SINGAPORE (May 28): Unless you are a Robert Parker devotee or are sufficiently versed in viticulture, ordering wine when dining out can be a hit-or-miss affair.
If you happen to be in a high-end establishment, there might be a sommelier on hand to help with the decoding. Good luck if you are in a more casual setup. Chances are, the wait staff will have barely more knowledge than you.
Not so at Ma Cuisine, a gastro wine bar on Craig Road that took over the premises vacated by Tuscan restaurant inItaly. Open since January, the setup is owned and run by two Frenchmen, Anthony Charmetant and Mathieu Escoffier.
Therein lies the key difference. Charmetant is a former wine industry executive while Escoffier was once a chef at Saint Pierre, and hails from a family that owns a number of bistros in France. They share their love and knowledge of wine with customers, and their enthusiasm is clear and infectious.
“In most other places, the sommelier is very formal. Here, we try to make people relaxed, and explain to them why this bottle is $40 or $1,000. After a bit of sharing, they know more and are no longer intimidated,” explains Escoffier.
Their intimate knowledge of the subject comes from a lifetime of learning, as well as interaction with winegrowers and winemakers. On average, they travel six times a year to meet them.
“Behind the bottle, there is somebody with his own soul. It’s very important for us to know why he’s doing this, how he’s doing this. And we share this with our customers,” adds Escoffier.
Considering how the menu boasts over 3,000 bottles from 600 labels — one of the largest offerings in Singapore — these insights are invaluable. In keeping with contemporary trends, classic names feature alongside new and/or boutique winemakers.
And the labels are not restricted to French domains either; growers from Lebanon, Hungary and Portugal are also represented. There is, in fact, an entire room dedicated to Port, featuring, among other labels, single harvest pours from Kopke, the oldest exporting Port house still in existence. It was established by a merchant family from Hamburg in 1638.
There is also a cellar containing premium and rare vintages. The floor is paved with lava stones to maintain humidity, a necessity when verticals of Lafite, from 1981 to 1996, as well as bottles of Chartreuse Tarragone ’52 and ’70, are stored here.
Wines are sold by the bottle, not by the glass, because, as Charmetant reasons, “If you have a glass, it means you have something else to do. If you want to enjoy wine, take some time to do so. A bottle will tell you so many stories!”
Bonding over bottles
Not surprisingly, it was a bottle that brought the two together four years ago at La Paulée de Meursault. This annual harvest festival in Burgundy is not open to the public; entry is by invitation from a winegrower or winemaker.
“The point of the event is to share,” says Escoffier. “You bring the best bottles in your cellar and you share it with 300 people. We shared a wine together, and started talking.”
They found they liked each other’s company. By coincidence, they reconnected in 2016, when Charmetant was in Singapore for business (he was then commercial director of Rhône Valley producer Paul Jaboulet Aîné) and Escoffier, then still at Saint Pierre, was sourcing for wines.
Charmetant had originally intended to start a new life in Hong Kong. Instead, he fell in love with Singapore after a two-month stay.
“After a couple of weeks of sharing our ideas about restaurants and bars, we came up with an idea of what we wanted,” says Escoffier. “We would do a wine place in a relaxed way, because when you’re relaxed you can appreciate more things.”
Escoffier grew up in Burgundy, where his parents owned a traditional bistro in Beaune, called Ma Cuisine. All his friends were winemakers. When they threw house parties, they would provide the wine while he would contribute the food.
“I did that every month from age 14 to 20. And that’s what we’re doing here. The best food, the best wines. Nothing exuberant. We wanted to do Ma Cuisine 2.0,” says Escoffier, who now serves simple French fare such as cheeses, terrines and saucisson.
Charmetant, on the other hand, grew up in the countryside south of Lyon. “I lived on a farm with a huge family. I had my first drop of wine at age seven. But I didn’t touch it again until later. Wine is a part of our lives,” he says.
While training at a restaurant in Valence, Charmetant encountered two wines that he says he will never forget: Saint-Joseph Les Granits Blanc 1998 and Saint-Émilion Château Ausone 1976. “These two drops changed my life. [They were] so complex, like nothing I’d had before.”
For Escoffier, the best wine he has ever drunk is a Richebourg 1978 from Hudelot Noellat. He is friends with the maker, who was at the table during a blind tasting. “It was so emotional, so great, I had goosebumps.”
The Singapore draw
Singapore was perfect for Charmetant and Escoffier’s venture on account of its openness and open-mindedness. “People here are ready to accept good wines from all over the world, whereas in Beaune it’s the opposite,” explains Escoffier.
His experience at Saint Pierre “was a very good first step”, allowing him to discover the local dining public’s tastes.
Ma Cuisine took about nine months to set up. The pair invested their life savings into the business, with Charmetant calling it the gamble of their lives. They decline to reveal the exact investment, saying that it was “less than $500,000”. But there is $2 million worth of wines (at retail value), including a $35,000 bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1999, one of the world’s most sought-after wines.
In addition to the financial investment, they have made an emotional investment as well; they put their own wines — 1,000 bottles between them — on the menu.
“We didn’t see the money being transferred from bank to bank, but the wines were physical! Imagine seeing someone coming to collect the wine from your private cellar, which you’ve been building up for 15 years,” says Charmetant.
Their efforts appear to be paying off, however.
“Some of our customers have come back more than five times,” says Charmetant. “That means we’re different from other places. We provide something they don’t. It’s easy to have people in Singapore come in once, but twice is much harder. Twice after two months is even harder. And five times in two months… that’s so good!”
The reason for Ma Cuisine’s popularity, Escoffier believes, is its authenticity. “We’re honest with everything we propose here. It’s not just two employees taking care of you. And people feel that.”
Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.