At Labyrinth, the ethos of ‘Singapore cuisine’ means going back to its very roots
Remember the previous menu from Labyrinth Chef Han Li Guang? Hokkaido Scallop Bak Chor Mee and Japanese A4 Wagyu hor fun?
Well, you can now stash those memories away into musky photo albums and tuck those fancy trinkets away into a box of sentiments destined for the bottom drawer. Why? Labyrinth opens up (after a minor renovation) to a new chapter; championing a new expression of Singapore cuisine by celebrating the land in all its gleaming facets—more importantly, local produce. With a whopping 80% local produce-driven menu, this is Michelin-starred dining without the munitions of quality luxury ingredients. So, if you’re hoping to find Kobe beef or white truffle? Turn away now.
Beneath his cheeky demeanour and overzealous high speed machine-gun introductions, Chef Han’s new menu demonstrates a resounding level of maturity and resolve. Change came with a single crashing wave. It’s as though, a year of being awarded the Michelin star has accelerated his culinary brinkmanship. Gone are his flippant efforts of fashioning mimics of hawker dishes—which, quite honestly was an exercise of adolescent behaviour—both in self-discovery and breaking the rules, albeit in a slightly self-absorbed mannerism that boasted one too many techniques. Paying homage to ‘Singapore cuisine’ in all its entirety, the food triangulates three pillars—traditions, childhood memories and local produce. The individual, the realist, the imaginative, the nostalgic, the visionary, it’s a culinary concept of ‘New Romanticism’ that we have all been waiting for. And it’s bloody brilliant.
On my first visit, I hopped with much anticipation from the blinding lights of the Esplanade to a small, snug room whose mood is as muted as one would expect in an art gallery. The silent purr of the exhaust overhead created a vacuum, which makes one feel compelled to free himself of inhibitions, much like the deep breathing exercises that mark the start of a yoga class. So it begins, the journey of discovery.
The details of the tedious lunch are a tad hazy in my mind, littered with long drawn conversations between sips of white wine. There is a trio of snacks: Oolong tea eggs bathed in wisps of smoke, delicate tunnels of thin coconut Cheong Fun filled to the rafters with Nasi lemak sambal and sous vide egg yolk, and finally, a ‘Prima Deli’ inspired Heartland waffle smeared with local duck liver parfait and goji berry jam. The last homely highlight emphasises Chef Han’s nostalgic yet playful side. There is a lacy nest of Fatt Choy embracing a bejewelled braised abalone zapped with house-made oyster sauce. They are stupendously good. And the tiny morsels gear diners for the level of refinement that is expected for the rest of the meal.
Chef Han, intent on debunking the misconception that Singapore lacks worthwhile produce, has taken great lengths to promote local producers. Unlike the throngs of restaurants cashing in on the ‘sustainability’ trend, Chef Han advocates local produce, not as means to gain admirers, but as means of national pride and more importantly, enterprise. The better educated the public is, the higher the demand, leading to a more stable food supply chain. His latest project involves working directly with farmers to identify seasonality trends in the reproductive cycles of local octopus. It’s wildly exciting. We are introduced to the plethora of local businesses that Labyrinth’s cuisine is powered by—Ah Hua Kelong for starters, harvesting Lala clams that grow naturally at the kelong. This is made into the most magnificent clam tart with Chinese spinach.
Next, Ah Hua Kelong Lala clams in deep fried wanton skin and Chinese spinach sits atop a pool of house-made XO sauce peppered with the robustness of Jing Hua ham. The half moon arrives at the table, looking like a OCD’s dream come true—rows of steamed Lala is enrobed in a jelly of its own juices, set with Kappa Carrageenan which grants it heat-resistant properties to allow for the final steaming, upon order. It’s an ethereal combination with crispy wanton tart case and accompanying XO sauce, every bit as delicious as it was unconventional.
There is symphonic precision in the Rojak. Where other gifted chefs have struggled, Chef LG Han’s canny classicism and luminous taste buds triumph. The dish brings together disparate Edible Garden City greens with prevalent flavour profiles into a harmoniously tasty blend. The backbone of a good rojak, though, is in its sauce—Labyrinth’s version might be a fluke, a Eureka! Moment stemming from tastings of the Stingless Bee Honey from Batam; it’s sweet-sour vinegar notes drawing quick references to the classic hawker dish. Still, we don’t discount Chef Han’s culinary wizardry in being able to pull off something as culturally diverse and inspired as the rojak.
“Wait, is this Chicken à la king?” I exclaim as I notice the pool of white sauce gathered at the pleated skirt of the chicken filled dumpling. I muse my way through the dish, impartial to the culinary relevance of my shared experience with Chef Han. You see, my grandma was too, an honest Hainanese woman who cooked for a British family doing the colonisation period. Chicken rice intervened with a mushroom sherry sauce. I get it.
As the meal progresses, everything really comes into focus. A pearly piece of silver perch from Nippon Koi farm rests in a deep fish bone bak kut teh ‘dashi shoyu’, given extra seaworthiness from ikan bilis and sea grapes. I tackle the you char kway puff with vengeance, rescuing it from a certain soggy death from steeping in that broth. I shovel up some of the black garlic puree and crisp skinned silver perch, and sigh. There is deep fried Brazilian spinach to remind you that this is a balanced lunch, but all eyes are on that gloriously intense dashi.
My choice of main course, the Indonesian Pork Collar is flavoured vigorously with char siew marinade. It’s tender and imbued with just enough smoke to keep you interested. The accompaniments of barley, rice crispies and pickled bak choy do not offer a nice refuge and seemed more like an effort to plump up the meal with grains than highlighting the protein. I let the dish slide, only because my heart was calling out for the dessert of Cristal de Chine Caviar. This is Chef Han’s upscaled version of our commonplace breakfast of Kaya Toast: Kaya ice-cream made with gula jawa and the usual suspects are sandwiched between toast sourced from an old-school bakery just on the peripheral of Whampoa Market. This is all served together with caviar to relay the sweet-salty sensation usually conveyed by slabs of salted butter. It might sound a little kooky to be delicious, but the result is a final instalment that is a joyful see-saw of richness and ingenuity. A triumph of a dessert.
Whatever the idiosyncrasies of this place, Labyrinth is not just another monosyllabic ‘Mod-Sin’ restaurant. Beneath its mysterious pitch dark facade lies a kitchen that is driven by a warm, beating heart. It demands to be liked, and admittedly, by the time that ‘chicken rice’ was served, I’d already fallen madly in love with the place. What Chef Han is doing down at the Esplanade is truly unique and it will surprise me if he doesn’t retain his one Michelin star this year.
8 Raffles Ave, 02-23, Singapore 039802, 6223 4098