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Kki Sweets and Pang's Hakka Noodle
Photograph: Fabian LooKki Sweets & Pang's Hakka Noodle

Fresh beginnings: once-closed dining concepts make a triumphant return

A passion to feed and hunger for success spur on a handful of F&B owners to reignite their dreams and stage a comeback

Fabian Loo
Written by
Fabian Loo

The food and beverage (F&B) industry in Singapore is notoriously challenging. Every month, while fresh concepts pop up around the island, a handful of spots inevitably shutter. This trying stay-home period has only made matters worse, with news of closures coming in waves. 

But grim statistics have not deterred people from entering the market. And for some, the adage ‘once bitten, twice shy’ definitely doesn’t ring true. These business owners have once folded their F&B ventures, but a passion – for cooking, for baking, for feeding people – has spurred them to reignite their dreams and stage a comeback.

Only this time, they come armed with a reinvigorated spirit, novel ideas, and an even hungrier appetite for success. As another famous quote goes, 'when one door closes, another opens'. And for these tenacious owners, a new journey is just about to begin. 

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“Covid-19 was going to kill us, and it very nearly did,” shares Chua Ee Chien, owner of cocktail bar Jekyll and Hyde.

During the ‘circuit breaker’ when dining out was not allowed and when most people were working from home, the bar was greatly handicapped by its Tras Street address. Hardly anyone was in the Central Business District, which meant fewer customers for Jekyll and Hyde.

But it was the failed rental negotiations with the landlord that ultimately forced Ee Chien to bite the bullet and close shop when the tenancy ended on June 14.

The closure didn’t mark the end for Jekyll and Hyde; instead, the team started looking for a new home – a search which led them to a shophouse along Neil Road.

The plan was to work with the previous owner, a café called Cheeky: Ee Chien and his team occupy the second-floor space and handle the drinks, while Cheeky continues serving up its menu of burgers and fries. But both teams eventually came to the agreement to let the bar take over the space fully. Come September, Jekyll and Hyde will transform the two-storey area into an all-day dining concept – a restaurant on the first floor, and a speakeasy bar on the second. “It’s a more dynamic space,” he says. “Because you almost have two concepts at the same time.” 

The challenge now is to create a food menu that complements the cocktail selection – a problem that the team hasn't tackled in the past. “At [the old] Jekyll and Hyde, we were handicapped with a small kitchen,” he says. “So it makes it very hard for us to think beyond drink-making. How do we open in the daytime? How do we get people to eat and drink? It has always been an issue for us.” 

Now, with a bigger space, and a bigger kitchen, the team has room for bigger plans and novel ideas. To pair with its cocktail selection, which reimagines everyday staples into boozy concoctions, they decided to centre the food offerings around elevated hawker classics. “It’s essentially creating a whole new experience,” shares Ee Chien. For instance, to pair with the spicy ikura-topped chilli crab nachos, Ee Chien recommends the sweet PB & J, a recreation of the classic sandwich that’s made with peanut butter-washed bourbon and strawberry-infused Campari. There’s also a plate of orh luak made with freshly shucked oysters in the works. “It’s being able to complement a menu that might seem eclectic at first, with cocktails and local cuisine.”

Ee Chien is most excited for the space to come into its own. By mid-September, renovations will be completed and the place will transform into an 80-seater (with safe distancing) eatery; a new version of Jekyll and Hyde. 

“It ended up saving us,” says Ee Chien, on the effects of the ‘circuit breaker’. “And gave us the opportunity to be bigger and better than we ever thought we could be.”

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  • Pâtisseries
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Things didn’t quite start on a sweet note for homegrown patisserie Kki Sweets. When the Japanese-inspired cake shop first opened its doors in 2009 at Ann Siang Hill, the doubling of rent forced owners Delphine Liau and Kenneth Seah to move elsewhere.

They eventually settled down at a quiet space within the School of the Arts. But its hidden locale on the second floor of the school barely brought in any foot traffic. “We had no choice but to cut our losses,” says Delphine. 

But the closure of the first two iterations of Kki did little to dampen the spirits of the husband-and-wife duo; staging a comeback has always been at the back of their minds.

“We packed up knowing that someday we would return,” shares Delphine. Only this time, the pair approached things with caution. Kki’s new home at Seah Street, for one, was thoughtfully selected. It’s an area that bears cultural significance for co-owner Kenneth; the road is named after the Seah Clan, an association that he's a member of. 

The new space also functions less like a bakery, and more like a dessert restaurant. It works on a reservation-only basis, and diners have to decide on their orders beforehand. More peculiar is the deliberate omission of visuals in the minimally decorated space. There are no cake stands or display cases, and images have been left out from the menu. This is Kki’s way of driving “an experiential dining experience,” shares Delphine – one that eschews imagery for imagination (the menu reads: it’s our way of inviting you to take a pause from the world of visual clutter). “In this era, it’s not enough to just create food to fill the stomach,” she says. “But to enrich the soul.”

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These days, chef Pang Kok Keong is working with a different type of dough. Rather than rolling out sweet bakes and warm pastries, he’s tossing up noodles at his first casual eatery: Pang’s Hakka Noodle. 

But Kok Keong is no stranger to whipping up traditional Hakka cuisine. Three years ago, he started Pang’s Hakka Delicacies, an online restaurant that operated out of his patisserie, Antoinette. There, he dreamed of opening a standalone store where he could make Hakka food accessible; one that was rooted in his heritage, but also as homage to his mother, who used to work as a noodle hawker. 

So when Antoinette shuttered (“the business didn’t grow as well as we wanted”), Kok Keong quickly shifted his focus on setting up Pang’s Hakka Noodle. “The noodle stall was planned last year, when there weren’t any plans to close Antoinette yet,” he shares.

Now, the chef serves up wheat noodles and handmade Hakka yong tau foo in his humble stall at Xin Tekka. “It’s more challenging,” he shares on the transition from working in a large-scale kitchen to a small storefront. “There are no machines available for the manual work such as stuffing the beancurd.” Kok Keong shares that while typical yong tau foo comes stuffed with fish paste, the Hakka variant is hand-stuffed with pork, fish paste, and fermented fish – additions that lend “an umami boost”. More time-intensive steps are also required to make his signature Hakka noodles: the soup comes boiled with pork bone, chicken bone, daikon, leeks, and carrots to impart sweetness; and wheat noodles come tossed in a pork sauce that has to be fried for over an hour. 

Despite the effort required, each bowl goes for just $7 – a much smaller price tag as compared to the food typically served at Antoinette. Kok Keong explains: “It makes it more accessible to everyone.”

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  • Hawker
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The main ingredients required to cook up dishes at Casa Bom Vento Express include fresh spices, homemade sauces, and a touch of feng shui. 

Incorporating geomancy is chef-owner Lionel Cher’s latest addition in the new chapter of Casa Bom Vento. The restaurant, which started in 1995, earned a loyal following for its authentic Peranakan-Eurasian flavours, but had to close its doors in 2015 for “many reasons”. Fast forward four years later, the restaurant is back and ready to feed the crowds, this time as a hawker stall within the Xin Tekka food hall. On his reason to return to the scene again, Lionel says: “Once it’s in your blood, it will always remain.” 

Casa Bom Vento Express marks a new chapter for the heritage eatery. Fresh features include swapping out communal dining, a common fixture in Nonya dishes, for individual set meals. Prices, correspondingly, are also more wallet-friendly. But the most visually striking difference lies in the presentation. “I am bringing Peranakan food up to date by plating on banana leaf,” shares Lionel. “As they say, the camera must eat first.” 

There’s more to the plating than a feast for the eyes; the inventive chef taps into the principles of feng shui when serving up food at the stall. A dish of ayam buah keluak, for instance, is arranged in rings and packed in a cylinder to represent the auspicious element of metal. It draws reference to the poisonous buah keluak seed, which must be heat-cured underground for 40 days. There’s also the spicy Debal curry, with rice arranged in a pyramid to create shapes of triangles, a symbol of fire. Nasi ulam blue pea rice, perfumed with herbs, is also fashioned into a rectangle to represent the element of wood. “I was doodling with the menu one night when I realised each ingredient corresponds to an element which can be arranged on the tray,” says Lionel. “We are perhaps the first people to empower diners with the energy of food.” 

But there’s one thing that remains unchanged over the years: taste. Lionel continues to tap into his age-old recipe book to whip up familiar flavours from the yesteryears. Curries and sauces are still made in the shop, from scratch, without artificial additives. “That’s one reason why when we sell out a dish, it means that we are sold out for the day,” he says. “That taste has remained unchanged for the last 20 years.” 

  • Restaurants
  • Rochor

When Wildfire Chicken and Burgers decided to reopen its door again this year on June 1, Singapore was still in ‘circuit breaker’ mode. 

The eatery, best known for its burgers and fried chicken, had previously closed its outlet at Science Park Drive last year. It received a new lease of life when owner Michel Lu was approached by two students, Shaun Leong and Joanne Toh, through an entrepreneurship course at the Singapore Management University. Together, the trio decided to bring Wildfire back. 

But the decision to open during the stay-home period came with a unique set of challenges: the food had to be redesigned to travel the distance and survive the delivery journey, and renovations had to be done without the help of external contractors. “We had to makeover the space on our own,” says Shaun.

A best-selling creation from the old menu, The Works, also had to be omitted from Wildfire’s initial offerings as well. “It would be smashed into a puddle by the time it reaches the customer’s doorstep,” Shaun adds. 

To help ensure the same taste as before, everything comes cooked over a binchotan-fired INKA grill – just like how things were back when the burger joint first started in 2015. The grill also comes double-ventilated to help create a sizzling heat of up to 750 degrees Celsius, an essential step that Joanne shares, is instrumental in lending “the signature smokey flavour that Wildfire is known for”. The trio even decided to hire the first chef that worked at the old outlet in Global Kitchen. Shaun explains: “This is to ensure that we bring back the same satisfaction as you would have experienced in the previous Wildfire.”

Hungry for change

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