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Flights of fancy
8 Raffles Avenue
#02-23 Esplanade Mall
Open for lunch Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm. Open for dinner Mon to Sun: 6.30pm to 10.30pm.
IN, say, 10 years' time, we can imagine Han Li Guang looking back at his original creation of deconstructed chilli crab and going, "Gah, what an amateur I was then." After all, if you look at his youth, how much of the culinary world he hasn't seen yet, plus that weird part of his brain that makes him see Singapore food the way Willy Wonka looks at candy, what he's doing now at his experimental restaurant Labyrinth may just be the tip of the iceberg.
It's been barely one and a half years since this escapee from the corporate world came out of left field to open his own restaurant. With just minimal professional cooking experience and a tight open kitchen space in Neil Road, he assembled his own brand of dinner theatre: chilli crab in the form of savoury ice cream and tempura softshell crab; Hainanese curry rice as curried quinoa and minced chicken balls; and chendol turned into a pandan flavoured xiao long bao.
There was always the risk of Labyrinth being a one-hit wonder and dying along with its novelty factor, but it's done well enough to move into a more spacious, "grown-up" dining space in the artsy hallways of the Esplanade - proving that this concept actually has legs.
Chalk it up to chef Han's over-active imagination and disregard for practicality - who spends three minutes to slice squid for just ONE teeny portion of "noodles" for his take on bak chor mee? - for this whimsical walk through his edible Wonderland. The star attraction at the new Labyrinth is the Experience menu - which looks expensive at S$168 until you eat your way through a long, three-hour parade that shows how much work goes into it.
It's a meal that's rich in local culture as he takes you through a day in the life of a Singaporean which starts from breakfast to supper and then breakfast again. It's a playful wink at Singaporeans' obsession with hawker food, and chef Han revels in turning our pre-conceived notion about it on its head. An array of "street snacks" has us nibbling on "toasted marshmallow" radish cake speared on a toothpick; "macarons" of kaya dehydrated into little discs of intense coconut flavour sandwiched with salted butter; yu tiao puffs injected with rojak sauce and dusted with peanut powder; and a chwee kueh that's actually compressed coconut rice topped with ikan bilis sambal.
What strikes you is that he never goes off-key in his creations. The squid noodles in his bak chor mee are tinged with saffron and is startlingly similar in texture to mee pok. Squid ink, anchovy powder and sambal somehow emulate the bak chor while the seared scallop is a dead ringer for fried fish cake. It's our favourite dish and tipped to replace his chilli crab as his signature dish.
The entire meal is a tease-filled floor show of "can you guess what this is" theatrics. Laksa is a nest of coconut jelly noodles with nitrogen-dried powdered gravy and a large oyster (not terribly fresh) to replicate the cockle flavour.
Deep-fried laksa leaves complete the charade. Meanwhile, a sushi of compressed otoro in char siew sauce over lightly grilled sushi rice becomes an ingenious substitute for the real McCoy, especially with a cube of the fatty tuna semi-seared to resemble roast pork belly and topped with crisp pork skin. A dashi glaze acts as char siew gravy and sweet pickled cucumber rounds off this clever act.
The ubiquitous zi char staple of cereal prawn is turned into the Toby's cereal bar of chef Han's childhood. The texture is uncanny - that familiar sticky, crunchy, chewy bar now tastes of prawns, oats, butter and curry powder with a light coating of cream posing as the frosting. You can choose between beef hor fun - cubes of fatty wagyu with charred strips of turnip and radish in gravy - and Hokkien mee like you've never had before.
We don't know how chef Han even manages to pull off the vague alkaline flavour of yellow "mee" in his noodles made purely of egg yolk, which is paired with smoked pork fat strips to resemble bee hoon. Intense lobster broth and a heady whiff of wok hei from smoke trapped in the covered serving bowl is quite something.
There are nine courses in total, including two desserts but not counting the snacks. Because you need to pay attention to the details, this is not a meal you can just breeze through. In that sense, dining at Labyrinth can go one of two ways: a delightful foray into a world where nostalgia and fantasy meet, or too much time spent sitting through one chef's interminable self-indulgence.
With some caveats, we would lean towards the former. Yes, it's a lot to take in at one sitting. But there are shorter, less challenging menus. The pacing could be better. It's not something you can eat very often. The restaurant could be a little less black. Non-Singaporeans who do not share our heritage are not going to understand the nuances - would they enjoy bak chor squid noodles without knowing the back story? But we would put our money on chef Han because he's a raw talent you don't see often. He's not so much Mod Sin as he is Original Sin because he doesn't fit into any pre-defined category. That, will prove to be both boon and bane. In chef years, he's still a juvenile but in terms of creative vision, he's light years ahead. Once these two elements align, we wager there will be fireworks.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good