Three men – a Czech, a Hongkonger and a Malaysian – walk into a bar. Not just any bar, though, but the new Atlas grand lobby and bar in Singapore, and sit right where I’ve been expecting them, on a plush velvet banquette, while the usual hive of activity swirls around us. Formally opened in late March 2017, Atlas sits in the middle of the 640-square-metre lobby of Parkview Square, a building already acclaimed for its imposing art-deco facade and arguably the most striking outpost in the city-state. Located in the historic Bugis neighbourhood and owned by the family of the late property magnate CS Hwang – who developed Parkview in Hong Kong – Parkview Square is now run by Hwang’s gracious granddaughter, Vicky.
But I was keen to meet the three guys – Czech head bartender Roman Foltan; Hongkonger Jack Cheung, the Hwang family’s sommelier; and Malaysian head sommelier Mason Ng – who between them imbue Atlas with an ambience redolent of the grand lobbies of 1920s jazz-age Europe.
Foltan hails from Prague, having arrived in Singapore six months before our appointment, following eight years at Artesian at the Langham in London, where in 2015 he made the Forbes 30 Most Talented People Under 30 list. On any given night, he can be found standing at either end of the room, in the middle of one of the two main bars, resplendent in his smart white jacket with black lapels, by local men’s designer Kevin Seah, who created all the bar-staff uniforms.
“I’d been here before,” Foltan tells me, “and thought it a nice place to work – people are open to new ideas and the beverage scene is starting to become more dynamic, so I finally took the plunge. I co-created many of the cocktails with Jason, who is our ‘gin master’ in charge of the Gin Tower here. It’s 15 metres high and offers 1,000 bottles of gin. We’ve also created the Juniper Society, which seeks to educate our patrons on the history and culture of gin.”
Foltan claims five of the cocktails as his own creations: Young Churchill (Islay single-malt whisky, herbal liqueur, orange bitters, chocolate, capers); Josephine Baker (small-batch bourbon, sweet sherry, French sweet vermouth, red wine vinegar); Lost & Found (blended Scotch malt whiskies, sweet and dry sherries, chocolate bitters, citrus, raspberry); the non-alcoholic cocktail London Southside Fizz (botanical cordial, rhubarb marmalade, lime, mint, soda, and what he calls “a speak-low cocktail of Chicago with a teetotaller London fix”); and Summer in Paris, also non-alcoholic (rose grape juice, lavender cordial, lemon, lemon berry tea soda). One of Foltan’s points of pride is his SS Normandie, the libation he starts me on (calvados, peach, peach liqueur, almond cordial, citrus and salt), listed in the “Style Modern” section of the menu and concocted in homage to the famous luxurious art deco cruise liner.
“For me, the main thing is to create a comfortable environment where people can take in these grand surroundings and not feel intimidated,” he says. Some of the showpieces at hand include the Imperial Shaker Machine, a collaboration with one of the leading lights of the bartending world, Jason Crawley. A mid-1800s drinks-making device of which no originals exist, the version here is Crawley’s personal copy painstakingly made over five years from an illustration in an old cocktail book, and now one of 12 replicas in existence.
Jack Cheung, the Hongkonger, has personally overseen the transfer of many wines from the Hwangs’ personal treasure trove. “We have a champagne list of 250 here, of which 130 come from and can only be found in the family collection,” he explains, “and from this, many are rare and cannot be found elsewhere in Singapore.” Previously based in Macau, he’s been with the Hwangs for four years and took this job because of the sheer precision involved in curating such a precious collection.
“We carry no other kind of sparkling wine except champagne, because we’re evoking Europe in the early 1900s, where champagne was the ultimate drink of choice of the affluent, modern classes. We have a special list featuring every champagne from each of seven champagne grands crus vineyards. And if you look at our list of still wines, we have only 40 of them – 20 reds and 20 whites, just to offer an alternative if you’re not up for the bubbly.”
And those were ridiculously hard to select, notes head sommelier Mason Ng, the Malaysian, who I learn happens to be a local legend since leaving his native Kuala Lumpur to join the Les Amis Group in Singapore at age 19, with virtually no on-the-job experience. Now 22, he’s an autodidact who began immersing himself in wine lore at the age of 13 and passed his Certified Sommelier exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers at his first attempt, aged 19. Starting at Les Amis Group group’s upscale trattoria La Strada as an assistant sommelier, Ng then moved next door to the flagship Les Amis for a two-year stint that was capped by the restaurant gaining two Michelin stars in 2016.
“Les Amis was about fine dining, a very different situation,” he remembers, “where my wine list ran from 2,000 to 3,000 titles. Here, we’re more about the enjoyment of prestige cuvées. We have the big names like Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer, but also the small ‘growers’ champagnes’ like Bruno Paillard, Pierre Péters and Benoît Lahaye.” Ng’s always happy to start a party with his “Complete Journey Flight” (six champagnes, each in 50 ml tasting glasses) – the six when I visited were Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV, Bruno Paillard Première Cuvée Extra Brut NV, Pierre Péters Réserve Privée Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV, Chartogne-Taillet Les Beaux Sens Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut NV, Krug Grande Cuvée NV, and Louis Roederer Rosé 2008.
“I think that it’s important to have a great selection,” Ng believes, “for the simple reason that you need your patrons to keep coming back. The key to it all, I think, is service. You can have the best beverage concept in the world but if people aren’t comfortable, you can be sure they won’t return.” He shrugs when I remark on the demise of the previous tenant, a wine bar called Divine whose main selling point was its “wine angels” – silver-costume-clad waitresses – who flitted upwards to the “wine tower” (now the Gin Tower) to extract and deliver chosen bottles to neck-craning mortals below, a ploy many ultimately deemed too gimmicky for its own good.
“I think people in Singapore aren’t interested just in going out to drink but to learn about what they’re drinking. I do see part of my job as educational, that you can love wine even more the more you know about it.”
Noting that he does three-week stints at Atlas in Singapore from Hong Kong, Cheung adds, “What I love most is having the opportunity to tell you about the making of these wines, how they’re steeped in centuries of history and culture. The richness of all that is what I want to leave you with.”
The Czech has the last word, though. Foltan quotes David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks in his cocktail menu, before a page of vintage Martinis: “The well-made cocktail is one of the most gracious of drinks, it pleases the senses. The whole world becomes a better place in which to live.”