We’ve been a fan of Restaurant Labyrinth (“Labyrinth”) since its inception at Neil Road in 2014 and subsequent incarnation at Esplanade in 2015. The thing about its autodidact chef-owner, Han Li Guang, is that this former banker is never happy with status quo, an attitude that is reflected in his constantly evolving Singapore-centric cuisine.
When Labyrinth was first launched, he was serving a technique based progressive Singapore cuisine peppered with spheres and foams. This transitioned to neo-Singapore cuisine not long after, focusing on first understanding the lion city’s heritage food, deconstructing it and then assembling it again with progressive techniques.
Now, barely a year after snagging a Michelin star, he’s at it again. This time, his new menu launch coincides with an interior make-over that sports new two new panels of gallery walls flanking the entrance (one decorated with produce showcased in the menu and another heritage wall displaying the chef’s late grandmother’s clay pots, tea pots and rice bowls) and a spot-lit dining space with the number of seats almost halved to just 35 seats (as opposed to 60 previously).
Even if the revamped space speaks of intimacy and refinement, it plays second fiddle to the Han’s noble ambition of paying tribute to Singapore’s little-known terroir. Over the past many months, Han has been hard-at-work, digging deep into Singapore’s nascent farming industry and building relationship with a network of vendors in supplies ranging from dairy, vegetables, seafood, proteins to even chocolate. His newly launched menu is therefore an evocative reflection on what he views as new Singapore cuisine. And surprise, surprise, it’s centred on the city’s bounty. These are distilled into a “Homage To My Singapore” tasting menu priced at $178++ for 11 courses during dinner and $68++ for four courses at lunch.
Han first visited Ah Hua Kelong (kelong refers to an offshore fish farm) about a year ago, when he took a film crew out to visit this home-grown seafood farm. Today, Ah Hua Kelong’s wild caught flower crab takes centre stage in Labyrinth’s “chilli crab” signature dish, replacing the once glorious deep-fried soft-shell crab with the luscious steamed and shredded flesh of the local crustecean. The good thing is – the chilli crab ice cream from the dish’s former construct remains, as does the “man tou” croutons, now matched with new ingredients like boiled egg white ribbons and a sprinkle of ikan kurau powder. The element of surprise comes at the table, with a finishing pour of Shao Xing wine and chicken fat emulsion, a move that is in sync with the fast-talking chef’s intention to put the spotlight on the flower crab rather than the chilli crab ice cream, now relegated to the bottom. It may take some getting used to but this new arrangement works surprisingly well, a layering of flavours commencing with a a spike from the wine, followed by the refined sweetness of the crab before the nostalgic flavour of the chilli crab ice cream kicks in.
You may say that Han is really tight with Ah Hua Kelong for the produce from the latter gets showcased again, quite gloriously in fact, in one of four brand-new opening snacks. A tartlet of Ah Hua’s shelled lala (Hokkien for clams) strutting its stuff almost military style, in the congealed cooking liquid of the shellfish layered with sauteeed wild spinach that grows in the wild (in a local fish farm, in fact) and homemade XO sauce with Jin Hua ham. Served in a molded sheet of deep-fried wanton skin, you bite into a melange of crisp and somewhat chewy textures augmented with spiciness from the XO sauce that also lends an undeniable whiff of umami.
You may have heard Han declare unabashedly about his lack of love for vegetables but for the sake of Singapore’s well-loved rojiak, his personal interest takes a backseat for Labyrinth’s virgin attempt at a vegetable course. A gathering of about 10 types of local vegetables, mostly farmed in Edible Gardens but some foraged from the forested outskirts of Singapore, the plate is a fitting assembly of uniquely Singapore flora : Okinawa spinach, sweet potato leaves, cat whiskers, sliced baby star fruit, white pea flower, Indian borage, black sorrel and tempura of moringa, brought together by a scoop of cempedak and jackfruit ice cream and a sprinkle of peanuts. If you think this is brilliant, wait till you taste the rojiak dressing concocted with nothing more than fermented shrimp paste and stingless bee’s honey from Batam, a honey with an unrivalled dose of acidity that essentially replaces the need to add lime.
If any dish from this menu should resonate with street food-loving Singaporeans, it’s Han’s take on chicken rice. Inspired by his late grandma, who used to style a western-style chicken rice dish with roux, he serves braised chicken encased in thin-as-paper rice flour skin on twin dips of ginger and chilli sauces, with a side of chicken fat cream roux and a topping of confetti coriander. He calls this an “Ang Moh” (western) chicken rice just for laughs but that does not detract from how authentic and tasty it is, largely thanks to the sauce recipes courtesy of chef’s late grandma (a jar of which you will receive as souvenir on your way out).
It can be tough tasting desserts if one does not have a sweet tooth but Han makes the sweet ending a pleasant, actually, memorable one by fielding a silky confection of home-made bean curd and local goat’s milk yoghurt espuma joined by gula jawa (Indonesian palm sugar) and sago. It’s worth noting that this dessert is indeed sweet but the tinge of yoghurty acidity makes the sweetness bearable, even riveting, particularly if you chew on the strips of bird’s nest (note: real bird’s nest, not agar agar).
To witness Labyrinth’s journey through the years feels like a walk through a labyrinth itself, not knowing when the finale is in sight because this young chef always has something new and exciting up his sleeves. But there comes a time when you discern a level of maturity in the cuisine and that time is now. It’s no longer about “my techniques” but “our local produce”. Even if locavore is nothing new to you, It’s high time we learn about our terroir and Labyrinth offers to take you on an exhilarating armchair ride.