If you build it, they will come. So they say. Or in the case of some chefs, if you cook it, they will come. Even if you choose to open your restaurant in some out-of-the-way, obscure suburban neighbourhood (which to us is anywhere that is not our own out-of-the-way suburb).
Someplace where Paya Lebar and Serangoon almost but don’t quite get close enough to fist bump sits Allium, a homegrown, casual-fine, mod-Asian and other multi-hyphenate concept eatery. It’s been around for a while, one of those slow burners that’s inching into the limelight with growing word of mouth about the cooking of chef-owner Dillon Ng and the sweets of his sweet – his Indonesian Chinese wife Lulu who has some pretty clever dessert twists in her repertoire.
Together with a friend who handles the front of house, the trio manage a cosy 12 to 16 seater space on the ground level of a condo, that for some reason seems to be a magnet for pet shops and a vet clinic.
It’s definitely a DIY, shoestring operation, yet they manage to pull off a cosy yet fine environment with tablecloths and nicely printed menus. The pricing is not neighbourhood at S$138 per person, but when you consider it’s a nine-course meal and the price is nett, it’s fair value. Or you could try its casual lunch set which offers a risk-free entry point.
Allium aims a lot higher than its address indicates, and it makes it easier for them to open just four days a week while spending the rest of it on recipe development. We don’t discern a clear narrative from the food served, which hits the spot in almost every course, winning your heart if not your head. There’s a bit of a sustainable angle, a made-from-scratch philosophy and a deep love for the kind of familiar fare we all grew up with, but spun from the creative mind of Chef Ng. The At-Sunrice alumnus has cut his teeth in food ventures before, notably at the now-defunct Gastrosmiths, and Allium is pitched to be his stepping stone to a higher profile.
There’s a freestyle flair to the food, which kicks off with refreshing cold scallops poached in Taiwanese rice wine until the mild broth achieves a slightly milky, sweetish and vaguely alcoholic scallop flavour that gets your palate in gear. Oh, the scallops themselves aren’t bad either – not particularly fat but bouncy, and julienned Japanese myoga perks things up.
Next is a dressed-up fish cake that you would think twice about adding to your mee pok ta. Here it deserves its own plating, made of a luxury mixture of yellowtail, prawns and clams. What thrills is that you can actually discern each ingredient in this little pan-fried patty – albeit a little too salty served with a little too acidic vinaigrette-dressed salad of locally grown leaves. So local that some of it came from their own garden at home.
Steamboat is a Singapore tradition but Chef Ng cuts to the chase and serves what he calls ‘The Best Part of a Steamboat’ – that is, when all the ingredients have gone in and the starter broth boils down into a collagen-rich potent brew.
What you get is just that – a superior stock extracted from long simmering pork, an old hen, prawn heads and other umami-giving ingredients. A piece of just cooked red snapper, slippery fish maw, baby abalone and cabbage swimming in a fortifying broth proves that the chef isn’t exaggerating when he says it’s the best part.
But the best part of the meal for us is the next dish – despite its nondescript description as ‘Wild Red Prawn and Hae Bee Hiam’. This is where chilli crab aficionados look for diversity and find it in Japanese red prawn wrapped in rice paper and deep fried, lounging in a creamy dried prawn aioli made with prawn heads for good measure and sweetened with palm sugar. Shredded kaffir limes add a citrusy whiff while deep fried home made mantou gets hero status when dunked into the aioli and devoured.
Vegetables in homemade oyster sauce are a humble stir fry made good with the complexity of the sauce, and the main course of garoupa and flower crab bee hoon is your hawker variety that’s been pumping iron in the kitchen gym. This amped up version knows no subtlety with an assertive milky broth with fish but less crabmeat and chewy noodles. Flecks of chilli and bits of salted vegetable keep the richness under control, reinforced by an addictive green chilli and kaffir lime skin relish.
Pastry chef Lulu is no pushover either with her palate cleanser of lychee sorbet, coconut water granita and lemongrass jelly. She also challenges herself with the self-dubbed ‘Cup of Milo’, where she replicates the flavour with none of the real thing. French chocolate, barley malt and cocoa nibs are her secret weapons and they serve her well, with an almost-there resemblance. Think chocolate mousse, brownie crumbs, crushed powdery nibs and you get the picture.
But we reserve applause for her take on peanut pancake or ‘Min Chiang Kueh’, with its firm but resilient pancake and roasted salty-sweet filling of peanuts, salted butter, homemade almond praline and sea salt. It’s as good as it sounds.
While we’re all nice and happily fulfilled after a meal, there is a lingering sense that there should be something more, an identity or aesthetic we can latch on to. But as its name implies, perhaps that is an evolving story, to be revealed as we slowly peel off its layers to discover its core strength. It will be a while, but we’re enjoying the process.
2 Jalan Lokam
#01-11 Kensington Square
This article was originally published in The Business Times.