It was with bated breath and anticipation that we visited Malcolm Lee’s new dining hotspot. The fresh-faced Lee first made a name for himself a few years back when, as a 23-year-old undergraduate, he took over Singapore Management University’s resident café and retooled it into a cool hangout spot with well-crafted grilled sandwiches and salads.
He then landed the coveted Miele Guide scholarship award to the At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy to pursue a diploma in culinary craft and service excellence, which provided him with basic skills in French, Italian, Thai and Chinese cooking. Now, fresh out of school, the entrepreneurial Lee has dived into his new restaurant project with relish.
Rather than opening a bistro or café that leverages on his experience, Lee has gambled on a Peranakan restaurant. Located on Neil Road, Candlenut is named after the much-loved Indonesian black nut buah keluak, which is featured heavily on the two-page menu – they’re serving it with ayam (chicken), babi (pork) and sambal prawns.
The restaurant’s timber-clad interior – an uncluttered space of warm wood sparsely decorated with spice jars, potted money plant and a framed piece of baju (a traditional Peranakan garment) – sets it apart from Singapore’s abundant collection of Peranakan eateries. Lee’s cooking, though confident, lacks the lush flourishes of a Nyonya’s home-cooked meal.
Our pig stomach soup with gingko nuts and white peppercorn arrived lukewarm with none of the peppery notes and robustness you would expect from a well-brewed broth. The chap chye – always a reliable barometer of any Peranakan meal – was a letdown too, completely dry and devoid of the prawn stock suggested in the menu.
Lee’s signature braised dark soy pork belly, apparently a special recipe from Mum, was served lounging in a dark sauce that was far from the full-bodied flavour one traditionally associates with this dish; whatever the secret ingredients were, they failed to lift the flavour of the fatty tiles of pork. Even the long beans tossed with sambal lacked punch, suggesting a weak rempeh (spice paste) that needs reworking. We couldn’t help but think that perhaps all Lee needs is more time in the kitchen with a true-blue Nyonya.
But it wasn’t all bad. Our sunny-side-up eggs tempera – a sauce made with soya sauce, lime juice, onions, sugar, dark soya and chillis – arrived perfectly fried, crowned with caramelised onions and laced with a sublime sweet lime sauce.
We also loved the unadulterated take on ayam buah keluak and the intensely flavoured pong tauhu, a heady prawn-infused meatball soup with crunchy julienned bamboo shoots. Don’t leave without trying the excellent desserts, among them the chendol cream; the pannacotta-like triumvirate of coconut cream, coconut milk and gelatine was the perfect canvas upon which to showcase the chef’s undoubted culinary potential. We say, give the chap some time and he will shine, but for the moment, Mum’s still the wok. Eve C
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