When a friend told us she’ll be taking us to a bar called Elephant Room in Little India during the Singapore Food Festival, we felt her excitement right away. In all her recent visits to the Lion City, she said, she always made sure to have a drink or two at the local bar and “went home happy each time.”
“The flavors and stories are so sensual they almost take you to India directly,” she added. Suffice it so say, that just got us more curious.
The three-year old Indian bar has been getting a lot of recognition of late. It landed the No. 59 spot in the global rankings of the Top 500 Bars of 2021. It has also been included in a World’s 50 Best Discovery feature.
One of the guys behind the Elephant Room is Singapore-born Yugnes Susela. He’s made a name for himself in the local bar scene, even winning the Bartender of the Year honor at the Singapore Bar Awards in 2017 during his stint at Smoke and Mirrors.
Elephant Room is an unassuming watering hole nestled on the second floor of a building along Teck Lim Road. A small backlit sign with an elephant head ushers in guests to a narrow flight of stairs that leads to the bar.
We opted to be seated at a spot where we can see all the mixing and shaking happen. The bar offers a range of drinks that takes inspiration from the spices and ingredients found in Little India. We ordered their signature drink called Jothi’s Flower Shop, which is made with three variations of Jasmine flowers distilled with Hapusa Gin, and finished with a touch of honey and fermented limes. It was served looking like a science experiment, with liquid nitrogen smoke oozing out from the glass.
We also tried the Cocktail Asura, another gin-based drink distilled with kaffir lime and curry leaf. The roasted orgeat, which is made from cashews, almonds, green cardamom and rose water, added the nutty, creamy texture. It’s finished off with torched curry meringue for a powerful explosion of rich flavor in every sip.
Early this month, ANCX caught up with the 34-year-old Susela at The Grid in Powerplant Mall, where Elephant Room is holding a pop-up until end of September. Between cocktails, the often pensive-looking mixologist sat down with us for a quick chat:
How do you find the Philippines so far?
This is my second visit. I was discussing about this with [our head bartender] Han—people here like to spend time eating, drinking and enjoying moments [with family and friends], which is very nice to see. Every day, the food market [The Grid] is just busy. In Singapore, people usually just buy from one stall then leave. But over here, people eat and really catch up. They spend hours—in a food market! Like, wow! People are repeatedly ordering our drinks.
We also got to check out the nightlife scene over here, going to bars for drinks, to also see the concepts, what are people really enjoying. They're enjoying cocktails on a busy weekday. We were really shocked by this. It's nice. It’s beautiful.
Did you get to try any Filipino food?
We had sisig. We also tried fish sinigang. We had a lot of lechon and adobo.
Which among your drinks go very well with Filipino food?
Jothi’s Flower Shop would be perfect with sisig, which has a lot of fat content. The acidity of the drink cuts away the fat.
I understand Elephant Room is celebrating its third anniversary this September. What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
Definitely going thru the pandemic. We were not sure what was going to happen so I was just doing things by gut feel. I’m lucky to have a very good, supportive team. That was the biggest achievement for me.
Tell us how Elephant Room started.
Prior to having this bar, I was working in various famous establishments. I asked myself—'what are you going to do next in your life?’ I thought of opening my own bar concept.
I was looking everywhere for a possible brand DNA until I realized the idea was actually just around me—Little India. The thing is, a lot of the people that I’ve spoken to are not aware of Indian culture. When Little India is mentioned, they think of spicy food, Mustafa, biryani, Mustafa. (Laughs). There’s nothing wrong with that. But we just want to tell people that there’s more to it. I want to showcase these elements and vibrancy of the Indian culture.
How are you showcasing this through your drinks?
Jothi’s Flower Shop actually represents a very famous flower shop in Little India. Every Indian in Singapore knows this shop. My mom goes there. I thought: “How can we make this shop into a cocktail?”
We also have a drink called Tekka. It’s a famous building here and is also the nickname of Little India. Here in Singapore, locals don’t say, “Let’s go to Little India.” Instead, people say, “Let's go to Tekka.” There’s a huge hawker center here with a host of different cuisines—Singaporean, Indian, Chinese, Malay. It also has a big wet market with the freshest ingredients from India. We made a cocktail that will remind tourists to visit the building and have a good time there.
What are the Indian ingredients and spices you most commonly use?
The common ones include cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, chili, spice powders, curry. One that’s not common is the black stone flower. Han is working with vindaloo powder, which is used only in certain parts of India. We make wine from black glutinous rice. We use a lot of the uncommon ingredients in our kombuchas and that becomes like a flavoring agent in our cocktails.
You have a charming little space in Chinatown. Do you have plans of opening another space elsewhere?
I think we still have a bit of room to improve, so we’re trying to see how we can make use of our current space. From there, we'll see what we can do next.
We are a one-of-a-kind bar and we’ve shown people we can achieve such a niche concept and we are still delivering it. If you look at our bar team—not all of them are Indians. But it’s just so beautiful to see all these minds coming together and working towards pushing the Indian culture forward. That’s the beauty of it.
Photos from Elephant Room's Instagram account