Verdant, manicured pastures. Tall trees crowned with leafy foliage that rustles in the wind. Fresh, clean air lightly scented with the fragrance of herbs such as rosemary and thyme.
This pastoral setting may conjure images of the rustic countryside, but it's actually the very premises of some local restaurants and hotels. There, the establishments grow fruits, vegetables and spices to be used immediately post-harvest in their dishes. Yes, it doesn't get fresher than this.
“When I need to use herbs in my food, they are in my garden — just three minutes away,” says Nixon Low, head chef at Portico, which opened last year along Alexandra Road. In its edible garden, the modern European-inspired restaurant cultivates between 20 and 25 species of crops such as the Sarawak pepper plant, garlic and cucumbers. Another such place is Open Farm Community, which launched in July with its own urban farm on its 35,000-sq-ft locale. The eatery offers a repertoire of Western fare seasoned or served with its herbs and vegetables. “If you want safer and healthier produce, growing your own [is the solution],” says Group Head Chef Daniele Sperindio.
Hotels are also flexing their green thumbs, with Fairmont Singapore yielding crops such as mint and coriander since starting its organic herb garden in 2008. Its garden is currently undergoing a revamp and is expected to reopen at the end of this year. Over at Parkroyal on Pickering, the hotel's chefs gather vegetables, such as chilli padi and okra, from its fifth-storey herb garden every week.
However, experts say Singapore's climate conditions make it difficult to rely solely on one's own garden for produce. “Bad weather can mean little to no harvest for that week, so many restaurants typically do not stay the course due to unpredictability,” says Bjorn Low, co-founder of urban farming consultancy Edible Garden City, which builds and maintains gardens for establishments, such as Artichoke and Jamie's Italian at VivoCity.
For Sperindio, the issue lies with time constraints. “Restaurants that import their ingredients simply need to pick up the phone, call their supplier and get them the day after. But if the restaurant needs to grow [its ingredients], it's a different story. A garden takes time to grow.”
Despite the challenges, some chefs remain committed. Portico's Low says: “As a chef, I want to go back to the root of my produce — to know about how it grew and where it came from. And growing my own allows me to do that.”
OPEN FARM COMMUNITY
A joint venture by Tippling Club's chef-owner Ryan Clift, urban farming business Edible Garden City and lifestyle conglomerate Spa Esprit Group, this new restaurant along Minden Road features a 29,000-sq-ft garden teeming with some 150 types of herbs, vegetables and fruit. As they tuck into their food, diners can gaze at the rows of rosemary, tarragon and basil lining the footpaths, jackfruit and guava trees swaying gently in the breeze and creeping vines of passionfruit and Tonkin Jasmine snaking around the beams of wooden trellises. “We feel everyone [should] at least know the basics of growing their own food”, explains Edible Garden City co-founder Low, adding that this allows consumers to “better understand nature and its processes.” Other more unusual plants in the farm include earthy mushroom herbs and a Surinam cherry tree, which produces pink cherry blossoms and tart fruit.
Due to the seasonal nature of its crops, Open Farm Community's menu changes every four months depending on what's available. Its home-grown herbs and vegetables feature prominently in concoctions. Shallots, chives and capers are in its fermented carrot tartare, while its coal-baked omelette, a savoury treat containing smoked haddock, comes topped with fragrant tarragon from the garden. It's not just the food that contains its produce. Its tipples do too. Smashing Good Thyme is a refreshing blend of green peas, lime, thyme, yellow chartreuse and Bacardi rum, while OFC Gardens Cup combines Hendricks Gin with lime juice, apple juice, mint and cucumber.
“[We want to] encourage families to spend time together outdoors while developing a relationship with nature and finding out where their food comes from,” says Executive Head Chef Clift.
130E Minden Road; Tel: 6471 0306
Situated in an industrial estate along Alexandra Road, this restaurant exudes a hipster-cool vibe with its stylish interiors decked in wood and shades of blue, grey and brown. But what sets Portico (the Italian word for “porch”) apart from other cafes is its edible garden, where an assortment of crops ranging from calamansi to turmeric and Ceylon spinach are grown. According to Head Chef Nixon Low, the restaurant began growing its own produce shortly after opening last February: “People were talking about gardens and urban farming, so we tried it out and became obsessed with it.” The garden is tended to weekly by Hedrick Kwan of Plant Visionz, a local business that specialises in edible landscaping.
So proud is Low of his restaurant's produce that he uses it extensively in his dishes. For instance, his signature pan-seared sea bass (which is supplied by sea fishery Tiberias Harvest in Pulau Ubin) is presented atop a bed of vegetables such as onions, parsley, basil and yarrow — all from Portico's own backyard. The onions are crunchy and sweet, while the aromatic basil leaves complement the natural sweetness of the fish. Another noteworthy dish is the restaurant's deconstructed black forest dessert, which comprises caramel ice cream, cherries and chocolate sauce. The decadent treat is speckled with the garden's vibrant pink clown flowers and red Indian snakeweed flowers, as well as wheatgrass stalks grown in a sprouter. “Growing my own [produce] means I can just cut them off from the plant whenever I need them and the flavour is so much more intense,” says Low.
#01-10, 991B Alexandra Road; Tel: 6276 7337
PARKROYAL ON PICKERING
With its vertical gardens, lush greenery, planter terraces and six solar-powered sky gardens, Parkroyal on Pickering is clearly serious about its eco-friendly, nature-centric efforts. This striking hotel's dedication even extends to its cuisine, which incorporates herbs and spices harvested from its fifth-storey garden. There, various crops spanning chilli, pandan leaves, basil and mint are cultivated on a designated 240-sq-ft plot of land. “The produce is fresh [as] we can harvest once it's ripe,” says Lee Kin Seng, the hotel's director of marketing communications. “It is also grown in a controlled environment, so our chefs can determine the amounts of fertiliser and water used.”
Set up last year, the garden is tended to by the culinary team from the hotel's Lime restaurant. Its produce, which is harvested once or twice weekly, is used in dishes including Kam Hiong lobster (where the crustacean is cooked in a spicy blend of curry leaves from the garden and dried shrimps) and Bubur Cha-Cha (a Peranakan dessert that requires pandan leaves). Rosemary from the garden is also crucial for marinating meats such as ribeye steak and lamb. Lee says the hotel's efforts to grow its own food is environmentally friendly, as it helps to “reduce the amount of carbon emissions that is necessary to transport commercially grown produce”. According to him, the plot-to-plate concept has been a hit among diners: “Some overseas guests have asked for our executive chef's contact so that they can consult him when they return home to create their own herb garden in their backyard.”
3 Upper Pickering Street; Tel: 6809 8888