Molecular Gastronomy – it’s not a word that one hears often in Singapore. I confess that I know little about it as well, other than that it’s the manipulation of the physical and chemical structures of food using food science. It’s extremely technical and has received mixed reviews among chefs and foodies alike.
Gordam Ramsay, in an article by the Guardian, called it a fad, saying “A chef should use his fingers and his tongue – not a test tube.”
On the other hand, chefs like Heston Blumenthal have gained world wide fame through their use of molecular gastronomy techniques, though interestingly Chef Blementhal himself is trying to distance himself from the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ and to instead draw the customer’s attention back to the food in front of them.
Nevertheless, the point has been made. There are customers who eat by their sight. And the use of food science to create a mind blowing presentation wins you points.
I raised the term previously with G and L, both of whom gave me comments like “atas” and “completely lost on me”. J, on the other hand, was a food science major and is still very captivated by the world of food science and in particular, molecular gastronomy. It was J, who suggested going to Labyrinth and trying out their menu.
Labyrinth is a restaurant that employs molecular gastronomy in their cooking and the theme of their cooking is focused around Singaporean ‘local’ cuisine. Their current establishment at Neil road sits about 20 people and most of the seats are counter seating, so you get to see the chefs plate the dishes in front of you. For dinner, Labyrinth has two menus, the signature (5 course) menu ($108) and the heritage (8 course) menu ($148). We were originally planning to go for the 5 course menu but after some subtle persuasion from the manager, we went for the 8 course instead which included most of the dishes from the signature menu.
A lot has been written about Chef Han, the owner and brains behind Labyrinth, a former bank turned chef who took the plunge in 2014 to set up Labyrinth. Many of the earlier articles wrote about his teething difficulties in finding adequate staff to help him out with service and plating. However, during my recent visit, it seems that his team and him have found their feet in providing a wonderful experience for the diners. I suppose this is certainly reflected in the price. When Labyrinth first opened in 2014, they offered a 5 course set for $78, which was subsequently increased to $98 and to the current price of $108. The dishes, remain relatively unchanged.
Labyrinth has a decent wine list starting from $70, but if you desire to BYOB you may do so at a corkage charge of $50. Alternatively, if you order a bottle from the restaurant, you get to open your bottle for free. You don’t have to drink the restaurant’s bottle, you’re welcome to take it home with you.
We had the following snacks to kick off our 8 course meal
Kaya toast and ‘Rojak’ – The kaya toast came in the form of macaroons, kaya flavoured shells and a buttery center. The rojak came in the form of the crispy puffs but had been injected with the rojak sauce, so when you bit into it, it felt like you were eating youtiao (油条）as part of the rojak dish.
Watermelon ‘sashimi‘ – I think this is where you start to notice how the use of food science starts to prey on your sensibilities. When we see the word sashimi, we usually immediately think savoury, but this dish is the exact opposite. The ‘sashimi’ is actually watermelon slices, the ‘onion’ is actually shaved honeydew, the ‘fish eggs’ is actually rock melon and the ‘wasabi’ is actually basil cream. What you see may not always be what you get.
This is where the official dinner started and where things started getting pretty interesting.
Laksa – coconut jelly noodles, laksa gravy crumble, dehydrated laksa leaves and deep fried oyster. The coconut jelly noodles were probably the most interesting part of the dish. Put together with the gravy crumble, you could really taste the laksa flavours as if you were eating the authentic dish itself.
Duo of dim sum – squid ink paella, prawns encased in squid with a red pepper sauce. Meant to resemble lo mai gai and har gow respectively, I really enjoyed Labyrinth’s version of har gow (prawn dumpling) especially with the red pepper sauce. The squid ink paella was just all right for me.
Chilli crab – half a soft shell crab, chilli crab ice cream, crab foam, man tou powder. I could help but note that the serving consisted of half a soft shell crab. In a previous blog post that I had read, a whole soft shell crab was given! OK, I’m just being nit-picky.
The selling point of this dish is the presentation. It really gives you the sense of the crab along the beach…. with the man tou powder supposed to represent the sand and the foam the sea waves…. I was pretty impressed with the chilli crab ice cream – it has no crab in it but it captured all the flavours of a chilli crab sauce. I knew this as J was allergic to crab so she received a crab-less version of the dish (see photo below) but she got a scoop of the ice cream as well as the manager informed her that it was not made with any crab components.
Siew Yoke Fan – Ramen risotto, pork crackling, char siew sauce, soft cooked egg. A play on the roast pork rice. I had to repeat myself when I heard the manager describe the risotto as ramen risotto aka, the risotto is not actually rice but egg noodles. I thought it was a pretty interesting touch. I enjoyed all the elements of this dish, thought it was a nice interpretation of the everyday hawker dish we find in Singapore.
Satay Ribeye – Wagyu cooked medium rare, peanut mochi, onion gnocchi, cucumber shavings, peanut sauce.
An interpretation of a local favourite – satay. The ketupat is actually the peanut mochi, though I didn’t really get the sticky rice texture which I immediately associated with seeing a ketupat. The onion gnocchi was also a bit lost in translation as neither J nor I got the onion flavour; reckon there was too much potato in that mix.
Having said that, the beef was cooked well and it was a great combination with the peanut sauce. I had a mini discussion with J on whether she was of the opinion that the chef should have asked us on how we liked our beef cooked or at least told us he was going to cook the ribeye a certain way. In Labyrinth, the chef made the decision for us and I was aware that there are some restaurants which adopt this mentality too – the chef decides how best the meat should be cooked, not the customer. J’s response was that it would have been a ‘boo boo’ for her, but since the dish was well executed and there was the addition of the foie gras, she was not going to pick a bone about it. I’m inclined to agree with her. I note that the restaurant has indeed received feedback about this issue, but it seems that they’ve decided to stick to the ‘chef knows best’ reasoning.
Hainanese Curry Rice – curry quinoa, fried chicken ball, fried baby potato, quail egg, coriander sponge.
Just before this dish was served, we were given a cucumber sorbet as a palette cleanser. I was a bit confused because I knew that we had another savoury dish before dessert and actually queried the waiter on this. Apparently, this was correct and we were supposed to have cucumber cleanser after the pork and beef mains before having the chicken. Interesting….
So I think this dish was probably was one of the most creative out of the lot we saw from the kitchen. It reminded me of a prehistoric forest and I was half expecting a dinosaur to pop out from the egg at any minute…. (yeah right).
Prior to desserts, we were given another palette cleanser, this time, a turmeric mousse, pineapple sorbet, rice crispies and chicken floss. I was not a fan of this palette cleanser. I recognized all these flavours from their pineapple rice dish and it felt like a ‘dish in one spoon’ rather than a palette cleanser. I also found the turmeric mousse very very strong which left it a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The pineapple sorbet helped to balance it out, but there was too little of it 😦
And now we were on to desserts. As we both ordered the heritage menu, the manager allowed us to have one set of desserts from the signature menu and the other set from the heritage menu so we were able to try all 4 desserts that the restaurant offered.
Chendol Xiao Long Bao – Gula Java Icicle, Coconut and red bean soup, Har Gow skin.
This is another play on the senses. Xiao long bao = savoury. Heck, the dumpling is served to you in a dim sum basket, and the gula melaka syrup is served in a vinegar holder. You eat it like you would a dumpling. J had this one and unfortunately she did not really like this rendition of chendol, despite it being one of the restaurant’s more well known desserts.
Pisang Goreng – Deep fried banana with ice cream. So here, instead of the ice cream as an accompaniment, the ice cream is deep fried together with the banana, such that when you bite into the banana, the warm temperature of the fruit is immediately contrasted with the cold ice cream. You have to eat this fast though. The ice cream melts really really fast.
Reese’s chocolate – peanut butter ice cream, cocoa peanut “ash” with an earl grey “cognac”
When I queried what was so ‘local’ about this dish, chef Han told me that this was his interpretation of how the new generation of Singapore likes to end off their meal – with a cigar and a glass of hard liquor. To me, it’s the ‘Gen Y’ dessert, while the local breakfast dessert below is the ‘Gen X’ dessert. J really enjoyed this dessert
Local Breakfast – panna cotta, mango puree, sweet balsamic sauce. This is like a very traditional Singaporean breakfast of soft boiled eggs with soy sauce re-interpreted as a panna cotta. When it’s first presented, it’s laid out exactly like a breakfast set. The panna cotta actually comes shaped like an egg. The manager then proceeded to ‘crack the ‘egg’ and wow, there was a mango puree which was made to look like the yolk of the egg together with the white panna cotta. Add some soy sauce (or sweet balsamic sauce) for more flavour. This was a very fun dessert to have, J and I had a lot of fun watching and eating this.
Needless to say, we were both very full when dinner was over. I daresay that I would have been full even with the signature (5 course) menu, but the heritage menu is certainly a good option if you want to try 90% of what the restaurant has to offer in one go.
Add: 5 Neil Road
Note: From August 2015, Labyrinth will be moving to a new location at Esplanade Mall.