Not so New Kid on the Block – Chef Travis Masiero resurfaces with Luke’s Oyster Bar and Chop House
Singapore’s restaurant scene is going through a metamorphosis, some of it a welcome change and other parts defying gravity.
Consider that something in the order of 20 new Italian restaurants opened in the last 6 months; never mind a global financial crisis. It defies logic, although if there’s a city that has shrugged off the world’s fiscal woes more than any other, Singapore would have to be it. Try getting a restaurant booking on Friday or Saturday nights – good luck.
Talking to a local chef on the wave of Italian restaurants, he opined that it is so tough in parts of Europe and particularly Italy, top (Michelin-star) chefs and restaurateurs are desperately looking for new markets, and are heading out here in droves as Asia is, by all accounts – booming.
It’s an interesting theory, although I’d be a bit worried that we will end up with too much European cuisine; a saturation of what we already have.
The restaurant industry is a graveyard of ideas and concepts. Knowing where to pitch a new restaurant in an ultra-growth, fast-evolving market is a tricky business and you need to be more than just a savvy restaurateur – you need to be an owner-chef.
This is vital if you are pitching at anything beyond commercial eateries, as credentials, reputation and believing in a chef is what builds a loyal clientele and return customers is what makes a restaurant successful.
Chef Travis Masiero has pitched his new restaurant, Luke’s Oyster and Chop House, I believe, perfectly at a yawning gap in the Singapore market and that is restaurants that are personable; the sort of place and dining experience where the customer can build an affiliation and rapport with the chef/proprietor, the staff, fellow diners, the space, and have that sense of familiarity and a comfort zone that makes you want to adopt the place – and be recognised as regular customer.
We are creatures of habit and there are often times when we just want to go somewhere we know well, and they know us well. When I lived in Melbourne, we dined at France-Soir bistro almost every Friday night. We ordered the same things; freshly shucked oysters, gravlax of Tasmanian ocean trout, entrecote steak frites with pepper sauce and Provencal salad.
Is that boring? I don’t think so. We never tired of the food and looking around at all the regulars, neither did they. It was simple yet excellent food, great ingredients classically cooked and the best pommes frites on the planet. France-Soir is an institution, driven by regular diners, having fun and has been full every lunch and dinner for 25 years!
Of the many hundreds of restaurants in Singapore and six years of ardent dining, apart from our mainstay Chinese restaurants, Jade Palace (Forum) and Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck, and a weakness for exuberance and indulgence at the Omakase Japanese, Tatsuya, we have yet to find a restaurant here that we could call our ‘regular’; our local, a place where we can go without a second thought knowing it is right in our comfort zone and all will good.
Sure, no shortage of good eating, at all levels, but a lot of soulless places in insensate malls, chefs with triple personality bypasses that should be confined to the kitchen, staff with zero charisma, environments as frigid as the air-conditioning is cold; and above all, seriously lacking in fun.
Luke’s Oyster Bar and Chop House might well become our regular. Not only does the ambience and decor remind us so much of France-Soir, it has the right mojo, catering perfectly to the liberal, worldly, cosmopolitan diner both in its character and cuisine.
It could be the unpretentiousness of the food that strikes a chord with me most, as there are too many restaurants trying way too hard and yet forgetting that great produce is the key. Chef Masiero has astutely breathed new life into ‘American perennial classics’ with inspiration from his Bostonian roots.
You could say there’s nothing innovative in an oyster bar, but the devil is in the detail and Bostonian’s have been doing oysters (well) for a long time; ergo Boston’s Union Oyster House, America’s oldest restaurant serving up oysters, clams, lobsters, steaks and chops since 1826, and still going.
Chef Masiero imports the freshest oysters and seafood from the cold, pristine waters of New England during the winter season; and commendably alternating in the Northern hemisphere summer to the equally pure Antarctic waters of New Zealand and Australia.
At present they serving up piping-fresh oysters from four different Massachusetts coastlines; Wellfleet (fresh and crisp with a balanced sweetness): Osterville (mildly salty with a sweet finish): Onset (plump, salty & slight seaweed finish) and Menemsha (good salinity, briny and crisp). And I know the purists cringe at the thought of cooked oysters, but the ‘Oysters Lukefeller’ (spinach, pernod & parsley) and Fried Oyster Po’Boys (coleslaw & pickles) are totally wicked.
There is a whole gambit of rejuvenated classics in the starters to keep coming back for; Luke’s Caser Salad with added option of friend oysters; Tuna Tartar, Luke’s Clam Chowder, Chilled Maine Lobster, and the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail is as visually exciting as the sheer brilliance in bringing this classic back to life.
You feel somewhat compelled to go for a chop in the main courses here and I thoroughly enjoyed a Kurubuta Pork Chop with wild fennel spice & apple jam and we were equally impressed with Colorado Lamb Chops with yogurt, mint & spring radish. The Peter’s Farm Veal Chop anchovy marmite butter is as good as it gets, and there’s a USDA 400gr Prime Ribeye with confit garlic for the serious meat eater. All are prime cuts and clearly of the high quality from genuine sources; essentially you get what you are paying for, unadulterated and cooked perfectly.
There is ample menu stimulation beyond meat; Luke’s Lobster Pot Pie with spring vegetables, tarragon & puff pastry, Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with Maryland style, grain mustard & coleslaw, Georges Bank (Cape Cod) Scallops simply roasted with lemon & served with coleslaw are sublime and New Zealand John Dory, arguably the finest of all fish, is consistent with Chef Masiero unwavering focus on top quality produce.
I like the wine list here. It’s my kind of wine list; concise yet outrageously eclectic, and personal; and I can sense Chef Masiero has full input here as he’s one of the few chefs I know that has a true grasp and passion for wine moreover, a seriously good palate. The prices are also reasonable and wine service standard high with two qualified sommeliers on hand.
There are multiple choices by the glass, enough to keep any wine nut satisfied. The Champagne’s lean towards artisan grower wines, bravo! As is the emphasis on small, artisan wine producers throughout the selection and from all over the planet with the spread going from Willi Schaefer Mosel Riesling to Mount Horrocks Clare Valley Semillon; from Didier Dagueneau Silex Pouilly-Fumé to Misha’s Vineyard Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc; from Littorai Sonoma Coast Chardonnay to Moorooduc Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay; from Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir to Felton Road Central Otago Pinot Noir; from Ojai Vineyard Santa Barbara Syrah to Peccavi Shiraz from Margaret River – get the picture.
Looking around the restaurant there is clearly a broad appeal here in the food as much as the wine with equal numbers of expats and locals all giving it a serious nudge with a real buzz to the place, and requisite theatre. Yes it’s quite noisy and the music’s loud which is a good thing as the Chefs got good taste in music too – turn it up man!
The decor is tastefully minimalist, modern-classic French bistro with a sheen of white tiles and marble, brick walls and high ceilings painted white along with white cotton table livery, accentuated by dark trimmings and the kaleidoscope of colours from food and people. Banquette seating and close quarter tables adds to the classic Paris bistro feel and bar-stool seating along the full length of the bar caters well for single diners or a more casual glass of wine and plate of oysters with an overall user-friendly feel to the place.
The location also adds to the overall chemistry of the restaurant with the Straits shop-house streetscape charm of Gemmill Lane, off Club Street, conveniently on the fringe of the CBD. At least on approach and when leaving, you retain the sense of being out to a restaurant, and not like a mall restaurant where you if stay past shopping hours, you get lead out by security personal, like you’ve just been visiting someone in a remand prison.
Service here is step up from the Singapore norm, the front of house staff showing genuine energy and enthusiasm, and one also senses an overall team effort. There can be moments where they are stretched (it’s a busy place) but they do their best to keep on top of it all and I get nothing but positive and friendly vibes and a willingness to serve and engage the customer with a commendable level of professionalism and attentiveness for what is essentially supposed to be a casual bistro environment.
Above all, it is a good thing to see Chef Masiero back in his element, as much a general manager as he is a chef. Indeed, he has a lot of form, a CIA man (Graduate Culinary institute of America) like Anthony Bourdain and went on to Graduate at the Cornell University School of Hospitality – he’s as strong on the front of house skills as he is talented in the kitchen.
After stints in Northern Italy, Munich and in Boston at Clio Restaurant, Masiero worked as concept and development chef for Hillstone Restaurant Group in America, honing his skills as a complete restaurateur. Locally (Singapore) Masiero impressed all with his innovative flair as Executive Chef and General Manager of Wine Garage, the cutting edge of a fledging wine bar movement in Singapore.
Wine Garage consolidated Masiero’s reputation here however we all thought he reached his career consummation when he opened his own place, Spruce, a thoroughly refreshing, game-changer, casual all-day cafe-come-brassiere with a dynamic of comfort food and service (and some seriously good Taco’s on the side) that was touchstone.
Next thing you know, Masiero is no longer associated with Spruce, a partnership dispute he does not discuss. Subsequent visits to Spruce have been disappointing; pedestrian food and woeful service, which just goes to show having a concept is one thing, but implementation is another.
Admittedly, in declaring Luke’s Oyster and Chop House my choice as ‘Best New Restaurant in Singapore’ there is a considerable element of subjectivity, and whilst it fills a void in what I believe is vital to the evolution of the Singapore dining scene, not all will agree, or it’s simply not your sort of place.
To be clear, the strategic and most compelling element here for me, is this is a chef-owner-operated restaurant that contributes a much-needed dynamic of individualism and milieu that provides the Singapore diner with a personable experience and opportunity to build a rapport with a restaurant, in contrast to faceless commercial restaurant groups.
Furthermore, I personally believe Chef Masiero’s interpretation of American-European classics is a stroke of genius and well captures the global mood of ‘What is old is new again’ and going back to time-honoured methods, wholesome food premised on great produce is not a fashion but a necessity.
As objective as one hopes to be in a cosmopolitan Asian metropolis, Luke’s Oyster and Chop House will not be for everyone, whether it be cuisine or budget the does not suit. I noticed there is already some online amateur blog whinging about prices, and yes this is not an inexpensive restaurant but it does in fact represent good value, relative to other restaurants, for comparison Morton’s Steakhouse which will cost you considerably more for hospital quality food and about as much fun as a geriatric ward.
And this is not a restaurant taking a plate of pasta with a food cost of $5 and selling it for $30, Luke’s Oyster and Chop House is all about wholesome, high quality produce and the reality is good produce costs. You might also want to consider Singapore is an expensive city to live, now, although I see Forbes Magazine just ranked Singapore as the 3rd wealthiest city in the world, so (we) should be able to afford it?
Another strategic user-friendly facet to Luke’s Oyster and Chop House, it is open all day, from noon till late, Monday to Saturdays, and they welcome diners late into the evening, which is rare in Singapore so it’s a great place for supper as much as it is to drop in for a glass of wine at the bar, and there’s a good chance you will get to chat with Chef Masiero as he likes to shuck oysters and talk with people over the bar.
I believe Luke’s Oyster and Chop House brings some much needed vitality and individualism to Singapore’s dining scene and caters perfectly to a mid-price restaurant clientele seeking a congenial place for compotation and honest food. And judging by the popularity of the place in its first six months, Chef Masiero is right on the money. Oh, and Chef, turn the music up, Singapore needs to loosen up and have some (dining) fun.