramen eaten in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, where the store was founded, and it is extremely cold there.'


Clearly, these restaurant brand imports realise that to woo diners here, a happy marriage needs to exist between serving an authentic cuisine and having it appeal to local tastebuds.


Japanese bistro bar chain A971 Cafe in Merchant Road, which is brought in by the F&B company Select Group, expanded its 40-item food menu - the one used in Japan - to one with 120 dishes. Its beefed-up menu, based on customer requests for more variety, was created together with its Japanese partners to ensure that the new items fit well with the original dishes.


Embracing this change is Mr Ling Wee Seng, 49, a telecommunications business development director and repeat customer at A971 Cafe.


He says: 'I like how its menu has grown to include more choices such as a yakitori selection. The food, which is not strictly traditional Japanese, makes it unique as well.'


Japanese restaurant chain Ootoya, which is opening in Orchard Central next month, similarly plans to serve authentic homestyle Japanese cooking when it launches, and to make changes where necessary along the way, based on diners' feedback, says its project coordinator, Mr Philip Cheong.


These restaurants' push to stay as faithful as possible to their original creations is appreciated by diners here.


Housewife Carla Gastel Brooks, 33, who grew up with Cova in Milan, says of its outlet here: 'The food and coffee here tastes exactly the same as in Milan. They have been very good at keeping the taste real and making Singaporeans like it.'


Striving to stay real


Foodies can save themselves a plane ticket by dining at the following overseas eateries that have opened recently or will be opening here soon.



Where: 30 Merchant Road, 01-04, Riverside Point, tel: 6221-9711

Open: 5pm to midnight, Sundays to Thursdays, 5pm to 3am, Fridays and Saturdays

What: This Japanese bistro bar chain expanded its menu here to include more varieties while still maintaining an authentic taste, with the help of its chef who is from the Japan outlet. Its signature items include fried prawn ($8.71) and seafood pasta ($14.71).



Where: 10 Tampines Central 1, 03-16, Tampines 1, Manpuku Japanese Gourmet Town, tel: 6789-6810

Open: 11.30am to 10pm daily

What: This ramen specialist shop from Hokkaido, Japan, may use half the amount of lard in its noodles here, but strives to replicate the original taste. A popular item is its shoyu tontoro ramen (soya sauce with pork belly noodles, above, $14.80).



Where: 181 Orchard Road, 08-09/10, Orchard Central, opening next month

What: Expect authentic Chinese food such as home-made pig's knuckles with chilli and vinegar ($12.80) and spicy pork tenderloin with shao bing, a type of Chinese flatbread ($16.80 for the pork dish and $2.50 for each flatbread) from this Shaanxi province chain.



Where: 181 Orchard Road, 08-12, Orchard Central, opening next month

What: Known for its homestyle cooking, this Japanese restaurant with 235 outlets in Japan, as well as stores in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand, will stick to the authentic taste of its food when it launches. Signature items include its Ootoya set, which comprises fried chicken with a sunny-side-up egg, beef croquette, vegetable salad, soup and rice.



Where: 10 Tampines Central 1, 03-16, Tampines 1, Manpuku Japanese Gourmet Town, tel: 6789-6810

Open: 11.30am to 10pm daily

What: This udon specialist from Japan where it has more than 100 shops offers tempting noodles such as its cold kakiage udon ($8.80).



Where: 201 Victoria Street, 04-08, Iluma, Ebisboshi Shotengai, tel: 6835-7056

Open: 11am to 10.30pm, weekdays, 11am to 11.30pm, weekends, from May 29

What: This Japanese izakaya chain restaurant with more than 400 outlets in Japan will maintain the authenticity of its food by importing its ingredients, such as fish for its sushi and sashimi, from Japan. Highlights on the menu include grilled arabesque green ling ($11.80) and bluefin tuna sashimi ($9.80).



Where: 49 Pekin Street, 01-01, Far East Square, tel: 6557-2270

Open: 8am to 8pm, weekdays, 8am to 3pm, Saturdays, closed on Sundays

Open: 11.30am to 10pm daily

What: This American sandwich chain with over 5,000 outlets worldwide imports its sauces and artisan breads from the United States for an authentic taste. Must-tries include its Zesty Steak sandwich and Honey Mustard Chicken sandwich (both $6.20 for 6-inch).



Where: 604 Sembawang Road, 01-01, Sembawang Shopping Centre, tel: 6752-7627

Open: 10am to 10pm daily

What: Crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside are how its traditional French baguettes ($3) are made. Those who are fiercely loyal to their kaya toast, however, will be happy to know that it also sells a kaya butter baguette toast ($2).

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