Not many chefs can live up to a restaurant called National Kitchen. But that is the name the newly opened National Gallery Singapore picked for a Singapore-cuisine restaurant on its second floor - a name that could easily become a subject of ridicule if the kitchen is helmed by someone less than capable.
The person who took up the challenge is food doyenne Violet Oon, and I can think of no one more suitable. The 66-year-old chef and restaurateur has been a food journalist and culinary ambassador for Singapore for decades and has seen the evolution of local food since the country's independence.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon is, according to her, reflective of her food journey as well as Singapore's food story over the past 50 years. It opened about two weeks ago.
Much love has been lavished on the design to make sure the restaurant is a place that Singaporeans will be proud to show off to foreign visitors. The dining room is a luxe combination of dark wood panels, vintage tiles and dramatic chandeliers. And on the walls are framed photographs from friends that include one of a wedding taken in the 1940s during World War II and another showing a soya sauce factory. One wall is dedicated to photos of Oon in her younger days.
The menu is curated by her and her children Su-Lyn Tay and Yiming Tay, who run the restaurant, and reflects the multi-cultural facets of Singapore food.
NATIONAL KITCHEN BY VIOLET OON
1 St Andrew's Road, 02-01 National Gallery Singapore, City Hall Wing, tel: 9834-9935
Open: 11am to 2.30pm, 6 to 9.30pm daily
Price: Budget about $70 a person
Unlike her other restaurant, Violet Oon Singapore in Bukit Timah Road, which serves Peranakan food, the recipes here come from the Chinese, Indian, Malay, Eurasian and Peranakan communities, with some from her family and friends.
Dining here, one embarks on a culinary journey of Singapore's growing-up years. If you have lived through those years, you would have encountered many of the dishes either at home or at the homes of neighbours and friends.
It was common for neighbours to share their food and friends from different races to invite one another to their homes during festivals.
What strikes me about the cooking at National Kitchen is how authentic the flavours are.
A dish of Idly Served With Coconut & Tomato Chutney ($7), for example, is made from scratch - from soaking the rice and grinding it to fermenting it before making it into the steamed cakes. They are light and fluffy and a good way to start the meal.
The Ngoh Hiang ($15) has its recipe tweaked though, with chicken replacing pork in the filling because the kitchen does not use pork or lard. I prefer the juiciness and aroma of minced fatty pork, but this version is pretty decent. The chicken meat is mixed generously with prawn, crabmeat and water chestnut and not dry as a result.
Some dishes come with interesting stories, such as the Coronation Chicken In Wantan Leaf Cup ($9), a dish that Oon explains was created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The cup of crispy deep-fried wonton skin is her idea, but the cold chicken in a creamy curry sauce with raisins is a reminder of Singapore's colonial days. And it tastes good too.
Among the main dishes, my favourite is the Fish Head Curry ($35), comprising half an ikan merah (redfish) head and vegetables such as lady's finger, eggplant and tomato in a thick curry. The curry is Indian-inspired, but the spices are less pungent than what you get in Serangoon Road restaurants.
I like that the gravy is not very rich and is slightly tart from a good balance of tamarind and coconut milk. Spooned over rice or sipped straight from the pot, it is delicious.
The Ikan Goreng Chilli ($19) is good too, with chunks of fried red snapper topped with freshly pounded chilli padi and garlic. The fish is fried perfectly golden and the chilli paste is spicy without burning.
The Chilli Crab (market price) is a surprise as the recipe has very little ketchup. Instead, the dominant flavour comes from taucheo (fermented soya bean paste), which makes the gravy too salty to eat on its own. But drizzle it over a deepfried mantou and it tastes fine.
What disappoints is the Butter Prawn ($32), with the prawns tossed in butter egg floss and curry leaves. It tastes good, but the melted butter forms a pool of oil on the plate and the floss, which is soaked in it, is soggy.
The desserts, however, are excellent. The Roti Jala With Gula Melaka And Banana Slices ($10) is a sweet Peranakan take on the Malay roti jala that is often eaten with curries. Here, the lacey pancake, which is soft and very fine, is served with a banana pengat that is delicious with fragrant palm sugar.
But what I cannot resist ordering all three times I was at the restaurant (two times as a guest) is the Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($12), an old-fashioned cake that is light and buttery at the same time. Each bite is bliss and the piece of bright-red glace cherry on top brings back memories of simpler and more innocent times.
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•Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.