Some of the best drinks are being shaken, stirred, fermented and poured down streets and stairs less travelled.
Having a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel has been on the must-do list for travellers to Singapore for decades but for those in the know, some of the best drinks are being shaken, stirred, fermented and poured down streets and stairs less travelled.
It’s 5.55pm on a Tuesday night as the taxi pulls into a street not far from Clarke Quay.
I’m meeting some of the staff of award-winning 28 HongKong Street, one of the pioneers of the flourishing cocktail scene, assuming I can find it.
Could the 55-seat bar that helped pave the way for the local hidden bar scene really be nestled behind one of these nondescript doorways, among yoga studios, a fight club and a physical culture association (whatever that is)?
At 6pm my question is answered as a door opens and I am ushered inside. It’s dark, a jazz/hip-hop soundtrack is playing and it’s as though I’ve been transported to the east coast of the US.
28 HongKong Street isn’t big on publicity. They’re intentionally not on social media. Co-bar captains Charmaine Thio and Lukas Kaufmann say even after seven years, some people still can’t find them. What’s funnier is when people make it to the even-harder-to-locate back door.
A repeat entrant on The World’s 50 Best Bars (25th in 2017) and Asia’s 50 Best Bars lists (in May it ranked No.12), 28 HongKong Street may be small but it’s big on service.
“We don’t look like a high-class establishment but we do try to offer that high level of service. Everyone feels welcome no matter where you come from, who you are or what you like to do in the daytime,” Thio says.
The craft cocktail menu, with all varieties $SG23++ (the Australian and Singaporean currencies are roughly equivalent in value but everything in Singapore is plus-plus, for service and tax), is very much like the music.
“Basically this menu is very inspired by American hip-hop; it is separated into four different districts, east coast, west coast, Midwest and dirty south,” Kaufmann says.
“Each category is inspired by either artists or very typical cocktails for the region or ingredients typical for the region.”
You won’t go hungry at 28 HongKong Street, with American comfort food such as mac and cheese balls ($SG15), reuben sandwich ($SG20) and shrimp po’ boy ($SG15), or for a local twist, pandan churros ($SG8).
“It’s gussied-up American classic, comfort food; on a big night out all you want is something hot and cheesy — people love it,” Thio says.
The next night, the serious bar hopping begins. First stop, Employees Only, located behind a red curtain in an historic shophouse in Chinatown’s Amoy Street.
Employees Only Singapore was opened two years ago by Igor Hadzismajlovic, one of the original five founders of the 2004 New York original, with partners including Steve Schneider and chef Julia Jaksic.
If Schneider is tending bar when you visit you’re in for a night of great drinks and conversation.
He honed his skills working “crummy dive bars” while he was in the marines, having signed up after September 11. An accident that put Schneider in a coma and left him with three plates in his head meant he was never deployed.
“I was very sad when I got hurt, that’s not what I signed up to do but being behind the bar was cool. I had a team, we had a mission, we were in our little foxhole,” he says.
Schneider’s mission in Singapore has been to train staff to the standard of the New York mothership.
“My role here is beverage director, bar manager, I bartend here three to four nights a week,” he says of the cosy Art Deco-inspired venue that this year came 23rd on Asia’s 50 Best Bars).
“In New York we have been around for so long and are so awarded, we have a following ... you can’t just put a sign on the door and call it Employees Only. It takes a lot of effort and work, it is about the staff, the training, the hospitality and the service.
“Our style is unique, if you watch the way the bartenders move and shake. We don’t use measurement devices, we are very fast-paced I guess you would call it, and in your face.
“Me, I’m a Jersey boy, I’ve lived in New York forever but I’m a Jersey Boy at heart ... here I am trying to turn a bunch of Singaporeans into Jersey Boys.”
Schneider has classics that have been on the original Employees Only menu for 14 years, new drinks and local flavours.
“I didn’t want to straight up do drinks that were all South-East Asian flavours, I wanted to bring a bit of New York to Singapore,” he says.
“A lot of my recipes I had to change a little bit, the citrus is different, the sugar is different.”
Of the aperitifs, fancy cocktails and long drinks, Schneider says Ready, Aim, Fire ($SG26), featuring mezcal, fresh lime ice and and house-made honey pineapple syrup is one of his favourites and a bestseller in New York and Singapore.
Executive chef Jaksic, who owns a cafe in Nashville, visits Singapore several times a year. The signature dish is steak tartare ($SG26) prepared at your table and spiced up with house-made hot sauce.
Down the road, round the corner, up Ann Siang Hill and down the street and I’ve again found myself staring at a nondescript wall. Luckily, I’d read the advice to look for an upside-down crown at the entry to Operation Dagger.
Down a bleak stairwell, I arrive at the bar established in 2014 by Melbourne’s Luke Whearty with Aki Nishikura.
This year it ranked 19th in Asia’s 50 Best Bars and was 24th in last year’s World’s 50 Best Bars.
They do things differently at Dagger, from putting a fake but nonetheless disconcerting CCTV camera in the toilet, to having rows of curiously marked bottles on the back wall, giving it the appearance of a pharmacy crossed with a science lab.
“The first thing you will notice is we don’t list the alcoholic component of our drinks, we are trying to shift the focus to the flavours of the drinks instead,” sous bar tender and manager Sasha Wijidessa explains.
“With Dagger we don’t want it to be just like a bar, it is more about giving people an experience.”
At Dagger they want you to try something new, be it the Oyster Ice Cream inspired by a meal Whearty ate at acclaimed Victorian restaurant Brae, to Free Black (both $SG25), inspired by a dish Wijidessa had in Brisbane.
“It was like a garlic bread but served like a black garlic cake with whipped brown butter and vanilla. I really liked those flavours, so I wanted to do a drink with it.”
Dagger’s spin on natural wines are new to the menu.
Staff take turns in the tiny kitchen, from which patrons can partake in a three- or five-course omakase menu ($SG95/$150) with drinks paired to food such as steak tartare, asparagus with cured egg yolks and another in-joke, French fries that are actually fried French beans.
“I would say omakase would be the best reflection of what what do in Dagger,” Wijidessa says.
“We are not just a bar you will chance upon and walk past. If you want to try what we do you have to come find us.”
Finding my way back to Amoy Street and to Native, No.8 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars and 47 on the World’s 50 Best, proves easy when Wijidessa offers to walk with me in a display of the camaraderie among Singapore’s bar community.
As it turns out, multi-awarded founder and bartender Vijay Mudaliar used to work at Dagger.
Busy with World Cocktail Week events, Mudaliar arranged for me to meet head barman Leon Tan. The pair travelled to Margaret River Gourmet Escape last year to collaborate with fellow foragers Fervor Foods.
“Here at Native we work with local regional craftsmen, down to the music you hear,” Tan explains, adding everything from the ceramics to the batik touches on the uniforms have the local touch.
“If you take a look at our back bar, you will find spirits from around the region from the likes of Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bhutan, India, Taiwan and Thailand.”
The decision to stay true to local flavours when opening the bar last year came easily.
“We are the lucky few to have travelled around a lot, ate a lot, drank a lot and started to realise in Singapore we are like a very metropolitan city but we have strayed from what we know,” Tan says.
“We go to a lot of bars, drink a lot of old-fashioned, prohibition-style cocktails but we are not born in the prohibition era. So we are doing cocktails a bit closer to our roots and traditions — inspired by our travels, our experience as a team.”
If it is in season and the staff can find it, there’s a good chance it will be on Native’s menu.
“The whole team on Sunday afternoons, we go out and do a bit of urban foraging for all sorts of cool foods and flora and fauna,” Tan says.
Sustainability is part of the bar’s ethos and the colourful mural at the entry was painted using coffee grounds, turmeric and wheatgrass.
DisclaimerSue Yeap visited Singapore as a guest of Singapore Airlines. They have not seen or approved this story.
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