Dining in a Chapel – The White Rabbit Dining Review12 March, 2015
Dining at The White Rabbit in Dempsey is quite an experience – not only do you get to savour delicious food and admire the beautiful restaurant interior decorations, you can also expect great service from the attentive restaurant staff. It is for these reasons that The White Rabbit was the winner of the Singapore Experience Awards Best Dining Experience category in 2009 and has since qualified multiple times as a finalist in 2011, 2013 and again for the same category in the 2014 Awards.
The White Rabbit is housed in an old Ebenezer Chapel that has been restored to its former glory with its original façade and interior preserved e.g. the chapel’s timber structure, mosaic floor tiles and decorative iron window grilles. It is located on Harding Road in Dempsey which is known for its lifestyle and dining establishments.
There is an interesting story behind how an old 1940s chapel built for British soldiers stationed at then-Dempsey barracks was transformed into The White Rabbit today. Back in 2007 when the Singapore Land Authority made the chapel available for commercial use, The Lo and Behold Group (the company that opened The White Rabbit) was not the highest bidder for the land – in fact they were the third highest bidder but they won over the authorities with their proposal to redefine this unique space and at the same time conserve the historical significance of the chapel.
They faced a number of challenges in conserving the chapel as it had been abandoned for quite some time and there was a lot of work to be done – but the Group managed to restore the chapel while keeping in mind the original architecture. For example, the entire roof had to be replaced due to the health hazards posed by the asbestos roofing. However, the exact profile was still maintained. The Group went above and beyond typical conservation requirements: retaining almost the entire interiors of the space while accommodating the air conditioning; preserving the authenticity of the chapel even through the flooring. See the picture below for what The White Rabbit looked like when they first took over the space – you will see the effort and work that went into making the restaurant the way it is today.
The name of the restaurant “White Rabbit” comes straight from Lewis Carroll’s famous story “Alice in Wonderland”. In this classic, the White Rabbit appears at the beginning and escorts Alice down the rabbit hole and into an ethereal and unexpected kingdom. Similarly, the restaurant aims to create a deeply inviting and meaningful experience for their guests; an adventure beyond the ordinary that will at once stir all the senses.
Picture Credit: Walt Disney Studios
It is interesting to see how The White Rabbit has incorporated subtle references to the Alice in Wonderland fantasy world in its restaurant and bar design. Examples include the “secret” garden tunnel, a non-descript pathway from the car park, surrounded by tall grass and trees, which is one of two magical entrances just as in the story’s rabbit hole (the regular entrance is through the front of the chapel).
Also look out for another Alice in Wonderland reference at The White Rabbit’s outdoor garden bar called the “Rabbit Hole” with a “Drink Me” inscribed on the black and white mosaic tiles. This play on the fictional world of the Wonderland and the bar epitomises how guests are playfully invited to taste “magic potions” or the carefully crafted list of cocktail concoctions the bartenders have created.
In terms of ambiance, The White Rabbit offers a fine dining experience of the highest standards within a gorgeously restored chapel while maintaining a casual and unpretentious atmosphere. This makes the restaurant a versatile place for any occasion, be it a romantic Valentine’s Day date or casual brunch with close friends.
Now on to The White Rabbit’s food. We tried the restaurant’s lunch set menu that was just updated and re-launched in Feb 2015 (2 courses at $38++; 3 courses at $42++) by The White Rabbit Head Chef Benjamin Tan. As you will read below in the detailed dish descriptions, Chef Benjamin has re-designed the dishes and introduced new ones based on customers’ feedback or adapted different cooking styles that he learned while travelling.
Chef Benjamin Tan is very experienced in the culinary field – having spent eight years at Au Jardin by Les Amis, a multiple award winning French fine-dining restaurant in the Singapore Botanic Gardens and then at The White Rabbit as Sous Chef. With a desire to impart his knowledge and train the next generation of chefs in Singapore, Benjamin joined ITE College West for two years as a Lecturer.
In 2012, he returned to The White Rabbit as Head Chef with over 15 years of culinary experience. At The White Rabbit, he sticks to his cooking philosophy of “keeping it simple” with classic European flavours while adding a playful and dramatic touch through presentation. The menu is a tribute to his favourite ingredients, with a strong focus on meat and game.
One of The White Rabbit’s classic signature dish – Rangers Valley Wagyu Carpaccio is available as one of the starter choices. This dish is made with thinly sliced Australian Wagyu Beef, glazed with truffle cream and topped with balsamic pearls, microcress, freshly shaved parmesan and black winter truffle. The beef slices were very tender and tasty – for the best flavours, mix each mouthful with some balsamic pearls and truffles.
Another starter I would recommend is the Seared Bay Scallops served with sweet shallot confit, white chocolate veloute and sevruga caviar. The scallops were tender and slightly crispy at the seared edges. The veloute sauce together with the caviar makes this dish very flavourful.
For the set lunch mains, there are a few dishes with interesting stories of how they came about – one of them is the Alaskan King Crab Tagliatelle. Pasta dishes are typically served with carbonara/tomato-based sauce or drier versions like Aglio Olio. What Chef Benjamin has done instead is to adapt an Asian cooking style in preparing this Tagliatelle dish. He observed how the popular Singaporean dish – Hokkien Mee was cooked e.g. covering the lid to cook the Hokkien Mee prawn-based broth with the noodles and other ingredients so as to infuse the strong flavours together.
He applied the same cooking technique of covering the lid when cooking the Alaskan King Crab Tagliatelle dish, increasing the absorption rate of the pork and kombu broth into the pasta turning it into a rich, hearty dish.
I loved the 60-hour Braised Mangalica Pork Belly dish the most – this is a new dish on The White Rabbit’s menu inspired by classic European winter dishes and made with Mangalica Pork, a rare breed of Hungarian pigs. The pork is topped with a chilli pepper glaze to cut through the decadence of the meat and is served with sauteed pickled purple cabbage and white beans.
The White Rabbit had been serving a Char-Grilled Mangalica Pork Collar dish but Chef Benjamin worked to refine this dish further – trying different parts of the Mangalica Pork and cooking styles before deciding on the Mangalica Pork Belly dish we see today.
The Braised Mangalica Pork Belly meat was very tender and skin was very crispy so not only can you enjoy how flavourful it is (especially since the meat had been slow cooked at low temperatures for about 2+ days), the texture also adds to the entire experience.
The Mangalica pig is a Hungarian breed of domestic pig – it is quite hairy (like a sheep). It is served only in a few restaurants here and it seems that there is only one supplier of Mangalica pork here in Singapore. I appreciated the fact that The White Rabbit did not stick to the more well-known Kurobuta pork (black pig) and introduced this new delicacy – Mangalica pork to Singapore and it really paid off!
Another popular choice of mains on the set lunch menu is the 36-hour Brandt Short Ribs served with truffle miso glaze, parsnip puree and field mushrooms. The beef is sourced from Brandt, a boutique ranch in California. Again the beef was very flavourful and tender (my knife sliced right through the meat) – slightly crisp on the outside, decadent, juicy and melt-in-your-mouth on the inside.
An earlier version of the Brandt Short Ribs dish was one of The White Rabbit’s crowd favourites but it was pulled from the menu a few years ago as Chef Benjamin fine-tuned the dish behind-the-scenes. He spent a year trying out different ingredients and cooking methods when the restaurant is closed between the lunch and dinner hours and finally came out with a better version which is presented in the menu today. This is true dedication as evident in the stories behind the various main dishes. Chef Benjamin strives for perfection and innovates with different ingredients and cooking styles to bring the best to The White Rabbit’s guests. Of course, the autonomy that the Group gives to their chefs in implementing new ideas in their dishes also play a part in ensuring the menu is kept updated and improved regularly.
The story behind this main dish – the Sauteed Japanese Sea Bream served with creamed leeks, smoked mussels, browned butter and PX Sherry, exemplifies the efforts taken in ideation, conceptualising, and preparation that goes on behind the scenes, for just one dish on the menu. Imagine all that combined effort for the entire menu of over 40 items, especially when new flavours or ideas are thought of.
Cod Fish was served at The White Rabbit a few years ago but there were customer feedback that it was too salty with its plated combination. Thus, Chef Benjamin experimented with other fish and decided to use the Sea Bass instead. However, during one of his experience trips (think of it like a culinary study trip) to the USA, he discovered how he could make this dish better with Sea Bream and applied the change to The White Rabbit’s menu. There is reactive customer service where you work on feedback to improve your products but here we also see a pro-active approach to customer service – anticipating customers’ needs and working hard to please their palates.
This proactive mindset of Chef Benjamin can also be found in all staff of The White Rabbit and the emphasis on service can be seen from The Lo and Behold Group’s service credo, PASSION, which stands for the following:
P: Personalise and Connect
A: Anticipate and Act
S: Surpass Expectations
I: Inspire One Another
O: Own It
N: Never Forget To Have Fun
Each day, The White Rabbit staff recite the PASSION service credo with a simple action pegged to each virtue, and discuss good practices aligned with the credo.
The White Rabbit staff take the PASSION credo seriously and turn it into actions through their daily interactions with guests. One story from John Christopher Zara really impressed me – nearing the closure of the restaurant one late evening at 11pm, the only guests left in the restaurant were unable to hail/book a taxi (as there were scheduled road closures at Orchard Road, taxis had avoided the area). John actually walked about 15 minutes downhill to the main road and waited for about 20 minutes to hail a taxi before riding it back to The White Rabbit and passing it to the couple.
John’s actions were recognised as part of the company’s ‘Catch Me Doing Right’ recognition system, which recognises employees’ performance each month under different themes, based on the company’s service credo. In this case, this is clearly “A: Anticipate and Act”.
There are also small things like noticing from guests’ conversations that they are celebrating a birthday or anniversary at The White Rabbit – the staff will prepare something special for these guests e.g. write the word “Happy Birthday” on the next dish.
All waiters and waitresses at The White Rabbit know the stories behind the restaurant’s dishes e.g. how Chef Benjamin was inspired by Fried Hokkien Mee in preparing the Alaskan King Crab Tagliatelle, as well as the history of the chapel space. They have been well trained to enhance the guest’s experience, especially when they express interest in finding out more about the chapel space.
Hiring and retaining service staff is an ongoing challenge for the food & beverage (F&B) industry. What I really appreciated is the management’s enlightened approach to create a company that people want to work for and develop a culture that is people-centric and helps each individual reach their potential.
At The White Rabbit, Chef Benjamin organises a monthly “MasterChef” competition where he challenges his kitchen staff to create a new dish based on a selected ingredient and the best dish (as selected by him) will be featured as The White Rabbit Chef’s Specials for 2 weeks. All of his kitchen chefs can participate, regardless of their position in the kitchen – even The White Rabbit interns from SHATEC get to participate in this MasterChef competition too!
Picture Credit: The White Rabbit
As you can see from the picture below – that’s 3 of his staffs’ creations – a lot of effort goes into creating the best dish they can. Healthy competition-aside, this approach also develops his own staff and builds pride in their work. This provides not just a chance for staff to bond, but also for all to know that they are a part of the organisation, and that everyone has a stake in it – truly a win-win!
Personal development is part of the career progression plan at the Group. Employees build their skills by attending courses within Singapore and abroad, including visiting Bali to research on beach bars, and travelling to Australia and Europe to expand their knowledge of wines. I mentioned Chef Benjamin’s experience trip to the USA earlier – that is an example of the type of investments that the company puts into developing their staff and the potential returns they can get back from it.
And that’s not all – what really amazes me is their incentive programme which turns the “10% service charge” into a huge motivational lever for staff. Often, we hear of stories of restaurants simply pocketing the 10% service charge as part of their profit, contradicting the fact that their staff are the ones providing the service. Here, the service charge is channelled back to their employees whenever a restaurant meets its daily targets and the reward is distributed in the form of variable bonuses, personal development opportunities and recreational activities.
Staff empowerment to innovate and deliver great service, personal development, rewards and recognition – I think these are the factors that make The White Rabbit staff confident in doing their best and being very knowledgeable about their own restaurant.
I had the opportunity to speak to the General Manager of The White Rabbit, Kelvin Tay, and he was very open to sharing everything about the restaurant’s dishes and the bar’s wide collection of gin – all the stories behind how each dish was designed e.g. the Magalica Pork Belly dish. He is also well-known for his wine expertise and was selected as one of CNNGo’s ’20 People to Watch’ in The Shanghai Hot List 2009! Having being trained in South Australia, Spain and Chile, he crafted the extensive wine menu for the Rabbit Hole so if you want to talk wine, he is the definitely the right person to speak to.
Of course, no meal is complete without dessert. We tried the Deconstructed Cheesecake which is made with a mascarpone and cream cheese mousse, layered over a graham crumble with lemon zest, pop rocks and a side of house-made raspberry sorbet. The Deconstructed Cheescake is not part of The White Rabbit lunch menu – it can be ordered ala carte ($22). It is called deconstructed because– as you can see from the picture below, it does not look like a cheesecake in anyway. The typical cheesecake is quite rich and heavy on the palate, and by deconstructing it, you can savour the taste of each ingredients. You can choose to mix it up and make your cheesecake (sort of) or mix and match to your own delight. The chef had added in some pop rocks within the dessert so don’t be surprised if after you find something popping in your mouth after a bite.
The desserts included as part of the set lunch menu include Chocolate Fondant served with molten caramel core, banana and rum ice cream. I loved this dessert – I am a big fan of chocolate lava cake and you will get a really good one here. Mix it all up for the texture (hard macaron shell, soft molten caramel, cold ice cream) and the taste.
The White Rabbit was a finalist for the 2014 Singapore Experience Awards’ Best Dining Experience category. For more information on the other Awards finalists, check out the Singapore Experience Awards webpage. You can also share your favourite experiences and tag them with #yoursingapore, and your photo might get reposted by @Visit_Singapore Instagram account – instant fame!
The White Rabbit is located at 39C Harding Road and is best accessed via Minden Road (off Tanglin Road). The restaurant is further down the road from St. Georges Church. Parking is available on restaurant premises and St. James Kindergarten.
To reserve a table, call or text 9721 0536. More information here: http://www.thewhiterabbit.com.sg/
Opening hours for The White Rabbit
Lunch: Tuesday – Friday 12:00pm – 2:30pm
Brunch: Saturday – Sunday 11:30am – 3:00pm
Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday 6:30pm – 10:30pm
Closed on Mondays