|Restaurant Labyrinth at The Esplanade|
Years after the closure of El Bulli, the influence of Ferran Adria’s cocina de vanguardiais still being felt halfway across the globe.
Spheres and foams are slowly but surely seeping into a genre of contemporary ethnic cuisine in Asia where familiar local flavors meet inventive cooking techniques.
In Singapore, a city renowned for its wallet-friendly street food, a cadre of chefs is boldly reinventing local classics. At the vanguard of what’s now known as modern Singapore cuisine is Restaurant Labyrinth (“Labyrinth”), an 18 month-old eatery that recently moved from a 21-seat Chinatown digs to a roomy 60-seat space that comes complete with three private rooms at The Esplanade.
“Today’s customers are well travelled, they have dined in fine restaurants and been exposed to progressive cooking techniques,” says autodidact chef-owner, Han Li Guang. “We serve new-age Singapore cuisine to appeal to this new generation of diners.”
When Labyrinth opened in February 2014, it was a watershed moment for the former corporate banker, who dived into a cooking career with nothing more than a basic certificate in culinary art, on-and-off kitchen stints at local restaurants and a heart full of passion.
Soon, Han’s avant-garde style cuisine started turning heads with his precise execution of creatively interpreted local fare. Bookings gradually trended upwards, particularly on weekends when reservations would shoot through the roof. Constrained by capacity, Han started scouting for a new location where he could showcase his uniquely Singapore cuisine to a wider audience. To leverage on the July opening of his new space, he also worked around the clock to develop a suite of new menus.
To appeal to the Central Business District lunch crowd, there’s now a Lunch Menu (3 courses for S$38, 4 courses for S$48) and Lunch Tasting Menu (5 courses S$88). Dinner is a more extensive affair with a Discovery Menu (5 courses for S$98, 6 courses for S$105) and an Experience Menu (9 courses for S$168). The latter is highly recommended if you have 3 hours to spare as it tracks the dishes that food-obsessed Singaporeans typically devour at breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper.
At a recent dinner at his spot lit Esplanade roost, the Experience Menu sparkled with a succession of standouts.
|“Bak chor mee”|
For “breakfast”, there was Han’s seafood-inspired riff on “bak chor mee” (minced pork noodles) with saffron-infused sliced squid as springy “noodles”, flash-fried sliced Hokkaido scallop as “fish cake” and olive powder and anchovies as “minced pork”. Every ingredient played its purported role dutifully yet deliciously. Like the real thing, it was finished with a drizzle of black Chinese vinegar and a smidgen of heady dried shrimp sambal. It was briliant. (4.5/5)
|“Char siew siew yoke fun”|
“Lunch” was a delicious outing in roast meat rice or “char siew siew yoke fun”, another popular local hawker fare. Instead of using pork, Han fielded his most powerful “weapon” yet of otoro (a premium cut from the tuna belly) done 2 ways. The first slice of tuna was marinated lightly in char siew sauce and draped ever so gently over a parcel of torched rice. Its twin offering was cubed, pan seared on one side and served tataki-style with rare insides and a crust of crispy roast pork crackling. It was near perfect. (4.75/5)
|“Hainanese curry rice”|
Banking on his Hainanese heritage, Han also served a “Hainanese curry rice” course for “lunch”. A popular Hainanese street food of steamed rice in curry gravy teamed with a selection of dishes, the returning favourite at Labyrinth has evolved in refinement. Presented on a plate blanketed with curry-infused red and white risotto “rice”, there was a dainty onsen quail’s egg flanked by a rock of Mugaritz-inspired “clay potato” on one side and, on the other, a rock of chicken mousseline encased in a deep-fried squid ink covering. (4/5)
Singapore’s national dish of chilli crab got a twenty-first century nod with Han’s playful assemble of deep-fried soft shell crab alongside a dollop of piquant chilli crab ice cream and a smidgen of ethereal crab bisque foam. Served on a beach of gritty fried man tou (Chinese buns) ‘sand’, Han’s third iteration of his most iconic dish remains one of his best. (4.5/5)
The momentum dipped with the arrival of the “cereal prawn” dish, a popular tze char (stir fry) dish served at dinner. Deep-fried dehydrated ama ebi was minced and mixed with oats, chilli and curry leaves, bound with caramelized sugar, compressed, cut and served like an Uncle Toby’s cereal bar. In theory, it ticked all the boxes of an inventive rendition of cereal prawn but on the palate it was dry and just a tad sweet. (3/5)
The “dinner” course proceeded with a choice of mains – “beef hor fun” or “Hokkien mee”.
|“Beef hor fun”|
Han’s take on “beef hor fun” was presented as a marbled slab of pan-grilled A4 Kagoshimaya wagyu in beef trimming jus alongside oodles of radish and turnip “hor fun” (flat rice noodles) crowned with pickled chillies. This could well be the most decadent beef hor fun we’ve had – the wagyu practically melted in the mouth, its richness cut by the pickles. Although the strips of radish and turnip “noodles” did not leave much of an impression, the dish was on the whole beautifully interpreted. If Han could somehow capture “wok hei” in an essence, we would have requested for a healthy dose of it. (4.25/5)
“Hokkien mee” may never be the same once you have tasted Han’s. Silicon tube extruded egg yolk “noodles” were teamed with smoked lard white “noodles” and headlined by a piece of pan-seared Boston lobster topped with caviar. But the real star of the show was the shallow bath of lobster broth strewed with spring onions. Rendered from the roasted head and roe of the crustacean, the broth was intensely savoury and robust, lacking nothing (oh well, perhaps a touch of crème fraiche). (4.25/5)
|“Bak kut teh”|
For pre-dessert, we were served a shot of intensely savoury chilled “bak kut teh” (pork rib soup) – pu erh-laced bubble tea flecked with pearls of soya sauce and pork stock. We couldn’t taste much of the pu erh tea (an aged dark tea from Yunnan) but that wasn’t a bad thing because the prominence of the soya sauce and pork stock rose to the occasion. (4.25/5)
The dessert course was great as a showcase but needed tweaks for gustatory appeal.
|“Singapore supper dish”|
Take the “Singapore Supper” dish, which looked more like century egg porridge if you ask us. It was an assembly of soya milk and grass jelly in a light gruel of glutinous rice flour seasoned with gula Melaka (palm sugar) sesame oil, pepper and fried dough fritters. It wasn’t off the charts but the mélange of sweet and savoury flavours passed muster. (3.25/5)
A returning signature dessert, the “Singapore Breakfast” dish of egg shell-encased mango panna cotta (with balsamic as “black sauce” and almond powder “pepper”, both in squeeze bottles) was Han’s attempt at reimagining “soft boiled egg” and it was matched with a short glass of teh tarik (frothy pulled tea) crème brulee. On visual appeal alone, this dessert would have scored full marks but to our unaccustomed palate, teh tarik was not the perfect match for mango panna cotta. A kopi (local black coffee) crème brulee might have been our cup of tea. (3.5/5)
|Snacks at Restaurant Labyrinth|
To ensure he left no stones unturned, even the snacks were anything but formulaic. Bite-sized wonders arrived in a two-tiered tingkat tray (stacked lunchbox) – radish cake “marshmallow” brimming with minced scallops and dried shrimp; kaya butter “macaron” sandwiched between a layer of house whipped salted butter; nasi lemak-flavoured chwee kueh (water rice cake) topped with sambal ikan billis; and house made dough fritters ensconced in a tangy rojiak sauce. Not only were the amuse bouches vibrant, fun and full of local character, they provided a window to Labyrinth’s soul. (4.25/5)
A dinner at Labyrinth is indeed a spectacle even if a few garden-variety courses could benefit from some adjustments.
For the modernist yet uniquely Singapore-style cuisine, we’ say it’s a “die die must try!”
© Evelyn Chen 2013
Please note that the reviews published on 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.