Singapore is renowned as having some of the best street food eats in the world. Now the island state is hoping to reinvent itself as Asia’s heart of haute cuisine.

Some say Singapore is one of the best eating cities in the world. It is certainly one of the most diverse. Founded by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the British East India Company in 1819, the tiny island settlement attracted labourers, merchants and mercenaries from Kerala to Canton. Continuing their culinary traditions, and sometimes blending with the styles and spices of their neighbours, these new arrivals helped Singapore become a smorgasbord of Asian cuisines.

From rich buffalo rendang, originating on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, to Chinese-style pork-rib soup and creamy Nonya-style laksa fusing Chinese ingredients with south-east Asian spices, these dishes can be had cheaply and cheerfully at hawker stalls and laneway restaurants across the city for just a few dollars a plate.

But now Singapore is shifting its culinary attention. Spurred by the arrival of satellite kitchens run by celebrity chefs in the flashy Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa- Singapore’s new casino-hotel complexes known together as the “integrated resorts” or IRs- the city is embarking on a campaign to reinvent itself as Asia’s premium destination for haute cuisine.

“In the past, we heavily promoted street food but with the two IRs, it’s time to start changing our focus,” says Ranita Sundramoorthy, who oversees dining at the Singapore Tourism Board.

The kitchen line-up is extraordinary. French chef Joel Robuchon, who has 20 restaurants around the world with 26 Michelin stars between them, plans to open three diners in Singapore by April. Austrian-American culinary entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud, of New York’s Daniel, both opened venues early this year. French chef Guy Savoy and Spain’s Santi Santamaria opened eponymous restaurants in May last year (Santamaria died earlier this week while giving tours of his new restaurant). Tetsuya Wakuda, of legendary Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s, opened Waku Ghin two months later. Australian Scott Webster has opened Osia, offering “authentic Australian cuisine” using not-so-authentic Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna.

Fine dining in Singapore doesn’t come cheaply, however. Kyoto-born Kunio Tokuoka’s restaurant of the same name has tasting menus for $S750 ($580) plus 17 per cent tax a head. Only steps away from Resorts World Sentosa’s casino, it’s not hard to see who the restaurant is targeting.

To get to Waku Ghin, Santi and Guy Savoy, you must traverse a shopping mall, then make your way through gaming halls heaving with adrenalin-charged punters. Inside Waku Ghin, the incongruities continue. Most of the 11-course degustation menu is served in one of four teppanyaki booths – bare wood-panelled rooms where guests sit side by side facing a teppan hotplate; dessert is served in a different room. You might score a booth to yourself, as I did, or you might have to share, in which case you’ll be seated beside a stranger. The first five courses are prepared in the kitchen. So with no art to gaze at, no music, no chef at the hotplate and conversation with your dining partners only possible by turning your body to see them, the ambience is strangely austere, almost frigid.

Wakuda’s food, however, is extraordinary, with dishes such as plump Pacific oysters with ginger and rice wine, an astoundingly sweet and creamy sea urchin served with raw shrimp and caviar, fresh Tasmanian abalone (which is, disturbingly, fried alive in front of you) and thin slices of seared wagyu beef with fresh dragon-fire wasabi.

Next door, Santi’s atmosphere is more engaging and he scores top marks for food, too. The country-style Catalan dishes include a gobsmacking tuna belly with eggplant and truffle, melt-in-the-mouth roast pig and a wooden trolley of more than 26 artisanal cheeses to choose from. There is an excellent Spanish and French wine list and an affordable tapas bar.

Although these star chefs add a new dimension to the city, Singapore’s gastro scene has been maturing for some time. Last year, two Singapore restaurants – Iggy’s and Jaan par Andre – scored places in the San Pellegrino world’s 50 best restaurants list; another two- Les Amis and Gunther’s- were listed in the top 100.

First appearing in the list in 2009, Iggy’s, which is owned and run by sommelier Ignatius Chan, is known as much for its shoebox size, absence of windows and homely bookshelves full of cookbooks as it is for its cuisine: oysters with mascarpone and Japanese mint; slow-cooked egg with black truffles. (The restaurant recently moved to a slick new space at the Hilton Hotel.)

“We hope one day Singapore will be another San Sebastian,” Chan tells me, referring to the Basque city famed for its cuisine.

When Jaan par Andre at the Swissotel made the best-restaurant list, dashing young Taiwanese chef Andre Chiang was running the kitchen. Chiang has since left Swissotel to start a restaurant of his own, a 30-seater named Andre. Set inside an early 20th-century two-storey house at the New Majestic Hotel in Chinatown, Andre is hushed and refined, with white linen, Christofle hand-moulded crockery and a whimsical herd of shaggy sheep stools standing by.

Before dinner, each person is given a booklet with stories and drawings outlining Chiang’s philosophy and relationship to food. Only artisan-grown produce is used, with five or fewer ingredients a dish. The raw-scallop ravioli in a purple cauliflower consomme is so beautiful, it could be a watercolour; oysters served with sea grapes and a foam of Granny Smith apples is a perfect combination. With relaxed but attentive service and wines from little-known family producers in France, Andre is, for me, Singapore’s most exceptional dining experience.

Swedish chef Ebbe Vollmer has now taken the helm at Jaan Restaurant. This long-standing restaurant on the 70th floor of Swissotel The Stamford, with its dazzling Murano chandeliers and views across the city, is elegant and classy. Vollmer’s food isn’t as theatrical as Chiang’s was in this restaurant but it remains a fine choice, with dishes such as butter-soft pheasant with Madeira sauce and boudin blanc with mustard, teamed with a superb wine list and outstanding service.

Rustic meets industrial chic at Cocotte at the recently opened Wanderlust hotel. The bustling ground-floor diner swarms with patrons in jeans and T-shirts and wooden trolleys stacked with cheese. The hearty French farm food is simple and casual: think fatty pig’s trotters, tongue-tingling onion and anchovy tarts and a succulent organic roast chicken served with the carcass and a pot of roast vegies on a wooden platter.

If that doesn’t wow you, there’s always hawker centre next door.

Eating there

Waku Ghin‘s degustation menus cost from $S936 ($728) for two people.
Marina Bay Sands; +65 6688 8507; dinner only

Santi has tasting menus from $S456 for two people.
Marina Bay Sands; +65 6688 5592; dinner only

Andre has two nightly menus costing from $S463 for two people.
41 Bukit Pasoh Road, Chinatown; +65 6534 8880; dinner only, closed Monday

Jaan Restaurant has great value three-course lunch menus from $S135 for two people; dinner menus from $S468.
Swissotel Hotel, Raffles City; +65 6837 3322; closed Sunday

Cocotte costs about $S120 for two people for dinner.
2 Dickson Road, Little India; +65 6298 1188, open for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday

Staying there

Wanderlust is the third Singapore hotel by the trend-setting Loh Lik Peng. There are 29 rooms with names such as Typewriter and Bling designed by local artists. It’s cosy and quirky, “Just like Little India,” Loh says. No swimming pool or gym.
Doubles from SGD$185 including breakfast; wanderlusthotel.com

Swissotel the Stamford is centrally located and has plenty of amenities and a host of bars and dining outlets, including killer champagne brunches at Equinox.
Doubles cost from $S290; swissotel.com

This article appeared in the February 19, 2011 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspaper’s Traveller.