Local flavours, funky twists

Hawthorn Macaron from Hatter Street Bakehouse and Cafe. The nostalgic childhood snack gets elevated into a dainty macaron ($2 each) in the shape of a teddy bear head (above). -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Hawthorn Macaron from Hatter Street Bakehouse and Cafe. The nostalgic childhood snack gets elevated into a dainty macaron ($2 each) in the shape of a teddy bear head (above). -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Hawthorn macaron. -- PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Hawthorn macaron. -- PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Roast duck pizza. -- PHOTO: CRUST GOURMET PIZZA BAR
Roast duck pizza. -- PHOTO: CRUST GOURMET PIZZA BAR
Chilli crab ice cream. -- PHOTO: LABYRINTH
Chilli crab ice cream. -- PHOTO: LABYRINTH
Milo dinosaur version 2.1. -- PHOTO: PIDGIN KITCHEN & BAR
Milo dinosaur version 2.1. -- PHOTO: PIDGIN KITCHEN & BAR
Onde onde cupcake. -- PHOTO: 40 HANDS
Onde onde cupcake. -- PHOTO: 40 HANDS
The flesh of the black Indonesian nut. -- PHOTO: CANDLENUT
The flesh of the black Indonesian nut. -- PHOTO: CANDLENUT
Buah keluak ice cream. -- PHOTO: CANDLENUT
Buah keluak ice cream. -- PHOTO: CANDLENUT
Chilli crab cocktail. -- PHOTO: MARS BAR
Chilli crab cocktail. -- PHOTO: MARS BAR
Mr Bean. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Bean. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Chendol xiao long bao. -- PHOTO: LABYRINTH
Chendol xiao long bao. -- PHOTO: LABYRINTH
Kaya toast cocktail. -- PHOTO: BITTERS AND LOVE
Kaya toast cocktail. -- PHOTO: BITTERS AND LOVE

Adventurous chefs are putting a new spin on familiar Singaporean delights by blending them into new dishes, desserts and cocktails

When it comes to spinning local flavours into unusual creations, there is a fine line that chefs and bartenders tread before creative becomes gimmicky.

Would people who relish chilli crab, hawthorn flakes and ayam buah keluak give chilli crab cocktail, hawthorn macarons and buah keluak ice cream a go? Yet, restaurants, bars and bakeries are incorporating Singapore flavours into their creations.

Mr Louis Tan, 23, a directors of Mixes From Mars, which owns Mars Bar in The Duxton Hotel, says people either love or hate its creative concoctions. Mars Bar shakes up a chilli crab cocktail using bottled chilli crab sauce to give customers a "new experience".

Mr Tan says: "Almost everyone is surprised to see the chilli crab cocktail on the menu. Those who are adventurous will try it. There're some who've more of a shock than a surprise and some don't like it at all. We don't expect everyone to like it at first try." He says the bar is looking to work with more local dessert flavours, such as ice kacang and cheng tng.

Adrian Ling, 38, chef-owner of Pidgin Kitchen & Bar at Dempsey, says there have been mixed reviews for some of his dishes, such as razor clam tau suan.

Tau suan, or split mung bean, is usually eaten as a dessert. Chef Ling's dish features a clam dashi, razor clams and the beans. Like the dessert, it is topped with pieces of fried dough fritters.

Ling says: "The razor clam dish is very challenging for many diners. It is difficult for them to wrap their mind around a savoury seafood dish inspired by a bean-based dessert."

His better-received dishes are the Milo Dinosaur Version 2.1 with a dark chocolate flourless cake and Milo ice cream; and kaya bread and butter pudding with homemade kaya and milk tea ice cream. Other dishes he is looking to roll out include an octopus rendang and Scotch eggs with ngoh hiang.

He says: "It is inevitable that many purists will compare some of our dishes with their traditional counterparts, which are ubiquitous in hawker centres and food courts. I'm not attempting to create premium or haute versions of classics and I am definitely not trying to 'bastardise' traditional flavours which I have grown up with either.

"Instead, I am taking traditional dishes and indigenous regional flavours as a reference point to create dishes that showcase a different perspective."

On the trend, Han Liguang, 29, chef-owner of Labyrinth in Neil Road, says: "It's gimmicky only when the chef overpromises. A chef's job is to deliver good food and flavour, creativity can come later."

He calls his chendol xiao long bao a labour of love as it takes about 11/2 days to make, including soaking red beans, boiling down coconut milk and gula melaka and assembling the ingredients a la minute. He also has a chilli crab ice cream dish that is served with crab bisque mousse, finely ground toasted mantou sand and a crispy soft-shell crab.

At Jekyll & Hyde in Tras Street, Mr Bean, a beancurd pudding cocktail, has become its signature drink, says head bartender Jeff Ho, 36, who is one of Jekyll & Hyde's partners. He says: "The inspiration was actually the generosity of a customer who brought tau huay for the bartenders one night and we decided to build a drink with it."

The bar will launch a Summer drinks menu tomorrow which includes flavours such as coriander, red chrysanthemum and pandan.

For Hatter Street cafe owner Yvette Chua, 30, showcasing local flavours is a way for her to stand out from the competition. On making macarons with her favourite childhood snack of haw flakes, she says: "I wanted to do something different, especially with an ingredient you don't see often. Diners tell me it reminds them of their childhood." Another locally inspired dish at the cafe in Hougang is waffles with pandan ice cream drizzled with gula melaka ($8.90).

More unusual takes include laksa shepherd's pie from Pies & Coffee; Tippling Club's chicken curry mousse; Petite Menu's bak kut teh terrine; and O My Dog's bak chor mee hotdog.

Diners whom SundayLife! spoke to say that flavour is still key to any funky creation.

Mechanical engineer Bernard Tan, 30, says: "Being a creative chef is good as it keeps diners hungry for more. I enjoy the drinks at Jekyll & Hyde and would like to try the local cocktails at Mars Bar. If it tastes good, I'll eat or drink it, whether it's served as foam or dessert."

Public relations executive Lynette Koh, 29, says: "Most Singaporeans will know what the original chilli crab or chendol tastes like. So it is natural for us to make comparisons. I think it is how the chef interprets the dish that would make me want to try it, and I am planning to try the dishes at Labyrinth because I've heard good reviews so far."

Cookbook author and freelance writer Sylvia Tan, 66, says: "Such creations represent new ways of using well-loved ingredients and traditional recipes. If it's a good idea, it can become a new classic and people will forget it was ever considered an innovation.

"Of course, sometimes it can be gimmicky and sometimes it doesn't work. You need to have a good sense of taste and balance of flavours. We need to be open- minded for our cuisine to evolve."

euniceq@sph.com.sg


KAYA TOAST COCKTAIL

1 Where: Bitters & Love, 36 North Canal Road

Open: 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Thursdays), 6pm to 2am (Fridays and Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 6438-1836 or go to www.facebook.com/BittersandLove

What: The humble kopitiam breakfast goes posh with a cocktail ($21) that includes Mount Gay Rum, peach liqueur, English breakfast tea, lemon juice and honey. The drink is served with toast and kaya topped with sprinkles.

TAN HSUEH YUN’S VERDICT

This rum-based cocktail sounds perfect for breakfast, what with the tea, egg whites and honey. It even comes with toast topped with a dollop of kaya and colourful sprinkles. The egg jam seems gimmicky, but there is just enough to make the cocktail smell great and the richness of the kaya complements the rum. Lemon juice stops the drink from being cloying.

CHENDOL XIAO LONG BAO

2 Where: Labyrinth, 5 Neil Road

Open: 7 to 11pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays

Info: Call 6223-4098

What: Labyrinth chef-owner Han Liguang takes what is usually a savoury dumpling and fills it with a beloved coconut dessert. The pandan-flavoured skin (used for shrimp dumplings) is filled with red bean and coconut spheres, gula melaka ice and grass jelly. Instead of a vinegar dip that is usually served with the meat-filled dumplings, this version comes with a gula melaka syrup. It is one of the permanent dishes on the restaurant's monthly menus. The current five-course menu costs $78++.

WONG AH YOKE’S VERDICT

This is a clever idea, and a cute one too. But the flavours are too mild and lack punch. You expect a burst of chendol as you break the coconut and red bean spheres in your mouth, but all you get is a whisper of coconut. The red bean can hardly be made out. Even the gula melaka syrup is not top-grade.

The best part for me is the pandan-flavoured wrap, which has a slightly gelatinous texture. It takes longer to dissolve, releasing the pandan only at the end as an afternote.

Still, I’m not having cravings for another one. Give me a bowl of good, old chendol instead.

MR BEAN

3 Where: Jekyll & Hyde, 49 Tras Street

Open: 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Thursdays), 6pm to 1am (Friday and Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 6222-3349 or go to www.facebook.com/49tras.st

What: Part of the bar's Seven Sins cocktail menu - named Gluttony or affectionately termed Mr Bean - this cocktail ($23) features the famous beancurd pudding from Lao Ban. It is combined with butterscotch and hazelnut liqueur, vodka and kaya. The cocktail is shaken and double-strained to get a smooth texture.

TAN HSUEH YUN’S VERDICT

I spy the bartender scooping out Lao Ban’s soya beancurd into the cocktail shaker and wonder if it might just be too weird. After shaking and straining, the curd becomes smooth, thick soya bean milk. I take a sip. It is cold and refreshing, with a proper kick from the alcohol and a little sweetness from kaya mixed in.

Why has it taken so long for anyone to spike this ubiquitous drink? I could drink it all night long.

CHILLI CRAB COCKTAIL

4 Where: Mars Bar, The Duxton Hotel, 83 Duxton Road

Open: 4pm to 1am daily

Info: Call 9651-6714

What: There is no getting your hands dirty with this cocktail ($22) inspired by chilli crab. Sing Long Chilli Crab Sauce is mixed with Malibu Rum, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass reduction. It may be a relief to some that there is no actual crab meat in the drink. Instead, the cocktail is served with a baby crab cracker.

WONG AH YOKE’S VERDICT

Bizarre as it sounds, this cocktail – inspired by Singapore’s most famous dish – is not unpleasant. And it does taste of chilli crab, but minus the crab.

That is because it is made with chilli crab paste that comes out of a jar (Sing Long brand, readily available in supermarkets).

The chilli sauce and herbs come across strong, while the alcohol is discernable in the background.

But it is also way too sweet. It is drinkable and good as a novelty, but I will not order it again.

BUAH KELUAK ICE CREAM

5 Where: Candlenut, Dorsett Residences, 331 New Bridge Road

Open: Noon to 2.30pm (weekdays), 6 to 10pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 8121-4107 or go to www.candlenut.com.sg

What: The flesh of the black Indonesian nut (right), commonly cooked with chicken or pork in a thick gravy, is converted into a rich buah keluak ice cream ($14). It is made with dark Valrhona chocolate that has 80 per cent cocoa content and served on salted caramel, chocolate crumble and chilli specks. Candlenut's chef-owner Malcolm Lee tops the dessert with warm milk chocolate espuma.

TAN HSUEH YUN’S VERDICT

What fevered brain thought this up? I will say, however, that I am a convert. The ice cream, black as night, has an earthy quality that chocolate alone will not give.

The fermented flavour of the Indonesian nut comes through in spades, adding nuance to the ice cream.

The bits of salted caramel and flecks of chilli give it an edge. I would nix the milk chocolate espuma. Just give me more of that delicious ice cream.

ONDE ONDE CUPCAKE

6 Where: 40 Hands, 78 Yong Siak Street, 01-12

Open: 8am to 7pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays), 8am to 10pm (Fridays and Saturdays), closed on Mondays

Info: Call 6225-8545

What: The cafe's range of cupcakes inspired by local flavours include onde onde ($3.50), chendol ($4.50) and banana jackfruit ($3.50). The onde onde one has a sweet gula melaka coconut filling and is topped with shredded coconut.

WONG AH YOKE’S VERDICT

It’s called onde, after the nonya kueh of glutinous rice balls filled with gula melaka, so I expect to have the molten palm sugar squirting out when I bite into the cupcake. Instead, I find a dry filling of grated coconut cooked in palm sugar, which makes it taste more like kueh dadar, the green, springroll-like dessert.

The cake itself is fluffy and not too sweet, and the dollop of cream on top moistens it even more. While the filling is not a brilliant match, there is nothing weird about it either. It provides variety if nothing else. Just call it by its proper name: a kueh dadar cupcake.

MILO DINOSAUR VERSION 2.1

7 Where: Pidgin, 7 Dempsey Road, 01-04

Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, closed on Sundays

Info: Call 6475-0080 or go to www.pidgin.sg

What: Milo Dinosaur is a cold mug of the chocolateflavoured drink topped with the powder. Pidgin puts a spin on it with Milo ice cream and flourless chocolate cake sprinkled with Milo powder. There is a Milo streusel and dulce de leche – a reference to the condensed milk used in the beverage. Its “Version 2.1” ($15) is a result of past experiments that included a Milo parfait, Milo sponge and toast with Milo.

WONG AH YOKE’S VERDICT

The inspiration may have come from the comforting Milo drink, but it is essentially chocolate in different textures. There is a mouse-like flourless chocolate cake, a scoop of chocolate ice cream and a trail of chocolate soil. It is good chocolate and chocoholics will love it. But it gets no marks for novelty.

CHILLI CRAB ICE CREAM

8 Where: Labyrinth, 5 Neil Road

Open: 7 to 11pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays

Info: Call 6223-4098

What: The signature dish of avant-garde restaurant Labyrinth is a deconstruction of Singapore’s beloved chilli crab. It features an ice cream made with chilli crab sauce, which lies on a bed of finely ground mantou sand with crab bisque mousse topped with caviar and crispy soft shell crab. It will be one of the permanent dishes on the monthly menus. The current five-course menu costs $78++.

WONG AH YOKE’S VERDICT

When I first heard about this ice cream, I thought it was a dessert – which is totally bizzare. But as a component of a savoury dish, it is totally workable and is not really that novel an idea.

It is based on the principle of juxtaposing cold and hot items in one dish and is, in fact, the best thing in this creation. The ice cream is delicious and adds much-needed spice to the otherwise boring make-up of deep-fried soft-shell crab, crab mousse and pulverised fried mantou. And it is not too sweet either.

ROAST DUCK PIZZA

9 Where: Crust Gourmet Pizza Bar, with four outlets: Holland Village, Serangoon Garden, Upper Thomson Road and Katong

Open: Go to the website for various opening hours and delivery times

Info: Call 6476-2224 (Holland Village), 6444-2488 (Upper Thomson), 6636-7666 (Serangoon Gardens) or 6456-1555 (Katong I12), or go to www.crustpizza.com.sg

What: An Asian spin on pizza ($30) with toppings such as duck breast fillets and steamed bok choy. The pizza, which has a hoisin sauce base, is garnished with spring onions, sesame seeds and sliced red chilli.

TAN HSUEH YUN’S VERDICT

People have thrown everything from rendang to tom yum sauces on pizza dough, and this one appropriates the classic plate of roast duck and blanched greens and transfers it onto a pizza.

I cannot fault the crisp, light crust but the pizza is dry. Slices of what appear to be smoked duck sit on hoisin sauce. There is no spark; the slices of chilli give a bit of lift but not enough. The only interesting topping would be the xiao bai cai, which stays crunchy and green.

HAWTHORN MACARON

10 Where: Hatter Street, Block 212 Hougang Street 21, 01-333

Open: 1 to 10pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays

Info: Call 6988-4591

What: The nostalgic childhood snack gets elevated into a dainty macaron ($2 each) in the shape of a teddy bear head (left). The haw flakes are ground and blended into a ganache. Additional haw flakes are mixed in before it is piped on the macaron shells. The hawthorn macarons will be available for the next few weeks and have to be pre-ordered. For bulk orders (minimum 12 pieces), call in advance before Thursdays, which is the cafe’s macaron-making day.

TAN HSUEH YUN’S VERDICT

The idea sounds terrific. What is better than taking hawthorn, which many of us ate as children in the form of thin, round flakes, and turning it into a macaron filling?

Alas, the macaron shell is dry and the hawthorn barely discernible in the filling. It has none of the fruity tartness I associate with the snack. Back to the drawing board, please, because this idea has potential.