Singapore’s Millennium Hotels: culture, comfort and a lot of cuisine
Balancing my fourth dim sum between the dark dollop of rendang, satay skewers and cold slivers of salmon sashimi already on my plate, I comfort myself that my questionable appetite at least has artistic purpose. After all, this lunchtime medley seems a fitting depiction of Singapore itself: an international smorgasbord where one visit just isn’t enough to satisfy.
Normally I avoid buffets – not just because of my poor self-control but because I often find they’re not all that. Thankfully, the Orchard Cafe at the Millennium Group’s refurbished Orchard Hotel Singapore is a delightful exception. While I’m busy hoovering up their hard work in unseemly mouthfuls of curry, raw fish and sour soup, individual chefs are creating a single cuisine in separate stations. In one corner, an iceberg of sushi and gargantuan shellfish glitters. In another, the air is thick with a coconut-tamarind steam from bowls of tangy laksa. My personal favourite – the one I will inevitably be heading back to – is Malaysian, where thick dark pots of spicy beef and golden chicken sticks beckon.
This incredible blend of cuisines is a vital part of Singaporean life and heritage and it’s clear that the 4.5 star Orchard Hotel understands that. The welcoming and warm Orchard Cafe is just one of the hotel’s many restaurants to try out. The Peranakan, housed in the mall attached to the hotel, serves up a taste of native Singapore with colourful pomp and powerful flavour.
The perfect introduction to this indigenous Straits cuisine is the succulent ngoh hiang – pork mince and prawn rolled up and fried in bean-curd skin. Picking a favourite main is tough, but the ayam buah keluak is utterly special thanks to one ingredient. The buah keluak is a Southeast Asian poisonous seed, so filled with hydrogen cyanide that it has to be prepared in a month-long ritual of boiling, burying and soaking before it can be cooked with. Forget the chicken – cracking one of these seeds and picking out the fudge inside is the real draw of this dish. The flesh is so rich that I can only manage half, but what a half it is: an umami assault reminiscent of black truffle and dark chocolate.
The finest string to the hotel’s culinary bow is Cantonese. Hua Ting is an award-winning restaurant that had its own makeover in 2018. I’m still deciding whether the crab claw with egg white, spring onion and ginger puree or the double-boiled chicken broth with sea whelk and black garlic earns second place. The gold medal, however, undoubtedly goes to the traditional whole smoked Peking duck. The simple, familiar accompaniment of pancakes and cucumber lets the sweet smokiness sing – it’s a triumph from Masterchef Chung Lap Fai and his gold star team.
Orchard Hotel Singapore’s recent multi-million dollar renovation hasn’t just focused on restaurants. Also reimagined are 260 rooms, the Grand Ballroom, Conference Centre and the lobby. The inevitable result of all this – plush rooms, elegant public spaces and so much good food – is that you do have to remind yourself to leave the hotel and actually see Singapore.
Outside the cool, marble-lined lobby, the heat and humidity of Singapore hits hard. Walk around the city for longer than ten minutes and you become intimately acquainted with the reality of life on the equator and why so many locals carry umbrellas and fans.
As the name suggests, the hotel is located in Orchard Road – Singapore’s premier shopping area. Supposedly named for the fruit and spice trees the street once led to, Orchard Road drips with designers and tourists hoping to get their hands on the latest fashions. If you come to Singapore to shop, this is the place to stay. Even if you don’t have a fashion focus, the air-conditioned malls are havens from the heat – but if you’re willing to endure sweat-stuck skin then the nearby Singapore Botanic Gardens are unmissable. Celebrating their 160th birthday this year, they remain the only tropical botanic garden on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Their crowning glory is the Orchid garden; a collection designed to make your proud efforts at keeping that bathroom phalaenopsis alive seem pointless and paltry in comparison.
A short hop on the metro from the hotel is Chinatown: the home of hawker centres and a key slice of Singapore’s history. The ideal way to get the best out of this busy banquet of food stalls and souvenirs is to find a local to guide you, such as Maureen Ow. Maureen is better known by her blog, Miss Tam Chiak, where she writes about Singapore’s hybrid cuisine and offers food tours to visitors.
You have to prepare yourself for Chinatown – don’t, whatever you do, follow in my footsteps and fill up before you go. You won’t want to miss out on Michelin-recommended chicken and rice, kaya toast and the addictive dessert cendol, made with shaved ice, palm sugar, green jelly, beans and coconut. Finding these delights in a huge, multi-storey hawker centre can seem intimidating, especially if your Mandarin is rusty. Tempting as it is to rely on the gospel of Michelin, even those recommendations can quickly become outdated. As Maureen points out, one such stall’s chef left after a falling out and opened his own place four stalls down, taking his award-winning chicken and rice with him. The safest bet, it seems, is to find a line full of locals and join it.
South of Chinatown, another of the Millennium Group’s 4.5 star hotels is also making waves. Winner of the International Hotel Awards ‘Best Luxury Hotel in Singapore 2019-2020’, as well as ‘Best Convention Hotel’, the Grand Copthorne Waterfront has been a stalwart of the riverside area for the last 20 years. It’s known for its massive event spaces, business apartments and spacious rooms with spectacular views.
For all its luxury, the Waterfront has a lively, modern charm, with open-plan restaurants dotted around the atrium. The pride of these is Grissini’s Italian run by Head Chef Mirko Vinci. Following a weekend of exploring the city’s Malay, Peranakan, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian eateries, Grissini’s throws Western food into the mix. The pizzas earn their place on the menu with crunchy thin bases and rich toppings, but the show is entirely stolen by the mouth-watering lobster taglioni. It’s big enough to share as a starter, but good enough that you might not want to.
Grissini’s, the Tempo Cocktail Bar and nearby Food Capital Buffet all look out over the riverside area, itself alive with bars full of locals and tourists. On the opposite side of the hotel lays the historic Tiong Bahru district, which you can learn about on the hotel’s three-hour Live Like a Local tour. This walk is run by local guides who explain the culture, history, art and people of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. Naturally, this also includes a hearty breakfast of fried carrot cake (not the sweet western one), popiah and peanut pancakes at the hawker centre.
Staying at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront also brings you one step closer to Singapore’s world-famous Gardens by the Bay. This huge, $1bn nature park is a great testament to the country’s priorities, sprawled as it is across three prime plots on the marina front. From the towering, solar-panelled Supertrees, through the international Flower Dome, to the waterfalls of the rainforest Cloud Dome, Gardens by the Bay are one of the few places that social media just doesn’t do justice to.
The only thing dampening their splendour is the inevitable effect of trekking for hours in 32C heat, to which the hotel’s rooftop pool is the only answer (the hot tub and gym will have to wait until winter). If the combination of sightseeing and swimming has managed to make space in your stomach, the best part of any afternoon at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront is heading to the Executive Club Lounge for high tea and cocktails.
Even though my bathroom borders on palatial, it’s this lounge that’s my favourite part of the hotel: 28 floors up, panoramic windows overlook the city with the Bay’s attractions just glinting in the distance. With a Singapore Sling in hand, it’s the perfect place to sit and watch the city go by – and perhaps think about what’s for dinner.
For more information on Singapore’s Millennium Hotels and to book, visit millenniumhotels.com/en/singapore
And for more on Singapore itself, go to visitsingapore.com