5 Neil Road
Open for dinner Tues to Sun: 7pm to 11pm
YOU wonder what a crab did to Han Li Guang that he can't settle for just stabbing the critter and cooking it in a way that retains its familiar crabby visage. No. This serial seafood killer doesn't stop till he gets rid of the evidence: crushing and churning his victim into ice cream or an intense bisque, making them props in an edible still life beach scene complete with breadcrumb sand, seaweed fronds, flavoured foam and the crab's soft-shelled cousin mummified in tempura batter. Han is no chef, he's a veritable Kitchen Scissorhands, who leaves no dish unturned till he's spherified, nitro-fried or re-defined it in eyebrow-raising yet applause-worthy dimensions.
The aforementioned is Han's signature dish - chilli crab ice cream on a beach of finely ground toasted mantou crumbs, crab bisque mousse topped with caviar, straggly seaweed and foam to resemble crashing waves, and a crunchy deep-fried soft shell crab - an inspired deconstruction of the familiar chilli crab. It's just one of the wacky creations that this newly minted chef - a banking industry escapee - has been dreaming up at his two-week old restaurant aptly named Labyrinth. In this simple, counter seat-only eatery, Han juggles R&D with market-shopping, cooking, washing, plating as well as emcee duties - a meal here includes a running commentary from him as he guides you through the intricate culinary maze that makes up the entertaining six-course meal.
The $78++ he charges is not a lot for an evening of fusion that is grounded in good intentions, clever out-of-the-box thinking and an emphasis on flavour over gimmickry and conceit. A lot of that is due largely to - for the lack of a better cliche - passion on the part of Han. Without the background of a professionally trained chef, Han has no baggage to weigh his creativity down. His food is instinctive - inspired by short cooking stints and exposure to international restaurants which give him a framework to execute his ideas - and impressively original.
The said chilli crab, for example, has a lot going on with the sand, ice cream, caviar and could so easily fall into contrived territory, yet the flavours all fall into place. There's hot and cold, chewy and smooth textures, the authentically spicy chilli crab ice cream which works really well with the mellow creamy bisque, crunchy crab and be-careful-not-to-inhale mantou dust.
Other products from Han's culinary dream factory include an amuse bouche of raw scallop and orange sorbet as his take on ceviche; a caprese salad interpreted as mozzarella balloons filled with 12-hour-dripped clear tomato water that bursts out when you cut it, with liquid nitrogen tomato snow (made in front of you), torn mozzarella bits, tomato marshmallow "clouds" and edible flowers; and a complimentary "test" dish of "beef tartare" - comprising a jammy tomato mixture shaped to look like a raw beef patty topped with a "yolk" of mango spherification.
These quirky, smile-inducing lightweight starters give way to the more substantial thinking behind the main courses. Siew Yoke Fan is a chunk of quiveringly tender pork belly with a lightly crisped skin, set against risotto rice cooked in an earthy ramen broth, sous vide quail egg and pork crackling on the side - rib-sticking comfort food with an unpretentious tweak. Same with the "chicken curry" - interpreted as spicy curried quinoa with juicy panko-crumbed chicken balls, potato foam, coriander sponge and potato skin crisps. Makes you want to bring that to your next molecular pot-luck party.
Han's imagination doesn't stop at dessert, so he's created a chendol xiao long bau of pandan-flavoured skin wrapped around a filling of red bean, coconut, gula melaka ice and grass jelly which you dip into a diluted gula melaka sauce (posing as vinegar dip). Bite and the gula melaka syrup within shoots into your mouth. Also commendable is the apple crumble composed of chocolate crumbs made from baking white chocolate till it changes colour and resembles soil, yoghurt ice cream, dehydrated apple slices and poached apple balls.
For all the disarming appeal of Han's cooking, he is hampered somewhat by his limited professional experience. He's yet to master that spit and polish level of sophistication, so there's a touch of masak-masak amateurishness still. Eating the mozzarella balloon, for one, is like cutting into your Spandex leggings - we prefer smaller-sized balls that you can pop into your mouth and enjoy the burst of tomato water rather than have it splatter all over your salad. There are other little things, too, like not serving too big a scoop of chilli crab ice cream that it stops being fun to eat and becomes cloying, and knowing when too much orange sorbet overwhelms delicate raw scallop. Or refining techniques to make finer tomato snow or a thinner, better-textured xiao long pau skin. And regulating the pace of service, especially when it's full house.
That said, you're struck by Han's genuine sincerity and eagerness to learn and improve, together with an impressive debut portfolio. If other Singaporean chefs can be lauded for creations like sea urchin pudding or kueh bolu tiramisu, imagine what someone like Han can achieve with more experience and a platform to showcase it. In financial parlance, this one is a buy.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good