Singapore is fast becoming the food and beverage destination of SE Asia. During my first visit 5 years ago, I discovered that Singapore offered great SE asian cusine (Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Thai cuisine) at its many government-regulated and clean hawker centers. Singapore even offers its own traditional dishes: chicken rice made famous by Bourdain's visit to Maxwell's hawker center, or the very popular chilli crab.
However, good cocktails were hard to come by in Singapore. At the time of my first visit, there was Tippling Club, but really nothing else. Fast forward 5 years later, and Singapore is now home to at least 10 world class cocktail bars, with new bars opening every month. On the prestigious World's 50 Best Bars List, Singapore is well represented by Manhattan Bar in 11th place, 28 Hong Kong Street in 14th spot and Operation Dagger in 21st position. Not bad for a country that used to be known for the Singapore Sling.
Singapore has now surpassed Australia, San Francisco and Paris as a cocktail destination. It won't be long before we mention Singapore in the same breath as New York.
Here is a list of my best drink (and food) experiences while in Singapore.
ATLAS is the Mecca of cocktail bars. Every cocktail enthusiast in the world must visit this elegant lobby bar holding over 1000 bottles of gin in the monumental gin tower. ATLAS will surely find its way at the top of the best bars lists next year. Check out my article of the gala launch event.
The most exciting new opening in Singapore is Native, headed by talented Vijay Mudaliar (ex-Operation Dagger). The concept at Native is daring but refreshingly original. Their idea is to source spirits and ingredients exclusively from SE Asia. That obviously means no Agave-based drinks here. However as Vijay and bartenders Leon Tan and Kye Seng Ang explained, there are great spirits in the region, including Chalong Bay Thai rum, Paper Lantern Gin from Singapore, Ceylon Arrack from Sri Lanka, and Amrut Whisky from India
Vijay was inspired to work with ingredients he grew up with like mango, turmeric, cinnamon, and tapioca. He is also into foraging new ingredients for his creative drinks with one interesting example being the weaver ants used in the Antz cocktail (Chalong Bay Thai rum with aged sugarcane vinegar, coconut yogurt, salt-baked tapioca and soursop topped with ants on a frozen basil leaf). Believe it or not, this drink is delicious. The ants add a pleasant acidity (and crunchiness) to the savoury drink.
Vijay's decision to source locally goes against the grain in Singapore, where restaurants and bars too often use ingredients that are shipped from lands far away. The regional concept at Native extends even beyond the drinks, with bar aprons, decorations and music all provided by local artists. If you are in Singapore, Native is a must visit!
When Spencer gave me a previous of Crackerjack in December, I knew I would end up spending many hours here.
It has everything I need: fast wifi and power outlets so I can get work done during the day, high quality specialty coffee courtesy of Director of Coffee Bronwen Serna, healthy comfort food (yes, I really said that!), tasty cocktails thanks to an all star barteam including Peter Chua, Zachary de Git and Brendon Khoo, and a hidden private bar called Junior in the back with a theme-based menu.
I believe Crackerjack is the best all-around bar/restaurant in Singapore and many seem to agree with me - on any given day you will see many industry celebrities popping in to get a bit of work done, recharge on coffee or juice, or enjoy a healthy lunch or a pre-dinner cocktail or beer.
The Other Room
The Other Room is a totally original concept for a cocktail bar. Even though it's located in the Marriott Tang Plaza hotel, it took us a while to figure out where the entrance was. But that's part of the excitement, isn't it? Once inside the beautiful and dimly lit space, you will be treated to world-class hospitality and delicious drinks made with house made ingredients and cask finished spirits. Dario Knox is a true innovator in the industry and with The Other Room, he has the coolest new bar in Singapore. Joining him are bartenders Davide Boncimino and "Cazzo Duro" Yang. Managing the floor is the delightful Chloe.
My favorite drink from the current menu is the Sir Winston Churchill with Guatemalan Coffee Beans finished Dictador 12 Rum, Angostura Bitters, Chocolate Bitters, Sugar, Wide Churchill Romeo y Julieta Smoke.
28 Hong Kong Street
Owners Paul, Spencer and Snehal met 10 years ago while doing law gigs in NY. They all shared a common passion for cocktail bars, and were particularly inspired by the drinking institution Employees Only. Pursuing various new ventures in booming Singapore, they decided to put some cash together to come up with 28 Hong Kong Street, a NY style cocktail bar in a country with almost zero drinking culture. The big risk paid off. In the first year they made the World's 50 best and are currently sitting in 14th spot. 28 paved the way for many new cocktail bars in Singapore, even if Tippling laid the initial ground work. At 28, you can be sure to have amazing drinks, delicious american-inspired comfort food, friendly people and the most beautiful bar team in the world.
Behind the stick you will find an amazing array of talent starting with head bartender Charmaine Ann Thio. Ashwin Raj, the most gangsta bartender in Asia, is huge for 28 - not only does he make great drinks, he owns the room, making friends with everyone who walks in. Yoma Rivera, a master of flair, brings a beautiful style to the 28 team. On my recent trip I finally met Syafiq Rahim, another star in the making at 28.
JJ does a great managing the floor at 28. He is also great taste in shirts I can't thank him enough for finding my sunglasses. The main reason 28 continues to be the most beautiful bar team in the world are the waitresses Shaheera, Mary and Lisa who always make you feel at home 28.
Thanks to Kathleen Wong, 28 has always had great food, perhaps the best of any cocktail bar in Singapore. Her closest competition is sister bar Crackerjack.
Liao Fan Hawker Chan/Hongkong Soya Sauce chicken
Although many foodies hold Sinagpore's hawker centers in high regard, it caught everyone off guard when Hong Kong soya sauce chicken in the Chinatown complex market and food centre won a Michelin star back in July. I headed there to check out what all the fuss was about. To my dismay, they had already finished all their food for the day at around 2pm.
However, they suggested I try their new 80-seat restaurant, which chef and owner Chan Hon Meng opened in November. Located 3 minutes away from the food stand at 78 Smith St in Chinatown, the new restaurant is extremely touristy, with the sign outside boasting the "cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world".
At 3pm, I waited about an hour for a delicious combination meal of soya sauce chicken/char siew with noodles and gai lan. I prefered the fatty and crispy char siew to the soya sauce chicken, but for me the highlight was the black bean sauce and noodles. Although the restaurant wasn't as cheap (12 SGD, 8€) as the stand, at least there was air conditioning! Is it worth the wait? If you have 2 hours for lunch, why not!
To find Operation Dagger, look for a rectangle and inverted crown symbol. Once through the door, a seedy cement staircase will lead you down to the minimalist basement speakeasy. The light bulb installation will have you gazing up toward the ceiling but bring your focus back to the man behind the bar, Luke Whearty, a bartender who has taken mixology to the next level.
Luke’s menu at Operation Dagger makes no mention of the spirits, so the customer can focus instead on the other ingredients that provide the soul of a cocktail. You will also notice nondescript brown bottles behind the bar, some of which contain spirits that are redistilled and infused with new flavours. Just like his menu, Luke’s goal is to take the emphasis away from brand names and preconceived biases, allowing his customers to better experience the intricately woven flavours that make up his drinks.
Here are some of my favorite drinks at Operation Dagger:
Hot and cold – you need to sip through the warm coconut/white chocolate cream before you get to the cooler base of tequila infused with pineapple and lavender. This drink is a pleasant surprise your palate and happens to be Luke’s best seller. Here is the amazing recipe of this drink
Milk and Honey (milk, honeycomb, tonka bean). The sweetness from the honeycomb is in perfect harmony with the creamy milk and vanilla-like earthiness from the tonka bean. A must try.
Fennel Pollen Sazerac (wild fennel pollen, tarragon and white choc), available in bottled format as shown below.
Mexico Manhattan with tequila, stirred with coffee beans and served with a brandied cherry. This is an elegant tequila Manhattan that concludes with a subtle but pleasant coffee finish.
An Old Fashioned with rye whiskey rested overnight with bee pollen. Silky smooth.
The Egg. My favorite drink in Singapore, with egg yolks, dark rum, raw sugar, split vanilla beans, sea salt and served with blow torched star anise.
Cabbage wine. This hypnotic and pleasantly tart natural wine is made with naturally fermented red cabbage, rose vinegar and red apples.
Not only is Luke a genius a making drinks, he’s also a genuinely nice guy. Despite the recent accolades, he’s super down to earth and clearly wants everyone in his bar to be happy. He’s always got a smile on his face, and this positivity is transmitted to both his customers and staff. But he also knows when to lay down the law - as a drunk dude started freestyle dancing behind us, he elegantly and briskly escorted him off the premises. If you want to know about Luke, check out the awesome piece on him at The Pouring Tales.
Welcome to your new favorite dive bar. Skinny's Lounge offers pool, beers, great cocktails and hot dogs until 4am. Located in Boat Quay, it's a great place to meet up for a last drink of the night. I visited Skinny's on the second day after opening and was impressed to see much of the F&B industry supporting the new venture. On my second visit in December, I got to meet the staff, made up the world famous Hannah Waters, Nick Haas, Chewy (ex 28 HKS) and the adorable Cheryl. Skinny's is a special place because only bartenders or cocktail drinking hipsters looking to reconnect with their blue-collar childhoods frequent this place.
Tippling Club opened during difficult financial times in 2008. But star chef Ryan Clift perservered, and has inspired a new revolution in cocktail making which he has paired with his creative cuisine. Tippling is now located in the trendy chinatown, and has a beautiful and well lit bar space. I only had an hour at Tippling, but I was blown away by the cocktails I tried. The highlight for me was the Lime and Tofu Daiquiri, which was also the best cocktail I tried in Singapore (co-invented by Yugnes Susela, currently at Smoke and Mirrors). The drink includes rum, sake, tofu, lime, togarashi chili pepper and a dried bonito fish on the side. The freshness of the sake and tofu together with the classic rum-lime marriage providing the sourness contrasted beautifully with the salty bonito fish, meant to be nibbled on while consuming the libation. It was an amazing sensoral experience that convinced me that Ryan Clift has really managed to the impossible - pair a cocktail with food. Next time in SIN, I will be sure to try his tasting menu at the restaurant, where he pairs inventive dishes with an appropriate wine or cocktail. On my first trip to Tippling, the bar manager was Kamil Foltan, a super friendly guy who is now with Potato Head.
These days, we have superstar Joe Schofield is behind the stick, who may have come up with the most inventive cocktail menu in history where you pick your drink based on perfume sticks placed on a cocktail strainer. Choose between aromas like leather, forest, jasmine, caramel, and earl grey. The accompanying cocktail will give you a similar sensorial experience as the perfume stick. I adored the Caramel cocktail featuring aged rum, Myers, leond, salted caramel, egg yolk and salt.
Manhattan Bar at the Regent opened last year and have already made 11th spot in the top 50 list, making them the best bar in Asia. The elegant hotel bar designed by the team at 28 contains the world's only rickhouse, where Philip Bischoff and his team barrel age cocktails. You will even see signature barrels, with cocktails that have been formulated by the biggest names in the cocktail world. At Manhattan, they even have a stylish ingredient lab, where you see an amazing assortment of exotic ingredients that the team is studying for the cocktail menu. The highlight of the bar however is bar itself, where each bottle is individually lit, making for a dramatic experience each time you enter Manhattan Bar.
On my second visit to Manhattan this December, I had the pleasure to meet the floor manager Roland Dimaano and the awesome bar team including Bacardi Legacy finalist Cedric Allen Mendoza, Tim Rosete, Gabriel Martin Escoto Carlos and Frank Hoo Gee.
For a great crowd and solid mezcal-based drinks, head over to Vasco, conveniently located 10 meters from 28 HongKong St. If Neil is a regular visitor, you know this place is good. I recommend the Pisco sour, one of the best you will have in the city. Props to the handsome bar manager Christian Hartmann for doing a great job hosting us that evening.
FREE THE ROBOT CAFE/BITTERS AND LOVE COCKTAIL BAR
My favorite experience on my recent trip to Singapore was Free the Robot, a cafe with amazing energy. The entrance is somewhat hidden - peer through the peephole first to check out what's happening on the other side of the door. Once you enter, an instant feeling of serenity will come over you, in part thanks to the large overhead skylight, which provides a soft natural lighting to the neutral colored cafe. The honest smiles from the staff also provide a calming influence, as you sit down to recharge on a coffee.
Co-owner Ernest is a serious foodie and it shows. Benjamin, my bartender friend who was in Singapore with me, was impressed with his knowledge of whisky and spirits. Also for food, Ernest has a strong passion, and it shows in the excellent quality of Free the Robot's sandwiches, eggs, salads and burgers.
Running things at Free the Robot is the adorable Fiona, who truly cares about her customers. She takes time to chat with everyone, making you feel like you are part of the family at Free the Robot. Other than great cold brew, either with pure coffee or with milk infused with vanilla beans and unrefined sugar added, you can sample some of the best third wave coffee in Asia at Free the Robot. This is thanks to the amazingly talented Nora, my idol when it comes to coffee. She made me one of the pour overs in recent memory using the hypnotic Panama Boquete from Elida estate. She has a real love for coffee making, which I witnessed as she carefully prepared my long coffees for over 10 minutes.
Free the Robot is one of the best places in town for brunch because they source the best organic and whenever possible, local ingredients. My mind was blown by their toastie, a toasted sandwich with Singaporean bread. Mine included avocado and scrambled eggs. So so good. Thank you Fiona!
At night, Free the Robot transforms into Bitters and Love, a great cocktail bar with homemade syrups and the freshest possible juices and fruits. Put your faith in Naz, Dee, Josh and the rest of the bar team at Bitters.
Nylon Coffee Roasters
Nylon Coffee Roasters is located in a mixed residential/commercial building in Everton Park is . These guys made me a killer V60 of Danbi Uddo (Ethiopia). Although this place is a bitch to find and is cash only, it's definitely worth a trip. Nylon's baristas up there with Nora in terms of skill. Thanks Yoma for the great recommendation!
Employees only singapore
You want a sign that Singapore has an important cocktail scene? Employees Only. The highly-lauded NY institution has opened up shop in Chinatown thanks to Steve Schneider and Igor Hadzismajlovic. When I visited EO SG, Igor was managing the floor - and what a job he does. He gracefully glides from one table to another, making sure all of his patrons are jovial. He's an adorable guy and is without a doubt, the key to EO Singapore's success.
Although the drinks are very good, Igor and the party-like atmosphere is what makes Employees Only tick.
Funny trivia: the only time I've been turned down at a cocktail bar was at EO Singapore last Saturday. Paul wanted to bring me back to meet Steve but unfortunately the bar was closed for a private event.
One of the best new openings on the booming HongKong street, Teepee does burgers, asian bowls, coffee and cocktails. A strange combination of items, but this minimalist and simple place works. Thanks to the friendly staff and excellent quality of their coffee, I visited Teepee four times on my recent visit. Their burgers are awesome - check out the one with kimchi. I would love to try their asian bowls on my next trip.
Wolfgang Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago has now opened on the 57th floor of Marina Bay Sands. However, instead of the fine Californian cuisine, Paul and I wanted to sample their cocktails at their bar overlooking the city skyline. I was very impressed with the warm hospitality, with Tomas greeting us at the door and Glynn guiding us through the menu. It was awesome sipping our well prepared Martini cocktail while admiring the beautiful city lights around us. In terms of food, we had the dependence inducing spicy tuna tartare cones with big eye tuna, chili aioli and scallions. To finish off the evening, I tried the pleasantly smokey Smoke & Mirrors cocktail with Lapsang Souchong infused single malt whisky, Drambuie and Marasca.
Smoke and Mirrors
Yugnes Susela (ex Tippling Club) has opened the stunning Smoke and Mirrors, one of the most gorgeous cocktail bars you will ever see. Located on the rooftop of the National Gallery, this is a great place to bring a girl and sip a well-crafted cocktail. I look forward to trying Yugnes' new list on my next trip to Singapore.
Tom Hogan was recently voted Singapore's best bartender and it's no surprise why. He applies his strong art background and important bartending experiences in the US to deliver stylish and delicious drinks at Anti:Dote, a slick hotel bar located in the lobby of the Fairmont. The highlight for me was his 1-month barrel aged VSOP Boulevardier with Woodford Reserve bourbon, Remy Vsop cognac, Campari and Punt e Mes. Another winner is the Dainty Man's Attire, Tom's take on the Tuxedo cocktail with gin, blanc vermouth, pear brandy, pear liqueur and abstinthe. In addition to lovely cocktails, Anti:Dote has one of the coolest bar surfaces you will ever see. Tom pays attention to every detail: even his ice cubes are works of art. On my recent trip to Singapore I had the pleasure of meeting Tom's apprentice Bannie Kang, I tried her refreshing Hwachae, a cocktail made of rum, watermelon, simple syrup, pineapple, lemon and beer has made the final of the prestigious Bacardi Legacy competition. Sadly for me, Tom has now moved on from Anti:Dote, but the slick hotel bar remains one of my favorites in town.
One of the coolest speakeasies in the world, the Library can only be accessed with a password or by saying "Zee sent me to see Eddy", the line I courageously used at the door. Adam Eddy Bursik runs the cocktail program at the Library and my favorite drink was surely the hipnotique cocktail pictured below.
Friendly staff with great brunch and good coffee - the perfect cure for a hangover can be found at Punch, conveniently close to 28HKS.
Jigger and Pony
I only had a short visit at Jigger and Pony, but I was blown away by their Donkey Kong cocktail. Based on Monkey Shoulder scotch infused with bananas, this tropical version of an Old Fashioned was the second best drink I had on my latest trip to SIN.
Potato head folk
Part cocktail bar, part burger place, part hipster clothing store, Potato head folk is an awesome place to hang out in Chinatown. I recommend the Moto burger with 120 g Hereford Angus beef, fried tempeh, cucumber, bread and butter pickle, cabe rawit, scallions, coriander, BBQ sauce, den Miso syrup, kevap manis glaze in a rice bun. A great beer to pair with your burger is the Bridge Road Bling IPA.
Khansama Tandoor restaurant
For the best northern Indian cuisine, head to Khansama. The highlights of the meal were the paneer butter masala, butter chicken, lamb vindaloo, Rumali roti and paneer
For the best south Indian restaurant in Singapore, check out MTR, by now a world-famous chain. I recommend the dosa or masala dosa. Delicious!
For great dim sum in chinatown (Neil Road), I recommend Jing Hua. Start with their Zha Jiang noodles with minced pork and soya bean sauce before enjoying their delicious Xiao Long Bao steamed pork dumplings. For dessert, a must have is the rose water rice ball soup.
Perhaps the best hawker center is Tekka in Little India, obviously specializing in indian food. Check out the amazing butter chicken at Al-Madina and the biryani at Yakader.
People's Park hawker center
For great chinese food, hit up Hawker center People's Park, located in chinatown. Focusing mainly on chinese food, People's Park is one of the grimiest hawker centers in Singapore. However, it's one of the best thanks to the spicy dumplings and curry laksa pictured below.
Hungover? There is no better cure the next morning than Thai Affair, "The Only Affair with a Happy Ending". Although this restaurant has a curious tag line, they happen to make some of the best Pad See Ew fried rice noodles around. You will find them in the basement food court of Central (Clarke Quay).