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High-end in the heartland

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Heartlanders accustomed to chicken rice and fishball noodles are seeing more gentrified options in their neighbourhood hawker centres and kopitiams. RACHEL LOI (rachloi@sph.com.sg) reports​...

Restaurant fare at foodcourt prices


1, Cantonment Road

(10am to 11pm)


Chefs Immanuel Tee and Enoch Teo share a certain affinity with coffee shops.

Chef Tee launched Immanuel French Kitchen at Salut Coffeeshop in Bukit Merah and Chef Teo launched Le Petit Paradis at Alibabar Coffeeshop in Katong.

So it's no surprise that the pair chose to start their new joint-venture, affordable French dining brand Garçons, at the newly upscale foodcourt Essen.

"One of the owners is my friend and he shared with me his plan for this place. It is a half-residential, half-office crowd, so it is an ideal space," says Chef Tee, 28.

"Our philosophy from Day 1 has been to serve restaurant-quality food in a more affordable way, without compromising on quality.

"Everyone's wallet is getting tighter but people still want to eat, so we are creating food that fits their needs."

Essen, located at The Pinnacle@Duxton, has 150 indoor seats and 80 upcoming 80 outdoor seats.


The space used to be an air-conditioned foodcourt selling traditional fare such as economy rice but now it houses stalls such as Garcons, Italian eatery La Stalla and fusion seafood joint Wild Wild Catch.

One of its owners is 36-year-old Walter Woo, who also runs the drinks stall at Essen.

He and his business partners took over the place about a year ago and decided almost right off the bat not to open a regular foodcourt.

"Here we are surrounded many hawker centres and coffee shops, where prices are definitely cheaper," says Mr Woo, a former property agent.

"So, we had to do something different. We wanted a concept where people will come specially for the food."

For stall owners such as Chef Tee and Chef Teo, the draw of opening a business in an upscale foodcourt is clear - it is a more cost-efficient way for young entrepreneurs to get a footing in the food and beverage industry.

"You spend much less effort and money on things like marketing. Instead, you can focus more attention on the product itself," says Chef Teo, 25.

"It is not that we compromise on quality - our quality is the same as in a restaurant - but we can offer lower prices because of fewer overheads."



348, Bedok Road

Noon to midnight daily


Being tucked away in Changi Museum does not hamper Bark Cafe's popularity.

The eatery, almost impossible to get to without a car, is often packed on weekend nights with fans of its signature fried chicken wings and crayfish hor fun.

So it did not seem daunting to Mr Sean Goh when he took over the now-defunct Kampung@Simpang Bedok - a second-storey hawker centre previously run by a social enterprise - with the goal of bringing life back to the place.

"We decided not to do another hawker centre because we know there are already a lot of good-quality hawker centres in the Bedok area," says the 37-year-old.

"Instead, we tried to apply the same principle that we did to Bark Cafe: unique, good food.

MOUTH-WATERING: (Above) Curry risotto croquettee from Burning Oak. (Top) Ballistic Meatballs specialises in handmade meatballs. PHOTOS: THE BEDOK MARKETPLACE

"If you serve the right kind of good-quality food, people will take the trouble to get to you. They will travel the distance."

Mr Goh and his business partners took over the place about a year ago. He now runs it mainly under BC Food Concept, which also runs Bark Cafe.

After doing some renovations to spruce up the place and update its decor, they reopened it as The Bedok Marketplace last December, starting with a line-up of mostly traditional hawker centre fare like claypot frog porridge and wonton mee.

Mr Goh then added more interesting food concepts to mix things up a little: yakitori stall The Burning Oak, Ballistic Meatballs specialising in handmade meatball and SPies & All Things Nice, a pie bakery offering local flavours such as beef rendang and laksa.

There are still four out of 18 stalls that have yet to be filled but Mr Goh is adamant on taking his time to find the right tenants. His criteria include creativity and a unique selling point.



Block 106, Clementi Street 12


This office block, surrounded by HDB flats, houses nine food and beverage outlets on the first storey.

Restaurants that have been there since the "glory days" include Smokey's BBQ, Rocky's Pizza and Megumi Japanese Restaurant.

Sunset Lane's popularity had died down over the years. So when new landlord Aquilyne Capital took over about nine months ago, director Derrick Kuek decided it was time for a revamp.

Over the last couple of months, he has brought in new tenants to add life to the area, including boutique coffee-roaster The Tiny Roaster and Brazilian churrascaria Carne & Caipirinha.

He has also brightened up the place by getting the walkways repainted and the worn-out alfresco dining space renovated.

MEATY: Brazilian churrascaria Carne & Caipirinha has set up shop at Sunset Lane. PHOTO: CARNE & CAIPIRINHA

NEW BREW: Boutique coffee roaster The Tiny Roaster.  PHOTO: THE TINY ROASTER

Ms Tiffany Joy Chan did not think twice about setting up The Tiny Roaster at Sunset Lane, which is in an area she grew up in.

She says: "I grew up in a time when Sunset Lane was more prestigious, before Tiong Bahru, before Dempsey. This was the spot to be at.

"It lost its popularity, but people still have an affection for it even if it is not so mainstream any more."

Sharing her sentiment is Mr Ng Kim Kee of Carne & Caipirinha, who used to frequent Sunset Lane for steakhouse GrillOut. He is confident that the new mix of upscale eateries like his will help the area reclaim its following.

"In Singapore, crowds tend to frequent one place for a few years and then move on. I believe Sunset Lane will soon become one of the places Singaporeans go to because this sort of casual alfresco dining atmosphere has become uncommon," he says.

This story was first published in The Business Times Weekend on Aug 15.