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A Nightcap at the Raffles

A Nightcap at the Raffles

Gautier Battistella - 2011-04-12

A haven of elegance, Raffles Hotel is Singapore’s memory and a temple of gastronomy. Here we meet a Chopin devotee and six Michelin stars on a visit.

The air seems to hold the scent of cigar smoke rising from bridge tables and the perfume of ladies in crinoline. It’s easy to imagine them, limply fanning themselves while trying to escape from the languor of the long Singapore hours. The varnished floor crackles under our slippers; the faint music of the parquet is a reminder of bygone glory days. We round a corner and espy old black-and-white photos of celebrities; Liz Taylor watches and laughs. The establishment’s pride is well-earned; there is no need for pretence. For what is offered here is precisely that: a refined moment, an elegant pause in the heat of the city. Welcome to Raffles Hotel, an oasis in the heart of Singapore.
 
The city’s history is mirrored in that of the establishment. Its name honours Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the gentleman who founded Singapore. Colonel of the British army, lieutenant governor of Java, Raffles abolished slavery and forced labour in his territories and was knighted in 1817. In January 1819, he established the British trading post at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula that was to become Singapore. The hotel that bears Sir Stamford’s name evokes this past. An Indian major-domo adorned with a golden sash opens taxi doors for the ladies who arrive and protects them under an umbrella until they have reached the vast lobby. Once inside, only wood, murmurs, memories and the scent of wax prevail as the blades of ceiling fans stir the heavy air. Gentlemen are seen escorting their partners to the Long Bar, where they are likely to order a Singapore Sling and toss peanut shells on the floor – a defiant tradition imported from England that is almost revolutionary here in the Capital of Absolute Cleanliness and Efficiency that is Singapore.
 
La vie en rose
A maid appears, bows and disappears. It is 35 °C. A balmy breeze ruffles the surface of the pool located behind the main building, past the Amrita Spa. Leaning on the bar, a black man sporting a white robe is crooning Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose. What miracle has brought this bluesman from New Orleans to Singapore? Is he just passing through? ‘We’re all just passing through,’ he answers in a grave voice, then bursts out laughing. ‘My name is James H. McKissic, but you can call me James,’ he says. His is a fascinating story. Once pianist in a bar in Marrakech, eking out a living here and there, wherever there was work, he caught the eye of a producer from New York who asked him if he’d like to perform… at Carnegie Hall. James played Debussy, Chopin and Schumann. Or rather God was playing, he says, since all he does is lend God his fingers. ‘It’s just that simple. All you’ve got to do is believe.’ Indeed, we want to believe. This man’s eyes sparkle with light. He’s seventy years old but looks fifty. He excuses himself from our company with, ‘I’ll play one for you, I promise.’ Meetings at the Raffles are never banal.
 
An opus of another kind takes place here once a year. Right now, several brigades of toque-topped chefs, replete with knives, pots and pans, have set up their kitchens in the lobby. A gourmet army, ready to charge. Pierre Burgade, a native of Mirande in South-West France, is executive chef of the Raffles restaurants. Every year he welcomes some of the world’s best chefs to the Raffles Hotel Wine Food & Arts Experience in view of building bridges between different culinary cultures. This year’s gourmet event is orchestrated by superchef Gérald Passédat of the Petit Nicein Marseille – a regular, since it is his third year - and new star Gilles Goujon of LAuberge du Vieux Puits in Fontjoncouse (in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region) who was awarded his third star in 2010. Six Michelin stars between them. They gratify us with a lesson in flavours and aromas.
 
Gilles Goujon and his Andalusian egg
Is it really necessary to present Gilles Goujon’s emblematic dish, the Carrus egg with Melanosporum truffle and summer mushroom puree, warm brioche and 'cappuccino' on the side? You slice into the egg, like Simone Mareuil’s eye in Buñuel and Dali’s classic film An Andalusian Dog, and what oozes out? Its ‘rotten’ interior: truffle juice! Fabulous! An ocular metaphor for a culinary masterpiece. Just a bit further on, the charismatic Gérald Passédat, famous for (among other dishes) his deconstructedbouillabaisse in three servings, offers a lobster from the depths.  
And it is from the depths that a suave voice surfaces: James is singing Brel’s Ne me quitte pas. Brel’s lyrics slide through the air like velvet. Nina Simone’s ghost leans on the piano. Ne me quitte pas, never leave me. James, who says he does not think of tomorrow, knows it as well as any other: you can never really leave the Raffles.
 
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
1 Beach Road
Singapore 189673
Tel: +65 6337 1886
Fax: +65 6339 7650
 
 

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