Two adjoining conservation shophouses along 28 Mohamed Sultan Road in Singapore have been quietly undergoing an overhaul in the last two and a half years. As you enter the now-connected buildings, one of which was formerly occupied by Madam Wong’s, a popular bar more than a decade ago, you’d be awestruck by the transformation.
The man who has put his stamp on this one-of-a-kind establishment? Marco-Pierre White. The legendary British chef-restaurateur and his team have carved out a brand new restaurant and hotel called The English House. The restaurant opens in July, and the hotel later in the year.
As you step into the 19th-century building, the fact that it used to comprise two shophouses would not even occur to you. Instead, you’ll see a sizeable structure stretching all the way to the back. White says: “The buildings were derelict. I took inspiration from the original architecture.”
“I take inspiration from everywhere, but, here, I let the buildings dictate. You have to be sensitive. When you take over a building which is listed, you have to allow the architecture of the old to influence and inspire the new.” The 56-year-old adds: “I’ve been to Singapore over 30 times in the last two-and-a-half years. I haven’t seen an establishment that represents the past like this.”
For him, it’s particularly important to highlight its beauty. He created and drew everything from scratch. “I believe that the designer gives you a look, and not a feel. To me it’s all about creating a feel. I’m very visual – I don’t take photos. It’s all in my mind. I looked at many books on shophouses and colonial buildings in Singapore and Hong Kong. I’ve brought a little piece of England into a shophouse in Singapore.”
To garner even more ideas, he visited shophouses in Singapore. “I went down different streets, and looked at how they present their frontages. I looked at how they created them, how they painted them, how they made them. And I came back and we did our little bit.”
To link the two buildings, his team cut out brick walls, forming generous apertures within the dining space on the first floor to help create an open, spacious ambience. The area is adorned with White’s collection of sculptures. Among the pieces is an angel (by London-based Croatian sculptor Ivan Klapez), perched on one end, overlooking the space.
In a typically dim shophouse, lighting is essential. He explains his design for the main entrance and back door. “What’s important is that when we walk in, we see daylight at the end, as well as at the front.” Furthermore, natural light floods into the main dining area through the skylight – an inspiration that he got from the Louvre in Paris.
He describes his vision for The English House. “My name is not on the property; there will be no signage outside. The place is understated, very English.”
He adds: “The building was here before I was born, and it will be here after I die. I work for The English House and Rudloe Arms (his hotel and restaurant in Bath, UK). We are the caretakers and custodians. We have a responsibility and a duty (to do our best for those places).”
BEYOND THE FACELIFT
“It’s a massive, massive job,” says White on the extent of the restoration work done. “Restoring takes so much longer than building something.”
He points at the unique stone carvings on one portion of the wall. More than 100 years old, the carvings were concealed behind false walls; White’s team discovered them by accident.
“Whoever owned this house was obviously wealthy – in order to do this kind of detailing. We spent three weeks digging out the flooring. The cost was enormous. But it’s about being respectful (to the place).”
The once dilapidated flooring is now lined with huge slabs of flagstones from England. Some of the old wall tiles were painstakingly restored and replicated.
“The new pieces are made to look 150 years old. We took a mould of the old tiles and created new ones,” explains the fastidious White. The same treatment was done to the cornices. “The original cornices were decaying, so we had to cut them out and recreate them,” he says. Aside from fortifying the building’s structure, the column beams were made to look like they have aged over decades. The exterior ironwork was also meticulously made to look weathered.
Meanwhile, all the fixtures were brought over from England. The two large hanging lamps in the dining hall used to illuminate London’s 19th-century Burlington Arcade. The intricate cast iron wall bracket lights were individually handpicked by White to fit the setting. Even the elegant door handles came from England. Just as you enter the building, you will notice a dramatic crest at the front. Two carved griffins embellish this massive masterpiece. “These griffins remind me of my parents,” he says. White’s British father met his Italian mother at the bar of The Griffin Hotel in Leeds in the 1950s. This crest is meaningful to him as it evokes nostalgic memories of his folks. According to White, the crest was sourced from the set of the movie Enigma. Many of the individual pieces dotted around the premises are from his personal collection.
Other furniture pieces that he sourced from England include huge 19th century shelves originally from Birmingham Library. They are placed in the bar area and the reception area. The dining table in the private room was originally from the Rolls-Royce boardroom in the 1940s, and another old wooden dining table in the main hall was from an English farmhouse.
The walls of the 150-seat restaurant are adorned with framed black and white photos by British photographer Terry O’Neill. O’Neill’s photographs typically capture his subjects, mostly celebrities, candidly or in unconventional settings. The collection here features well-known names such
as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Mirren and David Bowie.
“For the chairs and tables, I took inspiration from a chicken rice shop in Purvis Street. I had them copied, but I made them larger with leather cushions from England,” shares White. Meanwhile, the tabletops are made from Carrara marble from Europe.
“The silver trolleys and ice buckets were from my three-Michelin-star restaurant. They were taken out of storage and brought to Singapore. They are beautiful – a little piece of the old world that I came from,” he adds. As a 33-year- old, he was the youngest chef at the time to be awarded those stars for his eponymous restaurant in London. He returned his Michelin stars for the Oak Room in 1999 when he retired from cooking.
And most importantly, what’s on the menu? “You will get English classics. We’ll have shepherd’s pie; spit-roast chicken with wild mushrooms. We’ll have strawberries and cream, and English egg custard tart.” The restaurant will open for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday, and lunch on Sunday. “In time, I will introduce afternoon tea,” says the culinary maestro.
He adds: “It will be affordable, good, honest, quality food, and not fancy. We’re in the business of feeding people and of selling a night out. The portions are generous. You want to feel satisfied when you’re eating.”