25 May 18 The Business Times by RACHEL LOI
HALAL IZAKAYAS? Wine-free modern European food? Muslim dining options have taken on a distinctly progressive vibe as more eateries emerge to offer high-end alternatives to halal fast food and traditional cuisine.
Backyard Kitchen opened in Jalan Kayu with some glitter, thanks to its chef-owner Haikal Johari, who also heads the kitchen at the one-Michelin-starred restaurant Alma by Juan Amador.
"I think the Muslim community has always wanted to try new food but they had no place to explore," says chef Haikal.
That's why he opened Backyard Kitchen - a modern European restaurant with Asian roots - to offer a higher-end halal option that can accommodate both Muslim and non-Muslim customers.
"I wouldn't say it's the full experience - it's called wine and dine for a reason - but it's a different experience. As chefs it's our responsibility to come up with ways to adapt a dish, like using pomegranate juice instead of red wine, to mimic the correct flavours while staying halal," he adds.
At Hararu Izakaya, one challenge is to justify the pricing of its small plates, even though they are in line with most other izakayas.
Explains owner Wahida Wahid: "Wherever we go, the prices set are usually within the range of the Muslim community, so to some people our prices are steep. But compare them with non-Muslim restaurants and they are on par. Also we use high-quality Japanese produce."
The same applies at Gastronomad, a three-month-old modern European restaurant where head chef Wahidah Jumahat firmly believes in using fresh seasonal ingredients.
Despite being only 26, she has spent 12 years working her way up in restaurants like Jones The Grocer and LeVeL33, except that she couldn't taste a lot of what she cooked.
"When I was working, I would have someone tasting the food for me. But I had to learn through culinary books, recipes, and through pairing based on flavour profiles. It's a lot of memory work, because I can't taste, so I have to remember," she describes.
Although it requires more effort, chef Wahidah believes it's worth it in her quest to prove that halal food can be of a high standard too. She adds: "Let's face it, we're well-known for oily food like rendang, ayam masak merah, and lontong, plus we wear hijabs as well. When people look at chefs they expect sleeve tattoos, beards, tall ang mohs. So when customers come into our restaurant, they look at us and wonder if we can actually cook. These are mindsets we hope to change some day."
Jalan Kayu may be home to one of Singapore's most famous roti prata stalls, but in the last few months, the sleepy stretch has seen a fancy new entrant - Backyard Kitchen.
Chef Haikal Johari - who also heads the one-Michelin-starred restaurant Alma - serves Asian-inspired modern European food fine dining style, but in a casual environment.
Says the chef: "I feel that Malay food or food from Asia in general is underrated. Other chefs take ideas from us and there's a 'wow' factor when they incorporate our flavours in their food. But when we do it, we tend to get labelled as fusion. But I feel that with the right amount of restraint, it can work very nicely."
The restaurant is currently in the process of applying for official halal certification, and offers a three-course set dinner menu at S$58+ as well as a la carte options. Some dishes include a swimmer crab with potato and pea cress (S$16 a la carte), crispy Norwegian salmon with crab and finger root sauce (S$26), and an Australian lamb rack with garlic cream and tamarind juice (S$38).
"People come in expecting chicken chop in black pepper sauce because they're used to that kind of food, but then we serve them an Australian short rib in gochujang sauce and they're quite willing to try it," notes chef Haikal.
"It's a slow progression but we want to show people what fine dining is about. I want to take them on a journey like what they would get at restaurants with Michelin stars, and they can experience it without any reservations about whether it's halal or not."
248 Jalan Kayu, Tel: 6481 1083, Open Tuesday to Sunday, 6pm to late,(Last order 10.30pm), www.backyardkitchensg.com
What is an izakaya, without its alcoholic drinks? The answer lies in Hararu Izakaya - the brainchild of Nur Hidayat and Wahida Wahid.
Although this one-year-old establishment is Muslim-owned, it sticks as closely as possible to the izakayas in Japan, where almost all its ingredients are from.
"As Muslims, we found it difficult to find places offering different concepts, and there are no halal izakayas outside of Japan," says Ms Wahida, who has been in the F&B industry for over a decade, and previously worked with Mr Hidayat at another izakaya.
Hararu's menu was designed by Mr Hidayat, and some highlights are his gyu nitsuke (braised beef, S$15), surume ika (grilled squid, S$16), and unagi kabayaki (grilled eel with teriyaki sauce, S$16). Drinks-wise, Hararu carries a range of non-alcoholic wines, malts, and mocktails.
"We personally love Japanese food, but we want people to know it's more than just sushi and sashimi," says Mr Hidayat.
While they plan to stick to just one outlet in Singapore, the goal is to open more Hararu Izakaya outlets overseas starting with Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Tokyo.
"The Muslim community loves to eat and try new things. Nasi padang is so common, you can't open a new one to fight with the ones that have been around for so many years," says Ms Wahida. "It's always a risk to open something different, but the younger generation is more adventurous, so the demand is there."
16 Bussorah Street, Tel: 6291 5373, Open Mon to Sun, noon - 11pm, (Till June 13, open 5pm - 11pm, closed June 14 to 17), http://hararuizakaya.com
Wahidah Jumahat and Siti Zawati opened their modern European restaurant Gastronomad in February with a mission - to prove that good food should not come out of the freezer.
"A lot of restaurants just buy frozen food that they deep-fry and serve, then charge money for it. We cook everything from scratch. We make croquettes, sauces, everything," says 26-year-old Wahidah, who helms her kitchen in a hijab and chef's whites.
The pair originally started in November 2016 as a small online food delivery service, that later evolved into a catering company, and then a full-fledged restaurant.
Now, they serve set menus and a la carte options, as well as non-alcoholic wine and champagne. Their four-course set menu for May costs S$55 and includes duck croquette with roasted aubergine puree, braised beef brisket in a celeriac taco, and a hay-smoked duck breast with romesco sauce.
All the ingredients at Gastronomad are carefully sourced so that they are all halal but still of a high quality, and seasonal. Ultimately, the aim is to show that halal ingredients can taste just as good, while also giving their Muslim community the opportunity to try an unfamiliar cuisine.
"We once did a beef wellington that's halal, where we wrapped it with beef bacon that's salty and fatty, so it was the closest we could get to the real thing. People came and said they watched Hell's Kitchen but never got to try a beef wellington because it's not halal, so they were very appreciative of our effort," says the chef.
11 Sin Ming Road, #01-30, Tel: 9362 8001,Thomson V-Two, Open Thurs to Fri, 6.30pm - 10.30pm, Sat to Sun, 12.30pm - 4pm, 6.30pm - 10pm, www.gastronomadsg.com