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The 'it' restaurant

Update: January, 05/2015 - 17:48

High-end: The fine dining setting.

by Rebecca Lynne Tan and Eunice Quek

The list of people who have passed through the restaurant and kitchen doors of Les Amis in Shaw Centre reads like a who's who in Singapore's food and beverage scene.

These range from restaurateurs and chef-owners to sommeliers and pastry chefs, all of whom have worked at the upscale French restaurant over the past 20 years.

The restaurant marked its 20th anniversary earlier this year.

Les Amis was a game changer from the start when it opened in Shaw Centre back in 1994.

At the time, it was one of Singapore's first independent, high-end restaurants not located in and run by a hotel.

Other posh restaurants in those days included La Tour at the Shangri-la and Raffles Grill at Raffles Hotel.

The restaurant, set up by four friends, made headlines with its fine French cuisine and exquisite European wine list of more than 500 wines at the time.

It paved the way for the opening of more stand-alone high-end restaurants here.

Les Amis marked Singapore's shift towards more independently run and owned restaurants, which in turn added vibrancy to a dining scene that had previously been limited to upscale hotel restaurants and mid- to lower mid-tiered chain eateries in malls.

Peter Knipp, 59, food and beverage consultant and organiser of annual gastronomic festival the World Gourmet Summit, says: "Les Amis is the birth place of the independent fine-dining restaurant. It has provided a lot of talent to the industry, from training existing talent to those just starting out, and continues to be one of the industry leaders. It is one of Singapore's heroes in the food and beverage scene."

The spokesman for the Les Amis group, Raymond Lim, 36, says "the desire to own and run a fine-dining French restaurant" drove its chairman Desmond Lim to set up Les Amis.

These days, the group runs 24 restaurants islandwide including five Peperoni Pizzeria outlets, upper- mid-tiered French restaurant Bistro Du Vin and fine Japanese shabu shabu restaurant Shabu Shabu Gen.

It began with just one restaurant – Les Amis – and four partners: Lim, who owns a securities firm, gynaecologist Chong Yap Seng, chef Justin Quek and sommelier Ignatius Chan. The name Les Amis, which is French for The Friends, seemed apt at the time, as it was a place "for friends, by friends".

Chef Quek, who is behind Marina Bay Sands' Sky On 57, and Chan, who with his wife Janice Wong run modern European restaurant Iggy's at Hilton Singapore, had become friends while working at The Oriental in the 1980s and had dreams of opening a restaurant together.

Desmond Lim, 57, had first met then-sommelier Chan in the late 1980s, at Fourchettes, a now defunct French restaurant at The Oriental hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental Singapore) where Chan was working.

Lim, an avid wine lover, was a regular diner there and found a fellow wine enthusiast in Chan.

The three of them teamed up, together with Dr Chong, a friend of Mr Lim's, to set up Les Amis. Chef Quek and Chan ran the restaurant.

So popular was it back then that a reservation was necessary to secure a table. It is still highly recommended these days too.

Chef Quek, 52, touted as Singapore's most progressive and talented chef at the time, said of the dishes served during the early days at Les Amis: "We were one of the first to have white truffles from Alba and serve cappuccino-style soups. Other things on the menu were a char-grilled cote de boeuf, slow-cooked salmon in champagne sauce and lobster capellini in lobster oil."

Other novel items included a Japanese green soya bean soup shot which started warm and ended chilled, with a refreshing hit of mint, which he served at Au Jardin, which was part of the restaurant group.

Groundbreaking: Les Amis was one of Singapore's first high-end restaurants not found in a hotel.

Les Amis was also one of the most expensive restaurants in town at the time.

Its New Year's Eve dinner in 1994, for instance, was priced at S$990.40 (US$691) nett a person, about S$300 ($230) higher than the ballroom feast at The Raffles Hotel.

The pricey menu was attributed to high costs including white truffles priced at S$4,500 (US$3,454) a kilo and prized wines such as a Chateau Latour 1961 and Chateau D'Yquem 1975.

Chan, 50, says of Les Amis' 20 years in the business: "It is not easy to have a restaurant, especially a Western-focused one, be able to withstand the test of time."

Chef Quek and Chan left after 10 years at the restaurant. Another partner, Low Check Kian, who is in the finance industry, joined the group after their departure.

There have been five other head chefs at Les Amis since chef Quek's departure, each of whom have put their stamp on the restaurant.

Their efforts paid off. In 2007, Les Amis debuted in 83rd place on the much-watched World's 50 Best Restaurants list, that also ranks restaurants in places from 51 to 100.

It was absent in 2008 but re-entered the list in 60th position in 2009, and in 2012, it was ranked No. 53, its highest ranking to date.

The restaurant was also inducted into Les Grandes Tables du Monde, a prestigious gastronomy organisation where membership is widely recognised as one of the most respected international accolades after a Michelin star.

The chefs at Les Amis might have come and gone, but the one thing that has set the restaurant apart is its service.

Royston Soo, 55, director of the restaurant, has been with the group since 2000.

He says that he always reminds staff to take pride in being hospitable.

The restaurant has a database of regular customers and their preferences, and he urges his team to make it a point to try and remember people and their likes.

On how the group maintains its service excellence, Lim the spokesman says, "Service has been important from Day One. It was never an afterthought because it is key to the dining experience." — The Straits Times

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