Gourmands on our home turf would be familiar with the trailblazing story behind Magic Square, an F&B incubator turned permanent restaurant by chef Tan Ken Loon, owner of well-loved establishments like Naked Finn and Burgerlabo. This is where young talented chefs under 30 are gifted a kitchen to hone their skill sets and push the boundaries of local flavours in the vein of their very own tasting menus—and are managed under the tutelage of Marcus Leow, Magic Square’s very first alumni back in 2018 and now chef de cuisine of Naked Finn.
After a few fruitful years of showcasing Singapore’s burgeoning culinary talent with a different chef under the spotlight every month, the chapter of Magic Square has come to a close. But only to pave the way for another exciting move—that being Japanese chef Kenichi Takatsu’s arrival next year, who helms his eponymous restaurant in Shimonoseki—and between then, a pop-up restaurant named Focal, helmed by Leow and fellow Magic Square alumni and former sous chef at Odette, Jonathan Gan.
“It’s a portmanteau that incorporates ‘foreign’ and ‘local’, where we take foreign ingredients while retaining the backbone of the local flavours and tastes,” Leow tells Vogue Singapore. And much like his humble origins, the operation demands all hands to be on deck. “From designing a menu, down to beverage pairing and running the social content myself, we operate with a two-man kitchen team and one at front of house, serving 16 people a day in a single seating.”
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Focal’s cuisine is dubbed ‘progressive Singaporean’, to which Leow adapted the newly-coined term from his customers. “Fusion is probably a blanket term that is associated with us but progressive Singaporean seems more appropriate, given that the food that we do at Focal isn’t really memory-based, where we recreate iconic Singaporean dishes but rather we take Singaporean flavours and execute them with foreign ingredients,” shares Leow.
Below, the Naked Finn chef shares more about his new venture and the magic and allure he sees in culinary pop-ups.
Tell us what we can expect from the food at Focal.
As the name of the pop-up suggests, we will always have foreign and local elements on our dishes to showcase the synergy between ingredients that seem uncommon to be paired together. Our menu might read strange to some but we guarantee the dishes are very much familiar flavours. Here, we showcase how these amalgamations can work while also drawing similarities to foreign ingredients—serving up what we feel Singaporean cuisine could move towards.
What kinds of interesting dishes can we expect?
We’re lucky our company has a stake in a Japanese seafood supplier, hence we use a fair bit of Japanese ingredients like botan ebi (spot prawns), amadai (tilefish) and Japanese kuroge wagyu. Of course, we do use ingredients sourced from Europe and other areas as well, like lemon verbena, petit pois and white asparagus. Currently on our opening menu, we have a snack—min jiang kueh with an orh nee (yam and coconut) foam with caviar. A personal favourite of mine is barbecued anago (sea eel), an eggplant and mustard salad and a dressing of peanut butter and gula melaka.
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Pop-ups have been an ongoing occurrence in your culinary repertoire, what would you say are some merits of a pop-up?
Pop-ups in my opinion are really good for up-and-coming chefs as a good testbed, especially in the current climate where both consumers and investors are slightly more risk-adverse. From a chef’s point of view, pop-ups are a good idea to test out concepts without the risk of bearing costs like renovating a kitchen or purchasing cutlery or new plates, as it’s basically taking “residence” at an already established kitchen or restaurant. Plus, they also serve as a good opportunity to expand our name and at the same time, allow us to execute ideas that may not fit the current concepts of our other companies. This gives me more freedom when creating dishes or menus.
What do you hope the diners at Focal can walk away with?
A goal for us at Focal has always been to make diners happy, but also to challenge the guests on their understanding of “Singaporean cuisine” and to showcase our version of it. We want diners to experience our tasting menu and go: “I didn’t expect these ingredients to go well together but somehow they still taste so familiar.” Focal is a chance for us to spread the word out there on our vision of our cuisine and hopefully it satisfies both the palates and curiosity of our guests.
What’s next for the space after Focal?
It’s an unpredictable time for us, but for now we will release reservations every two months. Once a date is set, renovations will be underway for chef Takatsu to take over as a counter seating fine dining restaurant, where Jonathan and I will be assisting him.
Focal is now open for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays at 12.30pm (six courses, $138++) and dinner from Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7pm (10 courses, $198++). Make a reservation here.