Violet Oon is seated in a corner booth right by the entrance of her latest venture, surrounded by a group of diners clamouring for a photo with the cooking doyenne while making their way out.
Her popularity is proof that the former food critic and author of three cookbooks is indeed the right face to front National Kitchen, the name pitched by the people behind National Gallery Singapore who were looking for a suitable chef to helm a specifically Singapore restaurant in the art gallery.
Together with her two children, Su-Lyn and Yiming Tay, the trio have worked labouriously to create a sense of home for the restaurant interior, taking over a year to source for vintage floor tiles and old photographs of recipes, chefs and Oon’s younger days to frame and put up on dark wood-panelled walls. Beaded chandeliers hang above the row of tables just down the middle of the dining room, a more muted choice over the typical crystal, which Su-Lyn shares “would have been too bling”.
While Violet Oon Singapore on Bukit Timah Road serves only Peranakan dishes, the menu here reads more like a throwback to the city’s formative years, put together by Oon’s memories of eating fish head curry from Gomez Curry on Selegie Road to her exchanging of recipes with friends from different communities.
For instance, an Indian breakfast staple of idly (a savoury steamed cake) tastes as authentic as it can get – black lentils and short-grained rice are left to ferment overnight, then steamed into fluffy white clouds to be smeared generously with the fresh coconut and tomato chutney on the side. A dish named Coronation Chicken in Wanton Leaf Cup harks back to Singapore’s colonial days, where cold chicken is served with raisins and a creamy curry sauce in a crispy cup made from deep-fried wanton skin.
But what really strikes home is that Oon doesn’t dumb down on flavours (read: spice level) to pander to the location’s throng of tourists. Udang Goreng Chilli (wild sea prawns tossed in a spice paste) boasts a slow lingering heat, the result of the kitchen laboriously frying the rempah spices for a good 15 minutes to break down and extract the flavours. This dish is lovely when mixed with fluffy white rice. Hint: scoop up more of this to temper down the heat if you need to.
Even the coffee and desserts score high marks for being able to successfully recapture the nostalgia of dining out back in the 40s. This means no hipster espresso-based coffee here. Instead, Oon’s son Yiming has worked with a local roaster to come up with a house blend of top-quality Robusta and Arabica beans, which are roasted with margarine then prepared with an old-fashioned sock and metal jugs for a smooth, creamy brew. And rather than using vanilla bean for the custard in the upside down pineapple cake, Oon has opted to keep to old-school methods and ingredients that were available back then and stuck to vanilla essence instead. The bright red candied maraschino she uses as garnish is the cherry on top of this very tasty cake.
Insider’s Tip: Ask if you can have access to the secret door entrance – a sliding wall in the private dining area that reveals a lift lobby behind it, so you can enter the restaurant directly via the parking lot. Quite like a scene out of the James Bond box office hit, Spectre.
Spotlight On: Udang Goreng Chilli, Buah Keluak Ayam, Dry Laksa, Pineapple Upside Down Cake
National Kitchen by Violet Oon Singapore
#02-01 National Gallery Singapore, City Hall Wing, 1 St Andrew’s Road