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Australian Chef Clayton Wells Is Shaking Up Singapore

At his first international restaurant open in Singapore, acclaimed Australian chef Clayton Wells plates unconventional flavor combinations with smart, confident style. By MAVIS TEO.

Published on Jan 8, 2018


I DIDN'T EXPECT TO BE BOWLED over when I saw grilled octopus on the tasting menu at Blackwattle, the fine dining restaurant in Singapore. Though a safe bet with the seafood-loving populace, the mollusk has become rather predictable for a jaded foodie, especially on the table of yet another modern Australian restaurant. But under executive chef and co-owner Clayton Wells, the tender octopus tossed in a piquant red vinegar and XO sauce tastes anything but tired. Wells, one of Australia's hottest chefs and owner of award-winning Automata in Sydney, specializes in surprising the palate.

chef Clayton Wells
Chef Clayton Wells (left). Courtesy of Blackwattle.

For Wells, who has experience in the refined kitchens of Momofuku Seiobo and Tetsuya's, as well as Copenhagen's two–Michelin starred Noma, experimentation and unpredictability have become his signature style. The chef swaps the dishes on Automata's menu every week, and the same is in store for Blackwattle, which effortlessly blends an Australian-style menu with Singaporean ingredients and influences. "My memories of the tastes I've experienced in dishes I've cooked or eaten are what inspire me," says Wells, referring to a dish of XO-glazed clams from Sydney's cult favorite Golden Century Seafood Restaurant as the inspiration behind his octopus recipe.

"Some influences are hardly noticeable to diners. The white pepper broth in a dish of king crab with braised pumpkin seeds is inspired by the peppery Singapore pork rib soup bak kut teh," Wells says, familiar with the city-state and its cuisine. Singapore is the homeground of his business partner in the two eateries, hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, who he met at London-restaurant Viajante in 2010.

Charred octopus
Charred octopus. Courtesy of Blackwattle.

When Loh chanced upon a space for lease—an old shophouse on Amoy Street in Chinatown—Wells jumped at the chance to create a sister spot for Automata. Designed by Singaporean firm Akira Kita Architecture, the moody space is bound by sleek dark walls and bottle-green leather banquettes, while the second level houses a chic-yet-casual bar with its own gourmet snack menu.

Back downstairs, I'm served the restaurant's main dish on the tasting menu: beef short rib. In line with Wells's flair for pairing strange bedfellows, the beef is served with a burnt carrot and kelp puree and a dill-pickled cucumber. The charred carrot cuts the fat, while the umami of the kelp enhances the robust flavor of the beef. Wood ear mushrooms add contrasting crunch to the meat's melting tenderness.

An old Chinatown shophouse
An old Chinatown shophouse with a new-look interior. Courtesy of Blackwattle.

Since the ethos of both his establishments is similar, what sets Blackwattle apart is its ingredients. Since arriving in Singapore (Wells is set to travel at least once a month from Sydney while his former sous chef at Automata, Joeri Timmermans, holds the fort in Singapore), Wells has been trawling fresh markets for local ingredients. Tight-lipped, he mentions Indian gooseberries, sea snails and Chinese herbs to be featured in future dishes. For now, I happily polish off dessert: a buttery pumpkin-seed sorbet served with, again, an unexpected sprinkle of tart, freeze-dried mandarin chips. "I just want to do fine dining in a casual and fun atmosphere," he says. "Where people feel they can come any time, even if they don’t have a special occasion to celebrate." With such a comforting end to a sophisticated dining experience, it seems Wells's intentions have been more than met.; mains from S$28, five-course set menu from S$115.




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Chef Clayton Wells. Courtesy of Blackwattle.
  • The second-floor bar at Blackwattle. Courtesy of Blackwattle.
  • A rainbow of seasonal pickled vegetables. Courtesy of Blackwattle.
  • Kingfish tartare is topped with fresh plum. Courtesy of Blackwattle.
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