Since Willin Low of Wild Rocket stole our hearts with his laksa pesto pasta (and a slew of modern Singapore creations), we’ve not seen a more dignified contender in the stroll towards modern Singapore gastronomy. But all this is set to change with the opening of Restaurant Labyrinth (“Labyrinth”) by Han Li Guang.
After paying his dues as a white-collar banker at Goldman Sachs and Citibank, 29-year-old Han, a graduate of London School of Economics, hung up his corporate tie in favour of a chef’s white. Before the self-taught chef went on to become his own boss at Labyrinth, he spent 6 months cutting his teeth at Garibaldi and another 3 months enrolled with At-Sunrice Globalchef Academy; he also had a stint as consulting chef to Tanuki Raw Bar.
Han’s labour of love was unveiled in February 2014: a 21-pax charcoal grey space along Neil Road (just 2 doors away from Tea Chapter) featuring an elevated 15-seat dull-grey dining counter as centerpiece and a smattering of tables on the side that accommodate 6. Aside from for-sale paintings that adorn the walls, Labyrinth’s interior is decidedly stark, all the better to keep the focus on Han’s experimental interpretations of modern Singapore cuisine.
If this brings to mind the flirting of western culinary techniques with familiar local flavours made famous by Low, you’re not too far off but think again. Instead of adopting a me-too concept, the ambitious Han takes modern Singapore cuisine to a whole new level. Well, let’s just say that if Low were the godfather of modern Singapore cuisine, then Han would be the newly crowned poster boy of inventive Singapore gastronomy.
For cues, look no further than Labyrinth’s signature of chilli crab. Han makes the boldest statement yet with his playful rendition of the city’s unofficial national dish: deep-fried soft shell crab flanked by a dollop of piquant but deliriously tasty chilli crab ice cream and a cloud of ethereal crab bisque foam on a “beach” of gritty but delicious man tou (Chinese steamed bun) sand.
Han takes on Hainanese curry rice with the same gusto: chicken is first minced then sculpted into balls and deep-fried to yield a crisp-and-tender bite and served on a bed of curry-infused yellow and red quinoa grains skirted by potato skin chips and dollops of potato foam
|“Siew yoke fan”|
The dinner ventures curiously into Japanese fusion territory with siew yoke fan, a classic local dish of roasted pork belly with rice. Here, Han’s ultra-crispy siew yoke crowns a blanket of way-too-salty ramen broth-infused risotto rice scented with saffron. On the side, a lonesome sous-vide quail’s egg and a drizzle of char siew sauce try in vain to draw diners’ attention from the tile of perfectly roasted pork crackling.
Instead of re-creating the ubiquitous modern chendol panna cotta dessert, Han rises to the occasion with chendol xia long bao (Chinese steamed bun) – red bean sphere and gula Melaka icicle ensconced in a beautifully crafted fold of pandan-flavoured ha gao (shrimp dumpling) skin. Yes, we love the idea of a molecular chendol soup dumpling. In this instance, however, we can’t help but feel that Han’s little green pillows needed an injection of more robust flavours.
|Vegetarian “steak tartare”|
Han is careful to plot his dinner tasting menu (S$78++ for 5 courses including 2 starters, a choice of “chicken curry” or “siew yoke fan” for mains, 2 desserts and coffee/tea and S$118 for 8 courses) such that guests get a reprieve from the glare of modern Singapore extravaganza. We are happy to report that his mainstream creations are equally brilliant. A starter of roasted tomato confit topped with a disc of mango sphere “yolk”, both masquerading as steak tartare in physical appearance and texture, far surpasses a similar dish we’ve had at an upscale Spanish tapas bar. Han’s concluding take on apple crumble is also a resounding success: oven-toasted white chocolate crumble with various textures of apple flanked by 2 scoops of yoghurt ice cream.
Despite his relative young age, Han has managed to create a credible repertoire of iconoclastic dishes that play on familiar local tastes . Even if Labyrinth does not have the dizzying scope of modern Singapore creations to rival Wild Rocket’s, a dinner here is still a spectacle.
We know it’s still early days but if Han’s debut menu is anything to go by, Low may finally meet his match, albeit on a different playing field.
Labyrinth | 5 Neil Road | www.labyrinth.com.sg | 65-6223 4098
© Evelyn Chen 2013
Please note that the reviews published in this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.