18 North Canal Road
Open for dinner Mon to Sat: 6.30pm to 10.30pm
East is East, West is West and ne’er the twain shall meet. But try telling that to the young chefs of Singapore today with their Asian heritage and Western outlook, trying their darndest to cook up an identity that is unique and tastes good too.
The ultimate goal is one of authenticity and originality, but the road towards that is paved with laksa pesto and buah keluak ice cream, and riddled with potholes of ego and contrivance.
If we had high expectations, it’s nothing compared to the expectations chef Woo seems to have placed on himself to deliver the goods, from the tasteful Chinoiserie-themed interiors to the impeccable table setting, thanks to a cardboard template we see a staff using to ensure every utensil is placed perfectly. We definitely don’t want to be caught without money here – being forced to wash the dishes to meet his standards will not be pretty.
The restaurant is in North Canal Road, with its history of Chinese merchants selling dried seafood that fits chef Woo’s storyline about exploring his Chinese past while applying the modern Western cooking techniques he trained in. Nanyang refers to the Chinese diaspora that spread over South-east Asia as immigrants left the motherland and sought out a new culture and identity in their adopted lands. Despite a self-admitted poor grasp of Mandarin, chef Woo takes Chinese classic dishes and applies his own twist based on food he grew up with.
Open only for dinner, the options are S$78 for four courses, S$88 for six and S$118 for eight courses. Our eight course is more like 10, thanks to a couple of amuse bouche that are as detailed as the main menu.
In fact, we believe chef Woo should shut down his restaurant and just open a shop selling his Spring Onion Shao Bing which is what happens when you cross a savoury Chinese spring onion pancake with a cheese pizza. We would buy dozens of this springy, yeasted dough stuffed with spring onions, mozzarella and black pepper, pan fried till it’s got a lovely toasted brown crust on the surface and a chewy, cheesy inside with added texture from the minced scallions.
We almost forget the savoury yeasted butter made by whipping soft butter with a yeast paste, garnished with deep fried laksa leaves and a drizzle of laksa oil. It’s savoury, fragrant and the laksa leaves riff off (sort of) the green onions in the bun.
If it sounds like a lot of painstaking effort, well, the night is young and there’s more of that coming. Who bothers to spear escargot on a skewer, brush it with homemade doubanjiang or chilli bean paste, grill it, brush it with more paste, coat in fried onions, wrap in betel leaves and char-grill it, just to have it demolished in half a second flat? Did chef Woo maroon himself on an empty island for the past couple of years, bringing a Thermomix and an active imagination?
His meticulous, detailed preparations result in highly original creations that are sometimes too fussy by half but when they work, it’s as if the same stars that aligned for Harry and Meghan also did some moonlighting for chef Woo.
The re-imagined tea egg offers much potential – a jammy sous vide egg yolk sits on onion cream in a mild broth of kelp, pu-erh tea and aged tangerine peel with just a hint of sweetness from rock sugar. Mushrooms and fried ginkgo nuts add texture and fennel fronds provide a surprise herbal whiff. Eaten together, its mild delicate flavour makes an interesting mental exercise.
A gruel of white radish cooked with rice and soy milk has a baby food texture that alienates us, even if the pickled radish strips remind us of Chinese chai po and the grated century egg white has enough reminders of congee. Thin slices of bamboo shoot dusted with powdered century egg yolk are rather useless sidekicks that add little to the mix.
We get more kick from the satay-like lamb kebab which is seared and chopped into tartare, served with lotus root chips. But a fillet of grouper starts to weigh us down despite its well-crisped skin, due to a very rich cloying tofu purée and creamy sauce of fish stock laced with Chinese wine. The same with a sous vide short rib which shares the same format of protein and thick potato purée flavoured with black garlic, the earthy acidity matched with pickled black fungus.
The aforementioned stars align with the rice dish – an ingenious steamed glutinous and shortgrain rice in lotus leaf mixed with foie gras and mushroom and dusted in a shower of liver sausage “snow”. The savoury rice and two kinds of liver are a match in offal heaven.
There’s already a little tofu overkill going on but if that’s your thing, the soy milk ice cream with sesame sponge will float your boat, otherwise the hibiscus with yoghurt ice cream is a perfect alternative.
Restaurant Ibid hits a few highs, but the planning of the menu could use a few tweaks to balance between light and heavy courses. A sense of wanting to show everything in chef Woo’s arsenal can be a bit of an overkill – it’s always good to keep a few tricks up one’s sleeve. But the ambience – warm, friendly and extremely hospitable – together with chef Woo’s endearing unassuming personality are what drives this restaurant. Keep it clever but keep it real, and the rest will take care of itself.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photo: Restaurant Ibid