SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Such is the dilemma of every young chef who's torn between tradition and re-invention: which way do you go? Do you slavishly devote your life to preserving your culinary heritage till you're really old and become a crinkled national icon yourself? Or do you embrace change and evolve the cuisine to the point where tradition becomes like the dim-witted cousin at family gatherings - you don't really want him there but you're forced to invite him because he's family.
That is the challenge facing Malcolm Lee of Candlenut - he who started as an eager young chef who just wanted to cook Peranakan food like his mother and grandmother and is now the polished poster boy of Singaporean cuisine.
And the only one to snare a coveted Michelin star for it. No pressure. Which is what we like about him: he has the quiet intensity of one who, while juggling high expectations, opening a new restaurant and life's general ups and downs, stays focused on exactly what he wants in the kitchen.
After operating in the low-key Dorsett Residences when it was still quaintly called Candlenut Kitchen, chef Lee now works out of the smart resort-like surroundings of COMO Dempsey - named after style maven Christina Ong's uber-cool hotel chain. Candlenut is the first of four planned eateries at the new lifestyle complex that is all high ceilings and white doors, with elegant interiors. Feathery gold lamps are a bright contrast to the discreet tables and chairs. Dining couples are no longer discriminated against, with tables large enough to hold sharing plates comfortably.
The food is a reflection of chef Lee's growing assertiveness in his cooking approach, with an emerging personal stamp that's veering somewhat away from conventional Peranakan into the larger Asian arena. Lunchtime is when he sticks closer to the familiar, although with a few tweaks.
The kueh pie tee (S$12) is still the same, with four delicate homemade crispy shells that you fill yourself from a little bowl of julienned turnip cooked in a rich, robust pork-and-shrimp gravy topped with prawn pieces. The deep flavours and quality of the braising stock well justifies the S$3 a mouthful, although still pricey from first look.
Ngoh hiang (S$12) is again a meticulously made fried roll stuffed with a fine-textured mix of pork and other fixings, a little on the dry side but mitigated with a good lashing of sweet sauce. The grilled chicken satay (S$16) is seasoned with a variation of the normal spice mixture, but what stands out more is the top-notch peanut sauce topped with grated pineapple.
It's a reflection of chef Lee's quality control where so much effort is put into the basics from the sambal belacan condiment to soup stocks and sauce bases - all the little things that make or break the final dish.
Take the shellfish bisque (S$14) which is really an amped up pong tau hu with a potent crab and shrimp broth that tastes like an unadulterated Hokkien prawn noodle stock (without the MSG) enriched with crustacean oil and a single perfectly formed crabmeat ball. Even though the taste is so intense, it doesn't drown out the flavour of the bakwan kepiting (S$12), a more delicate, clean pork-shrimp broth and yet more bouncy pork balls.
Block 17A Dempsey Road
Tel: 1800 3042 288
Open for lunch and dinner daily: 12pm to 2.30pm (Mon to Sun); 6pm to 9pm (Mon to Thurs); 6pm to 10.30pm (Fri to Sun and public holidays)
Bear in mind that the forceful flavours are not for everyone. Those with taste buds that lean towards clean, subtle Cantonese fare will have difficulty appreciating chef Lee's vibrant flavours that are designed for impact. Very fresh baby squid is slathered in their own black ink and spiked with tamarind sauce that requires enough white rice to temper the somewhat sour, salty flavour. Pork cheek curry (S$24) is suitably tender and again, nothing too traditional with its lemongrass-accented gravy.
At dinner, the food is a showcase of chef Lee's "experimental" side, which includes very pink-cooked lamb chops coated in crispy anchovies that you eat with the sambal belacan. If you can coat lambchops with crushed hazelnuts, why not crushed anchovies, he must think, and why not. The slight briny pungency of the anchovies is a flavour match for the sambal belacan. Chef Lee is quite adept at matching flavour profiles, even if we don't like everything, including nuggets of coconut smoked octopus topped with jarring sweet-sour achar and peanuts.
We can imagine different people coming to Candlenut and liking different things. One person's three-alert fire alarm could be another's walk through a gentle fountain. Tamer taste buds could well be tested by chef Lee's unabashed flavours - strong, salty and punchy. You can't be a carbo-avoider either. Most of the dishes require copious amounts of rice to fully appreciate the flavours.
But few would argue when it comes to dessert, where chef Lee's team churn out some deceptively simple desserts that hit all the right notes. Our favourite would be the perfectly textured kueh bingka (S$12) - painstakingly hand-shredded tapioca and coconut baked dessert that gets an added dimension with gula melaka ice cream and crushed ginger cookie crumbs.
We prefer it to the also slick kueh salat (S$14) with its pearlescent layer of coconut custard on top of smooth sticky rice, served with coconut ice cream and kueh bangkit crumbs for the same enriching effect.
It's clear from Candlenut's menu that chef Lee's intentions do not lie in espousing the virtues of pounding rempah the traditional way when he's 80 years old. But neither is he the kind of iconoclast that rejects the DNA of a cuisine - if anything he is more dedicated to the principles of his heritage cuisine than other so-called purists who remain conventional but cut corners. His pricing and small portions may not go down well in some quarters but for those who appreciate the essence of taste, with an originality that is well-conceived rather than frivolous, the premium is worth paying. He's slowly but surely growing into his Michelin shoes - and they look good on him.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on November 4, 2016.
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