SINGAPORE - International food guides and listings may have largely ignored them, but Singaporeans know where they can find excellent local cooking in lovely settings - at Violet Oon Restaurant in Bukit Timah Road and National Kitchen by Violet Oon at National Gallery Singapore.
Both restaurants are doing well, so it is no surprise that food doyenne Violet Oon and her children, son Yiming Tay and daughter Su-Lyn Tay, opened a third restaurant, Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill, in Clarke Quay a week ago.
Any doubts about Oon's cooking can be put to rest after a meal there.
The cooking boasts full, complex flavours that titillate the palate and yet, you can still pick out the individual ingredients.
I usually do not visit restaurants on their first few days of operation, but in this case, I am willing to take a chance on Oon, whom I have known since 1984, when we were colleagues at the now-defunct Singapore Monitor newspaper. There is also a very good reason: I could not wait to try the food.
So I drop in at Satay Bar & Grill three days after it opened, walking in to protestations from Oon, who exclaims: "We are not ready. Come back 10 months later."
VIOLET OON SATAY BAR & GRILL
01-18 Clarke Quay, 3B River Valley Road, tel: 9834-9935; open: 6pm to midnight daily
Food: 4/5 stars
Service: 3.5/5 stars
Ambience: 3.5/5 stars
Price: Budget about $70 a person, without drinks
Ready or not, the food is impressive, with a selection of Peranakan dishes from her other restaurants and new offerings of satay and grilled items.
The decor is similar to National Kitchen's, with the same dark wood panels, hanging lamps and rattan blade fans. But there are differences too. The restaurant is more spacious, with a bigger bar and counter seats. And the kitchen is visible behind a glass wall, allowing diners to see the food being grilled on wood and charcoal fires. There is even a row of counter seats right in front of it, for those who want to glue their eyes to the action.
On the downside, it gets noisy when the restaurant fills up. And Instagrammers may be concerned about the dim lighting in the eatery, which opens only in the evenings.
Like at the other Violet Oon restaurants, prices here are not low. For example, a serving of three sticks of Chicken Satay costs $14. But the meat is chunky, not the tiny pieces you get at hawker stalls, so you do not feel like you've been ripped off.
The satay also comes with the best gravy I've tasted. Topped with grated pineapple that gives it a zingy vibrancy, it is a well-balanced blend of spices, herbs and peanuts. It is also not very sweet, unlike the generic versions most hawkers serve.
The marinade for the chicken is less original, however, and tastes much like what you find elsewhere.
The same recipe works better on the Pork Satay Hainan ($16) as the sweetness goes well with the meat. I find the pork tenderloin too soft for my liking, but that is made up for by the pieces of fat skewered between the meat. Grilled till slightly crisp, these are worth the effort required to work off the calories afterwards.
Tripe Satay ($15) is something you do not find easily in Singapore. The marinade for this is more coconutty, which goes well with the tender beef tripe. But the gravy has a strong nutty flavour which, compared with the meat satay gravy, is more banal.
Oon is only half-joking when she says the restaurant is not ready. The menu is still being tweaked days into its opening. The beef used for the Daging Panggang Sambal Hijau ($50) is finalised only on the day of my dinner and the price adjusted the day after. That is why I pay $47 for it, the price for the previous, presumably poorer-quality meat.
The 200-day grain-fed black Angus beef rib eye is a good choice for the dish. It is tender and flavourful, and is marbled with just enough fat to keep the meat moist without weighing it down. The sambal hijau, made with green chilli padi, is fiery and piquant. But for me, the piece de resistance is the cloves of confit garlic, which are soft and sweet.
The Garam Assam Barramundi With Pineapple And Ginger Flower ($32) also has a delicious topping - comprising pineapple compote covered liberally with julienned ginger flower and laksa leaf, which add an aromatic punch. The fish itself is well-grilled, but like the pork satay, its texture is too soft for my taste.
Instead of plain rice, try the Nasi Goreng Nyonya Pedas ($22). I do not find it very hot, but if you cannot handle chillies, there is also a non-spicy version. The rice is fried with sambal belacan, prawns, dried shrimp and served with the same sambal hijau as the daging panggang. It is delicious.
At my dinner, Oon proposes I try a dessert that is not on the menu because the recipe is still being tweaked. The Chendol With Durian Pengat Sauce is definitely a winner, so it is now available for $15.
The fragrance of pandan juice in the housemade chendol is unmistakable. And the shaved ice is thoughtfully made from a frozen gula melaka solution, so that the flavours do not get diluted as it melts. Plus there are two types of durian - the pengat as well as a quenelle of durian pulp.
The combination is so good, it gets my heart melting faster than the gula melaka ice.
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•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.