Life has been one very long rollercoaster for business owners in the F&B industry. Even more so for bar operators who have to deal with constant changes on dine-in restrictions, a clamp down on music, alcohol curfews and moving onto e-commerce platforms to retail their cocktails in bottled form, the latter a novel idea that has since waned.

“It is a tough industry. You don’t open a bar to make lots of money; it really is a profession fuelled by passion and creativity. The reality is the bar scene in Singapore is so sophisticated now and it’s getting more and more challenging to stay ahead and afloat,” laments Yugnes Susela, co-founder of Indian-themed cocktail bar The Elephant Room.

Despite all of this, Singapore bars are still receiving due recognition with a dozen establishments making it to Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, four of which are in the top 10. “Singapore is a global icon when it comes to cocktails. Bar owners here are more daring with their themes and recipes because of our cosmopolitan culture and access to exotic ingredients. There’s also a lot of cocktail awareness among consumers who know their classics very well and are keen to try something new,” he adds.

Susela says the competition here is so fierce that the only way to stand out is to do things differently and creatively, which is why the 33-year- old — of Smoke & Mirrors and Tippling Club fame — chose to open a concept bar (together with nine other sleeping partners) paying homage to his Indian heritage.

The bar counter - THE EDGE SINGAPORE
The bar counter sits on top of old russet Jaali ventilation blocks
Colours of Little India

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Launched in September 2019, The Elephant Room — located on Teck Lim Road, which is within the bustling Keong Saik enclave — has set itself apart from other bars in the industry, carrying only spirits originating from India and crafting its own liquors and infusions using only the best South Asian spices, fruits and flowers sourced from Little India.

Occupying the space above Michelin-starred restaurant Burnt Ends, The Elephant Room has a relaxing non-pretentious vibe, with decorative elements that play up its cultural theme such as vermilion-hued interiors with gold accents, exposed brick walls, and a bar counter laid over russet Jaali vent blocks.

The Elephant Room - THE EDGE SINGAPORE
To give customers a lesson in Indian appreciation, there is a red wall plastered with photos, articles and Indian drink labels
Even the coasters, menu and aprons incorporate details like jute from rice sacks to recycled material made from saris. And to give customers a quick history lesson, there is a red wall plastered with all sorts of Indian-themed photos, articles and drink labels.

Every table is placed with a spice tray containing dried herbs, flowers and spices so that Susela and his team can offer a bit of show-and-tell when they serve their tipple. “You’ll be surprised by how little people know about Indian spices and some may have never seen them. We treat this like a teaching moment to introduce what’s in your drink and the inspiration behind it. The goal is also to give you a taste of Little India and maybe encourage you to visit Tekka Market too,” he says.

spice tray - THE EDGE SINGAPORE
A spice tray offers patrons a bit of show-and-tell when they are served their drinks

The Elephant Room stocks only made-in-India spirits which include eight brands of gin, plus India’s first vodka made from basmati rice from the Punjab region. The most expensive Indian whiskey — Greedy Angels 12-year single malt by Amrut — is also available here at $108 a shot.

“There’s this misconception that Indian spirits are of poor quality. But once you’ve tried our cocktails, you’ll definitely change your mind about them,” he says. “The new generation distillers are small batch producers who take a lot of pride in crafting their own product using premium botanicals. It’s really a proud moment for Indian spirits.”

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Feeling spirited

The culture-forward drinks at The Elephant Room are not your average cocktails. With names like Beeda Man, Jothi’s Flower Shop and Tekka (from the inaugural menu), you can imagine the kind of exotic ingredients that go into making these heady drinks layered with all the myriad flavours of India.

“Everybody wants to create a drink with complementing flavours, but to me it’s how can we contrast the most bizarre marriage of ingredients and bring them together harmoniously,” he says. 

To create his inventive cocktails which are known for their contrasting nuances, Susela refers to a large whiteboard hanging in front of his kitchen which lists every known Indian spice, flower, fruit and commonly consumed Indian beverages.

Using ingredients like ghee and cardamom, for example, Susela and his team of mixologists could literally create a million types of tipples for years. “We start by looking at the drinks that are commonly consumed in India and recreate similar flavour profiles using ingredients that we know our customers will like,” he explains. “Ghee is the poor man’s truffle oil; put it in anything and it smells amazing!”

A health fanatic himself, he also uses only natural sugars in his drinks, extracted from mead, honey, kombucha or jaggery, an unrefined sugar from palm.

Refreshed cocktail menu

Susela continues to push boundaries with his latest menu which features 14 new cocktails priced at $24++ each — once again spotlighting Indian flavours and spirits — combined with immaculate techniques to tease out the best flavours from the ingredients through modern processes like fermentation, dehydration and distillation.

“When people think about Little India, they often associate the place with Mustafa Centre or Race Course Road’s famous fish head curry, but there is so much more to understand, learn and uncover about this treasured district which is steeped in history. With our latest menu, we’ve delved deeper into what Little India is really all about — what the area was like in the 18th century, how the place came to be, the origins of some of the roads, and more,” says Susela.

Kickstart your journey with Race Course Plantation, a rum-based drink made with clarified sugar cane inspired by the old landscapes of Race Course Road. Next, try gin-based Ayurveda, inspired by its Indian healing namesake, made with fruits and herbs commonly used in Ayurveda practice including pickled gooseberry and 10-day lacto-fermented grapes.

For something light, refreshing and clean tasting, try Buffalo Road — which pays homage to the road located at the mouth of Little India — comprising house made pink guava distillate made from pink guavas sourced from Buffalo Road and topped with vetiver.

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The Goldsmith is made with jackfruit and saffron
Other notable highlights include Ghee/Achar, prepared using ghee that has been distilled with Smoke Lab Vodka to give the spirit a clean yet creamy and velvety feel, served with delicious achar jelly cubes. Otherwise, try the Goldsmith, created with jackfruit to emulate the rich, gold tones of the trade, along with saffron, a prized commodity which complements the fruity distillate.

If you are interested in something unusual, you must try the savoury Pina Rasam — a twist on the Pineapple Rasam commonly served at Indian weddings — which is made with distilled rasam, clarified tomato and spiced pineapple vinegar.

Pina Rasam - THE EDGE SINGAPORE
Pina Rasam, made with distilled rasam, clarified tomato and spiced pineapple vinegar
Bring on the pappadums

Another draw for customers is The Elephant Room’s bar bites which are both delicious accompaniments to the cocktails, or on their own as a light meal. Just do not come here expecting briyani or crowd favourite Tamarind Curry Prawns, as the chef who created it has since resigned. In its place, there are equally delightful options such as the Spiced Buttermilk Chicken Burger and TER Curry Chicken, featuring Susela’s family recipe served with putu mayam (South Indian string hoppers).

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The Elephant Room’s Curry Chicken and String Hoppers
 

Spiced Buttermilk Chicken Burger with Curry Aioli - THE EDGE SINGAPORE
Spiced Buttermilk Chicken Burger with Curry Aioli
“After I lost my chef, I told myself we have to create food where we can independently execute them ourselves. I asked my mother for help with recipes, but she was like ‘Curry chicken in a bar? You okay or not Yugi (his nickname), who will come?’,” he laughs. After some convincing, she shared her curry chicken recipe with him which is now one of the bestselling dishes on the menu.

For light bites, we highly recommend the Salsa Pappadum served with assorted chutneys, Gunpowder Calamari and Gobi Manchurian, featuring cauliflower fritters laced with an addictive sweet and sour gravy.

"When I see people coming here eating curry and drinking Indian-inspired cocktails, I think yes, that’s what The Elephant Room is all about. We don’t want just to focus on drinks, we want you to enjoy good food as well because that’s what Indian hospitality is all about.”

The future is sweet

Despite the challenging past couple of years, The Elephant Room has been packing in the crowds especially on weekends with fully-booked reservations. “People really value their weekends,” he says.

Susela points out that while a majority of his customers are women — hence the bobby pins and hair ties in the toilets — he does observe a diverse age and racial demographic made up of both locals and foreigners. “When I see non-Indians coming in, that’s a win for me, because I designed The Elephant Room as a place of discovery for them to learn more about Indian culture and cuisine,” he adds.

He attributes the bar’s popularity to not just the innovative tipple but their focus on genial hospitality. “The basic job of a bartender is to make sure your guests leave the bar feeling great, and that’s why I love what I do. To me creating a good product is fantastic but it’s perishable. The memories you leave behind; those are everlasting.”

Keeping things fresh with collaborative menus is also very important in building the brand and business, says Susela. More recently, The Elephant Room teamed up with Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel Singapore to concoct a series of cocktails for its Northern Indian menu. The bar also served tipples from four of Asia’s 50 Best Bars around the region. For its second anniversary, Susela invited the chefs from Avenue 87 to devise a modern Asian menu to pair with his cocktails.

While The Elephant Room’s singular focus on “bringing ripples of Indian heritage through modern tipples” sounds a bit limiting, we actually think having a thematic concept is how it’s managed to stay unique and in its own lane. Already, it is on the watchlist of the World’s 50 Best Bars, and we are certain they will find their way to Asia’s 50 Best Bars in no time.

“People have been so supportive. I keep telling myself, Yugi, you’ve got this. Just keep on pushing.”


The Elephant Room
20A Teck Lim Road, Singapore 088391
Contact (65) 9111 5131
Opening Hours Monday to Sunday 5.30pm to 10.30pm


Photos: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore; The Elephant Room