What makes a restaurant great?

The first time we heard about Mad About Sucre was when our good friends JM and SL brought a Christmas log cake to a dinner gathering in December 2015. It had cute white chocolate reindeer, marshmallow twigs and flecks of edible silver. Inside was yuzu cream, white chocolate and it was the best log cake that we’ve ever eaten.

Actually, it was one of the best cakes that we’ve ever had. Period.

It was elegant yet whimsical and everything, from the taste to the texture, just worked well with each other effortlessly. When something so simple is so good, you know that tremendous thought and care was put into its creation.

“You know, they also run a restaurant that serves great food. You guys should definitely visit,” said SL enthusiastically. We know that when SL is enthusiastic about something, it’s always a good idea to follow her recommendation.

And so we did.

The first half of 2016 was a busy time for me, with six overseas work trips and intensive preparations in between. But when breathing space opened up in June, The Wife and I made our very first dinner reservation at Mad About Sucre at 27 Teo Hong Road, on the edge of Chinatown.

It was a small and intimate place, located inside a conservation shophouse, with only about 20-plus seats. The main focus was the glass counter showcasing the cakes available that night and we were advised to choose our desserts first. It’s strictly first-come-first-served, and when they run out, they run out.

Eric came by with our menus and cheerfully asked, “Is this your first time dining with us?”

When we said yes, his eyes lit up even more and he started to share with us the philosophy behind the cooking at Mad About Sucre — the best and freshest ingredients, no artificial flavourings, simple provincial French food in generous portions; all cooked with love.

We ended up ordering the prawn salad, seafood bouillabaisse, beef stew and shared everything. When each dish was served, Eric shared the provenance of the ingredients and described the cooking methods at length. Like how fancy restaurants would do during elaborate multi-course tasting menus.

The first thought that went through my mind was, “Wow, they have really passionate and knowledgeable service staff!”

But, it turns out I was wrong.

The passion and knowledge were evident, but Eric was not just a server. It turns out he was also the co-owner. And during the numerous times that we’ve visited, he’s always like that, and so is everyone else on his team.

If you like your restaurants serious, stuffy and borderline unfriendly, don’t go to Mad About Sucre. Because what you’ll always get is sincere enthusiasm and the feeling that they’ve discovered something wonderful and they really can’t wait to share it with you.

And what they shared that night was indeed wonderful. The salad came with generous portions of wild-caught prawns, foie gras from non-force fed geese and was seasoned with caviar. Yes, caviar. And I use the word “seasoned” because instead of salt, the salad gets its brininess from the caviar.

The bouillabaisse was packed with generous chunks of seafood swimming in a rich and hearty broth filled with sweet and tangy tomatoes. The beef stew was equally flavourful with a deep meaty sauce and simmered root vegetables.

This was followed by the cakes that we had chosen upon entering the restaurant, and they did not disappoint. Each only had a few ingredients but that only allowed the main flavours to shine through; yuzu for one and dark chocolate for the other.

By the time we were done, we were full from the generous portions and drowsy from the robust yet not overwhelming flavours. It was a good dinner that night.

We dutifully updated SL during our next gathering in February 2017 at QY and RC’s apartment over Chinese New Year, and thanked her for her excellent recommendation. Funnily enough, at the end of the meal, out popped a birthday cake for The Wife from Mad About Sucre.

It has since turned into somewhat of a tradition, with repeat appearances in February 2018 and February 2020. Each time a different cake, but each time from the same source.

The situation in 2020 was a bit more exciting as it was a last minute thing and JM called them on the morning itself to see if there was a cake available. Fortunately there was and JM zoomed down from the east to the south to pick it up, and then headed up north for the lunch.

I’m quite sure that they had to move things around to make the cake available. I remember Eric sharing that during one Christmas night, a regular client had called urgently to ask if they had any food available for takeaway and they had to sacrifice a roast chicken meant for a festive staff dinner. For them, clients come first and it’s not just talk.

Since she had gotten so much birthday love (and cake) from Mad About Sucre, The Wife decided to share the joy and bought me a birthday dinner in December 2018.

On our second visit, James was our server. And as you’d expect by now, he wasn’t just the server, but also the CFO of the restaurant. And as you’d also expect by now, he was knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

We asked him for his recommendations, and ended up choosing the tomato soup with crab and the duck confit linguine. The appetiser was, of course, the fantastic prawn salad, which we ordered as soon as we sat down.

The tomato soup was refreshing but not overly tart, and had a sweetness that doesn’t come from added sugar. James told us that it was made from four different types of tomatoes, resulting in the final complex flavour. The duck leg used in the confit came from Sarlat in France and had a strong, well, ducky taste which was slightly gamey but in a good way.

It was another great dinner. But the star of the show that night was the hot chocolate.

Eric was behind the glass counter and as we were chatting, I noticed a strange bottle of Cointreau behind him on the bar trolley. It wasn’t your usual orange bottle, but something darker and deeper in colour, like a blood orange, and that’s exactly what it was.

He offered to make me the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, and who can say no to that. In went the Cointreau Blood Orange plus some other liquors and out came a thick, boozy mug of hot chocolate. And yes, it was the best hot chocolate that I’ve ever had.

We were back again in February 2019, this time it was a group dinner date with JM, SL, QY and RC on Valentine’s Day with a special festive set menu.

It started with a group cheers of oysters and ended with another group cheers of chocolate truffles.

In between was a blur of good food, nice wine and great conversation among friends who’ve known each other for decades.

If you happened to notice the fried chicken encrusted with a layer of black dots, know that the dots are actually caviar. And before you say that it’s a waste to use so much caviar on fried chicken, know also that it’s Bresse chicken, of which France exports only 10% of their limited annual production. This dish was Eric’s idea and he had to face down a kitchen mutiny to get it served, and it’s a good thing that he prevailed.

December 2019 arrived too soon, and we were back again for another round of feasting, this time for their annual Christmas menu.

The highlights that day were the drunken ham (Jamon Borracho), turkey stuffing (the turkey was good, but the stuffing was better), the soursop pebble cake (made from wild soursop foraged from Lim Chu Kang) and, of course, the conversation. Which included probably too much information on tailbone injuries and X-rays, but I suppose that’s what happens when the body ages.

We had a good catch-up that night with Eric and James on their international expansion plans, their idea of using the Singapore premise as an R&D test kitchen to create new dishes for replication overseas, updates on lease renewal negotiations and renovation timelines. It was all very exciting and we were delighted that things were going well for them.

Then 2020 came along, and in a matter of months, the world as we know it changed forever.

Through it all, Mad About Sucre stayed strong and fought hard to keep the entire team on payroll. When the nation-wide lockdown was lifted in May, they launched their home delivery service, followed by limited sit-down service in June.

On 21 June, I received a Whatsapp from JM:

Hello.
We are buying you guys dinner from Sucre whether you like it or not.
Can you check online and tell us what you want and we will let the boys here know?
Otherwise we order whatever looks good and deliver to you.

I immediately responded with the classic:

New phone, who dis?

Which triggered a Liam Neeson-like response:

We know where you live.

And we all know that it is not wise to say no to Liam Neeson, so we surrendered and obediently sent across our choices. Later that evening, the care package arrived.

No prizes for guessing which appetiser we picked. The main course was pork ribs, and even though we didn’t choose any desserts, two cakes magically appeared. Because, Liam Neeson.

Exactly twenty four minutes later, this happened to the salad and ribs. The cakes survived for another hour as they sat in the fridge, but they met with a similar fate.

On 11 August, Mad About Sucre closed its doors again, this time to undergo the renovations that were aborted due to the lockdown. They have since announced that Chapter 2 of their evolution would start on Monday 21 September with a limited and socially-distanced dine-in service.

SL excitedly sent out a group Whatsapp asking if we were interested to go on re-opening night, but we had to politely decline as we still didn’t feel up to dining out yet. Plus also the restriction of five pax per party was one short of our regular six.

So, in two days, SL, JM, QY and RC will be back at Mad About Sucre and we can’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy and regret.

But back to the original question: “What makes a restaurant great?”

If you get right down to the core, it’s fundamentally about the people running it.

When you have a group of people who really believe in what they do, they will find every way possible to source for good ingredients, cook great food, bake beautiful cakes, deliver fantastic service and make you feel like family whenever you visit.

Even when they face a global pandemic that completely derails their carefully crafted plans, they find a way to survive, reset and recover. And that’s what, in my opinion, makes Mad About Sucre such a great restaurant.

To Eric, Lena, James, Kelvin and all the wonderful people at Mad About Sucre, thank you for the memories in the past five years, and all the best for your next five years and the many more five years after that. I’m sorry we couldn’t join you in your Chapter 2 re-opening on Monday, but I promise we’ll be there again soon.

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