With its maverick restaurant scene, club street is defying Singapore's notoriously controlling government----and getting away with it.
I stumbled onto club street by chance. I was walking through Singapore's Chinatown, when I realized I was lost. I turned my map this way and that and finally pinpointed my location: the corner of Club Street and Ann Siang Road--in a part of Chinatown where there was supposedly nothing to see and no reason to linger. But I couldn't believe how beautiful crooked, narrow Club Street was, lined with old two- and three-story buildings.
Looking closer, I noticed that I was standing in front of a wine bar. And next to it was a sushi bar, an Italian café, a Szechuan restaurant--almost every building on the street displayed a menu. This, I would soon discover, is where young Singapore comes to play. I returned to Club Street to eat almost every night that week, dining on veal tagine, eel tempura, sautéed frog's legs, garlicky escargots with vintage Barolo. Those escargots were at L'Angelus, a bistro that seems to have been airlifted directly from Paris--snails, rattan chairs, surly waiters and all--because it was.
Singapore has long been known for its great restaurants, but most operate out of high-end hotels or shiny, sterile shopping centers, and many impose strict dress codes. About the only casual alternative has been to eat outdoors on plastic benches at one of the city's hundreds of food courts, known as hawker stalls. Club Street restaurants are redefining Singapore's food scene, serving inventive, eclectic cuisine with plenty of style and an anything-goes attitude. More than a dozen restaurants have opened there so far, and the street is only four blocks long.
Just two years ago, Club Street was abandoned; it's surprising that a neighborhood could spring up so quickly without a mandate from Singapore's notoriously controlling government. At its headquarters only three blocks from Club Street, the Urban Redevelopment Authority displays a 3-D model of Singapore circa 2030 rendered in painstaking detail. The URA knows where future parking lots will go, where they'll dig the next underground sidewalks, which streets will become restaurant hotbeds. Or so they think. Clearly, they didn't see Club Street coming; on the model, the area has not even been painted, while other, yet-to-be-renovated neighborhoods show colorful megaplex marquees.
Club Street denizens have always had a rebellious streak. At the end of World War II, the area was home to Singapore's many Chinese clan associations, known for running opium dens and laundering money. But in the 1970s, the government began cracking down on crime, imposing the death penalty for drug traffickers and banning prostitution, littering, graffiti, even (infamously) selling gum. Before long most of the clans had vanished or relocated. In the 1990s, the government made plans to demolish the historic old houses on Club Street, but young Singaporeans protested the destruction, and the storied neighborhood was spared the wrecking ball.
These same protesters, who grew up in the economic boom of the late 1960s and the 1970s, along with a few foreigners, started buying and renovating the ramshackle nineteenth-century ýuildings. Entrepreneurs, they have created a grown-up playground for stockbrokers, fashion designers, architects--the young and rich, not unlike themselves. Today, construction workers push wheelbarrows of wet cement and hoist slabs of marble with makeshift cranes of bamboo and tattered brown rope. "There's only one building left that hasn't been sold," says Alvin Sim, the creative director of an interactive-media firm on Club Street, pointing to a house that looks as if it had been firebombed. "And it's going for $1.4 million!" (The building has since been purchased and the ground floor converted into--what else?--a restaurant.)
Come sundown, locals spill out of downtown high-rises and congregate at Bar Sa Vanh, a lounge decorated to look like the opium den it once was, but with the scent of jasmine incense replacing the aroma of burning poppies. A group of preppy Aussie expats commandeers the best overstuffed ottomans while a black-clad Chinese couple canoodle on an opium bed. Water trickles down a three-story wall into a koi pond, not quite muffling the bar's exuberant buzz. At IndoChine, the restaurant above Bar Sa Vanh, ad execs and local television celebrities unself-consciously use their hands to pick up Laotian sausages and Vietnamese-style frog's legs sautéed in butter and garlic. They share dishes served family-style, such as toman, a freshwater fish from the Mekong River, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in a light and delicious coconut curry, and spicy Laotian chicken salad, dressed in an anchovy sauce and served with roasted rice powder and mint. For anyone who wants them, there are chocolate brownies and cheesecake for dessert.
Michael Ma, the 35-year-old owner of Bar Sa Vanh and IndoChine, helped pioneer the neighborhood when he opened his two places there at the end of 1999. "When I saw this wonderful meandering little street, I knew I wanted to open a restaurant here," he says. "The area had this incredibly sexy appeal. There's so much history here." A Laotian raised in Australia, Ma had grown tired of flying to Laos every time he craved green mango salad. So he quit his job as a property manager and ate his way through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, searching for a chef. He brought back a half dozen. And now he eats green mango salad five nights a week.
The biggest establishment on the block is Senso, which occupies five connected buildings that were once a school. Linen-draped tables fill a courtyard garden in what was formerly the playground. Classrooms have morphed into sleek, modernist dining rooms, wine cellars and a series of lounges outfitted with velvet sectional couches and mood-lit cubby holes. At one end, an older Italian man sits alone rifling through a copy of the International Herald Tribune; at the other, a couple steals a kiss between courses. "We don't try to be too posh," says Lamine Guendil, one of the four thirtysomething Europeans (two are Italian; two are French) who own Senso. "We want our clientele to be comfortable, to feel like they can dress down. You know, like, Armani," he helpfully explains.
Diego Chiarini, the chef and a co-owner, formerly manned the stove at Bice in Tokyo. Despite having worked in Asia since 1996, he resists the urge to toy too much with local specialties. "This is just typical Italian food," he says. "I don't do fusion. No modern accents. I cut my carpaccio with a knife, not a machine." He tops fresh pappardelle with duck confit and braised eggplant, drizzles an intense balsamic reduction over a crusty rack of Australian lamb served with roasted pumpkin, and stuffs poached pears with silky panna cotta.
In direct contrast to Senso, the Japanese-French restaurant Nectar is all about fusion and modern accents. Diners can sit at a 30-foot communal table that's illuminated from within; the mood is so casual that everyone feels free to reach across to each other's plates and steal bites of food. Chef Renato Lasan's trio of lamb chops encrusted with a hot, bubbly mixture of blue cheese and miso is one of the best dishes I've eaten on Club Street, and I nervously guard mine from all the roving forks.
It's after midnight on my last night in Singapore, and business on Club Street is at last beginning to wind down. It's time to look for Michael Ma at IndoChine; he knows where to find the best after-hours parties. Several cars are already idling in front of the restaurant. Tonight Ma is leading the caravan to a party being held outside an old mansion, where the eccentric owner sells beer through the front gates (selling alcohol after hours is taboo in Singapore). A few of Ma's favorite customers pile into his Mercedes, and we're off.