So I just ate at a new restaurant. It was weird. The dining room looked like mine. The presentation was terrible. Because I had to plate the food myself. There was no ambience to speak of. No service either, unless you count the delivery guy who blabbers that he had hit six red lights and taken two wrong turns before reaching your home. As if to say, “If your food is cold, it’s not my fault that you live so far from town.”
So this is our world now, where you can open a new restaurant but no one can come. Fancy interiors and pretty plating can no longer distract from a less than stellar menu – if anything, things just got even tougher for new eateries because the only way they can be judged now is on the strength of its food.
Into this scenario enters Miss Vanda – which isn’t so much a new restaurant as it is a hawker centre on wheels. But it serves tricked out street food, considering that it’s the offspring of the one Michelin-starred Labyrinth, whose chef-owner Han Li Guang is a true-blue Singapore boy who combines a love for authenticity with controlled irreverence.
Like anyone who tries to price local fare at restaurant prices, he comes up against the kopitiam brigade, whose self-enforced ruling dictates that laksa and chicken rice cannot break the S$5 price barrier.
But Chef Han sidesteps this with a menu that is recognisably hawker while being totally different at the same time.
While the spot-on spice mix in his chicken “yakitori” (S$18) might dent the ego of any self-respecting satay man, he puts a spin on it by adding lightly pickled onions that you dip into the smooth peanut sauce for a whole new flavour profile.
But he also elevates it with the use of chicken oysters and tail – the most tender, fatty parts that make you wonder if you’re eating pork satay instead. There are eight sticks to an order – you won’t regret ordering two of them.
Crispy har cheong (prawn paste) chicken wings(S$14) lose their crispness during the ride but not their heft – so you can still enjoy the meatiness of an entire wing without being interrupted by the bone which has been deftly removed. Slightly salty, it’s tender from end to end, even that troublesome drummette which is always the first to lose its moisture but not here.
Laksa (S$28)is like a shellfish bisque given an Asian treatment with the graininess of dried shrimp and the depth of belacan and coconut milk. But the richness of the reduction and a distracting sweetness is not a good foil for the laksa and yellow noodles which sit awkwardly in the broth like the third wheel on a date. But if you ignore the noodles and enjoy this Asian bisque with the large prawns, fresh mussels and two fat fish dumplings, it’s pretty satisfying.
(Related: Where to order your chilli crab from)
Meanwhile, the match of a deep fried flattened Kurobuta pork chop and sweet sour sauce (S$28) is one made in porcine heaven with its tangy, sweet, tomato-ey gravy embellished with bits of bell pepper, edamame and even lychee. The breaded chop and sauce arrive separately so the meat stays crunchy – it’s on the lean side and could use some marbling, but once the sauce does its work, you don’t care.
Miss Vanda’s signature dish is also a tribute to the chef’s grandmother, who was once a housekeeper for a British family who were impervious to the charms of Hainanese chicken rice. So she created a creamy mushroom sauce that Chef Han meticulously replicates, which you pour over a well-executed claypot chicken rice sans the claypot, but with plenty of smooth succulent chicken.
Let go of your strong allegiance to Tian Tian and this will be a new favourite especially when mixed with an odd but potent mixture of garlic chilli sauce and sambal belacan.
A meaty grilled sambal stingray (S$28)isn’t bad, but it’s a mixed curry with petai, wing beans and tempeh (S$16) that surprises with its heady spices and unexpected use of wing beans.
There are times when you feel that it’s too much of a good thing, and that Chef Han tries a little too hard to justify to price point and quality. The food can get too rich at times, so he could lighten things up a little.
He does get playful with dessert though, with varying results. Especially when his mod-Sin Labyrinth instincts creep into the Min Jiang Kueh (S$24) – pancakes made with a slightly fermented batter that are supposed to be crisp but don’t arrive that way.
They’re still nice and springy and you can stuff them with either traditional crushed candied peanuts, a lovely floral jam or a wacky chocolate and dark soya sauce spread with a distinct flavour of pipagao (a Chinese herbal cough syrup) that you either love or not. Not.
But we’re all for the kaya swiss roll (S$24) filled with homemade kaya and salted butter cream which tastes just like the filling of a kaya and butter sandwich. But its quirky choux puffs filled with diplomat cream and candied bak kwa bits (S$15)gets our flavour antennae twisted into a knot.
Miss Vanda still stands as one of the stronger new concepts we’ve come across in the past couple months. It’s got the courage of its convictions and solid cooking technique. Yes, your delivery driver might lose his way, but it’s clear that Miss Vanda is a good find.
Miss Vanda by Labyrinth, #02-23 Esplanade Mall. Tel: 6223-4098. Visit missvanda.sg to order.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.