Sunday, 5 June 2016

Labyrinth - A Maze of Singaporean Wonders

Van asked if there were must-eat dishes in Singapore. While there are several, it’s difficult to introduce them all in one go, and after a week melting in the heat of the city, I think aircon is a must-have wherever we eat. 

Labyrinth serves modern innovative Singaporean cuisine in the Esplanade Mall. Chef Han instils French cooking techniques and fine western ingredients into a range of traditional dishes, arranged them from the first meal of the day to supper. There was a 10-course discovery menu, with the option of 3 additional courses, or the full blown 15-course experience menu. We went for the full experience. 

I don’t recall being served bread.

Tingkat “radish cake, rojak, nasi lemak”
A tingkat tray is an old-fashioned multi-tier, metallic lunchbox. The turnip cake on stick was an interpretation of chai tau kway, with the texture of toasted marshmallow with a slightly crispy shell and a soft centre with dried shrimps and scallops. The nasi lemak chwee kueh (water rice cake) had faint traces of coconut milk fragrance, topped with spicy fried dried anchovies. The mini-rojak was a fritter holding in a small sac of sweet and tangy sauce. The little creations were a great start to the meal.

Hokkaido Scallop “bak chor mee”
The spring noodles were made up of strips of squid infused with saffron to give it a yellow glow; the fish cake was replaced with Hokkaido scallops that were flash-fried, which retained the creaminess of raw scallop with a rim of oceanic smokiness. The olive and anchovies powder was an imitation of the minced pork added a powerful pungency, finished with black Chinese vinegar and a blob of dried shrimp sambal. This posh version of bak chor mee definitely beats the traditional one.

Lardo “chicken rice”
We were told by our server that this chicken rice had no chicken and no rice, it was small cube of Japanese tofu, infused with the soup base used for chicken rice, topped with grated ginger. The chicken rice flavour was almost undetectable, it was just a tiny bit of silken tofu with the ginger and spring onion dip usually served with steamed chicken. It was a bit naf. 

Otoro “char siew & siew yoke fan”
This was chef’s interpretation of the iconic roast pork and roast pork belly rice. The tuna belly nigiri was glazed with char siew sauce, and the cube of translucent pinkish o-toro sashimi seared on one side, topped with a crispy pork crackling. Therefore replacing fatty pork with the finer tuna belly. 

The char siew sauce was too sweet for the nigiri, overpowering the exquisite flavours of the oils from the tuna belly; a bit wasteful and reckless -  would have achieved the same effect with torched salmon belly. we agreed the cucumber was way too sugary, and did very little to cleanse our palate - perhaps consider a ponzu marinade? The sashimi worked much better as the tuna melted in mouth and the oils seeped through to the fragile crackling. I really appreciate the idea of the dish, maybe it just needs slight modification to balance things out.

Cod “garlic XO fish”
The muscular cod fillet was perfectly undercooked to retain its succulence and silky soft texture, with a brittle skin. The highlight, however, was the gelatinised fish bone parcel on the left, bursting with umami. Seeing fish head is a Singapore signature dish but not many visitors are fond of devouring a massive floating fish head, Chef had cleverly extracted all the goodness from the giant fish head, and repackaged it into a beautiful sheet without losing the slithery textures. Not something I had the heart to tell Van during the meal, since she really enjoyed it.

Spices “OCK curry puff”
The deconstructed curry puff had a potato base enveloping a small bite of chicken, wrapped in a spice-infused crumbly shell and topped with a hard boiled quail egg. Though the curry spices were aromatic and prominent, the ensemble felt quite dry, especially with the addition of dehydrated crumbs at the bottom. Maybe leave the quail egg soft-boiled, then the runny yolk could moisten the harshness, or inject some curry sauce in the croquette.

Foie Gras “peking duck”
The lollipop of the foie gras was coated with hoi sin sauce, crowned with a sheet of wafer thin duck skin. The globule of duck liver slowly melted  to mingle with the sweet sauce, my mind was briefly tricked to believe I was having peking duck, but soon the richness took over, and it wasn’t long before I was aware I had a cold lump of buttery foie gras in my mouth… melting away to the core, revealing a…*drum roll*…. lump of cucumber… huh?! I get it, we have cucumber and spring onion strips with our peking duck pancakes, but there is something decidedly wrong about mixing liver and cucumber together; it’s water and oil. 

Again the concept of the dish is ingenious, it might just need something else to cut through the weighty foie gras, or even a ball of duck with a foie gras centre and cucumber ice shaving on the outside - just keep the liver and cucumber separate.

Soft Shell Crab “chill & black pepper crab”
I had high expectation of the signature dish of Labyrinth, and it did not disappoint. There were two flavours of ice cream, chilli crab and black pepper crab, recommended to be eaten separately. The chilli crab ice cream boasts intense sweet tomato essence with a short but impactful spicy kick; the black pepper ice cream was piquant and mildly bitter, I thought I could taste a faint trace of coffee. Both flavours worked wonders with the light and crispy soft shell crab, created an explosion of flavours and playful textures. A sophisticated creation.

A4 Ohmi Beef “moonlight hor fun”
Initially I thought the yolk was looking unhealthy, turns out it was injected with gravy sauce, which lightly cooked the yolk from within before the custardy runny egg poured all over the silky hor fun.

The strips of A4 grade Wagyu from Ohmi were grilled to a stunning medium-rare with a ruby centre. I usually prefer Wagyu cooked to medium for the fat to melt through, but this medium-rare worked fine in thin slices, as its beefy goodness was unleashed with every chew. The meat was soft and tender, oozing bovine fragrance from the dissolving marbled grease. I thought the hor fun (flat rice noodles) was a mixture of real hor fun and sheets of cuttlefish, I can’t be sure – maybe the kitchen was that good.

Charcoal “sambal eggplant”
This was the biggest let-down of the evening. The coal pieces on the left was set alight after the dish arrived, and all I could smell was alcohol – before, during and after – it was burnt out. The black log of eggplant had no seasoning except for the slight bitterness from the burnt skin. The coal, the burning, the blackness add nothing to the dish. This one needs re-working.

Boston Lobster “hokkien mee”
This understated noodle dish was given an uplift with generous chunks of bouncy lobster and a lard candle, which reminded me of the beef fat candle in Restaurant Story; similarly they both felt somewhat redundant. That said there’s nothing the muscular lobster meat can’t save. The sauce was robust and deep, brimming with the crustacean roe and goodness from the lobster head.

Pineapple Sorbet

Xiao Long Bao “chendol”
This is another signature of Labyrinth. The pandan-infused dumpling skin holds a mini chendol: a small sac of coconut milk, sweetened red beans and a little lump of shaved ice. Like typical XLB, the explosion in mouth was immensely satisfying. I’m not a fan of the gula melaka syrup in the vinegar pot, but visually it completes the picture.

Meringue “teh tarik”
The airy meringue was griddled to look like toast, served with a smooth layer of teh tarik flavoured kaya. What’s not to like?

Soft Boiled Eggs “mango sticky rice”
This was most impressive. Our server cracked open our soft boiled egg at our table, to release a coconut panna cotta with mango puree. With a drizzle of black sesame sauce and a sprinkle of grounded black sesame, it looked exactly like the local breakfast! Should have saved some toast from the previous course.

Petit Four
The “macaron” took after kaya toast. I could see Van wincing as she bit into the thick disc of butter sandwiched between the two cookies. Usually I remove the brick of butter in my kaya toast; if it’s too thick for the toast to melt, it’s too much for my body to digest. The real locals, however, devour it. Having a block of butter with toast is debatably acceptable, but that much butter with two small discs of cookie / biscuit (FYI it’s definitely not a macaron) is downright wrong. I would have preferred an old-fashioned macaron with kaya crème filling.

It’s an incredibly ambitious menu, considering out of the 13 courses, there was very little repetition of ingredients. Each course, though petite, could stand on their own with depth and structure in flavour. The menu showcases Singapore cuisine to the max and it extends the reach to visitors. Van has never tasted a ‘bak chor mee’ (minced pork noodles), yet she thoroughly enjoyed the silky squid noodles here. For me, it was surprise after surprise at the relatable flavours presented completely differently. The whole meal was playful and exciting, each dish came with a theatrical entrance and a remarkable little twist. A couple of courses might have been baffling in a less positive way, but the effort and originality is unquestionable.

Esplanade Mall
8 Raffles Avenue #02-23
Singapore 039802

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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Maafushi, Maldives

My interest for the Maldives dwindled as more luxurious resorts popped up and more photos of people standing in front of a water bungalow appear on Facebook. But then I picked up diving again and suddenly a weekend in the Maldives was quite appealing. So with Mama and Papa Chan, I booked to fly out on Friday night, then back super early on Monday.

At first glance the immaculate 5-star resorts didn’t seem inaccessibly expensive – I mean £300 a night isn’t impossible – it’s dear, but not impossible. Then I realised this price excludes the transfer fee to the resort island, which usually hovers around the $200 USD person per way. For the honeymooners splashing out coz they see it as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I get it. For me, however, it’s to dive and snorkel… in one weekend… ain’t got time for resorts. This is where the local islands are the real gems.

Since the opening of the first guesthouse in 2010, Maafushi continues to develop and now it has a good range of accommodation from $50 - $150 a night. Only 40mins by speedboat from Male Airport, there is also a public ferry ($1) that runs once or twice daily during day time, it could take 1hr45mins. The hotel arranged the speedboat for $150  for the 3 of us, but it would only be $20pp if we were joined by other guests. Well, seeing I was on Tigerair, I had a very strong feeling not all 150 people were booked on a seaplane to a resort island; I was pretty confident there would be others going to Maafushi, even in low season. If you arrive with no transport arrangements, I suggest keeping a list of hotel names of the local island you are visiting, then rock up to their pick-up reps to negotiate tagging along.

The night boat journey was eerily beautiful as we sped through the dark abyss of the ocean, only lit by the perfect full moon with faint linings of fluffy clouds.

We arrived at Maafushi just after 9pm. Kaani Village and Spa is a 3min walk from the jetty. The staff in the hotel arranged a day trip for Mama and Papa Chan the following day, and I was recommended Maldives Passion for my dives. The dive centre was a minute walk away, close to the tourist bikini beach. Marc swiftly went through the basics and sorted me with the gear. Boom - All ready to go in the morning.

Restaurant options are limited, and by limited I mean you have a choice of eating or not eating. Most hotels and hostels have some kind of restaurant, I read online that Kaani Village does atrocious food at snail speed (judging by the breakfast, must be true). So we settled for Rehendhi along the main road, where we saw a few tables occupied by foreigners. The menu tried to cater for all nationalities; I felt local dishes would be less risky than western dishes.

My chicken kottu roti was quite good, perhaps slightly mushy but very flavoursome; Mama Chan‘s mixed fried rice was a safe bet; Papa Chan was feeling brave with a beef burger (seriously?!), and regretted it the moment it arrived – the patty looked like a coaster that had survived a bonfire, served with cold buns and stale vegetables. Oh, and there is no alcohol on the island, only non-alcoholic beers.

Things are slow here; waiting 45mins for food to come out of the kitchen is not uncommon. As Maldives import just about everything, food is comparatively expensive; it averaged around $15 per person with a drink on a local island, and considerably more on island resorts.

We set off at 8:30am sharp in the morning with our divemasters Marc and Jinah. One of the best things about travelling low season is small group excursions; I was only joined by 2 other ladies who were much more advanced. Our first dive site was about 20mins away in Kandooma Thila. 

After our first dive, we checked out another local island called Guraidhoo, probably what Maafushi looked like 5 years ago, much less developed with an increasing number of small guesthouses and shops; the colour of the house was said to represent the political party the owner supports. Marc explained corals used to be the main building material, but these have now been banned.  We also saw a small group of people fishing in the sea, apparently one person holds the net at one end, then the group would scare the fish from the other side… I guess they had a good run as they sounded quite triumphant. Marc pointed out that waste management is a pressing issue, as the islands are developing at a higher rate than education. It was not uncommon to see piles of plastic and construction waste accumulated at one end of the island. He is doing a lot of good work with the students to clear the mess up, but it definitely needs more resources and focus.

Our second dive was at Guraidhoo Corner. I saw a baby white tip shark, just not quick enough to get a good shot…

I only signed up for 2 dives, so I had the afternoon free while Mama and Papa Chan were both on a full-day sandbank picnic trip. Marc and Jinah took me to lunch at Hot Bites, which was a good lunch / snack bar. I figured they must know the best things on the menu by now, so followed their order of a chicken submarine with fries – and hey, this was the best thing I ate in Maldives. The other dish recommended was fish curry & rice… he said tuna is the main fish here, but most Maafushi restaurant only offer tinned tuna. Male, however, offer some very decent dishes.

I spent the afternoon on the bikini beach after sorting out the postcard, then picked up Mama and Papa Chan. Their day trip was quite disappointing I heard. The first snorkelling point was sparse with little corals or fish to see, then the second site was deep with fairly strong currents. I think they struggled because Mama Chan isn’t a strong swimmer and wasn’t confident enough to venture far even with a life jacket, and Papa Chan was worried about her. Despite that, the guides were fantastic; the team offered to lead Mama Chan as she floats with her jacket further out, closer to the reefs. But I guess she was too panicky, so they didn’t see much.

The next day we signed up to a half-day snorkelling trip. I took the queen seat at the front of the boat and spotted lots of dolphins swimming with around, even a huge turtle surfacing for air. 

Our first stop was the Turtle reef. We were to follow one of the guides as the other 4 scouted out for turtles, which were very well camouflaged by the corals. Mama Chan was more relaxed, because one of the guides was dedicated to looking after her, held her hand throughout her time in the water, and led her to all the beautiful things under the sea. This freed up Papa Chan to explore too. Most people were wearing life-jackets, but I’d say it just gets in the way if you are a good swimmer.

The guides encouraged me to do a bit of free-diving too, the key was not to panic and control the release of air. They make it look so easy…

We spotted about 5 turtles, a couple even came up for air.

Our second spot was the Banana Reef, where there were abundance of colourful corals. Dive a little deeper and I found a moray and a couple of puffa fish hiding beneath the table coral…

For lunch we stopped at a deserted island that was once an island resort before the tsunami wiped it out back in 2004. We could walk around the derelict remnants, covered by overgrown vegetation. It’s quite a popular spot for people to stop by for picnics too.

Our last stop was Biyadhoo reef, where there were more variety of bigger fish.

I have a lot of respect for our guides, they made every effort to help us see the most of what the ocean has to offer, yet they were ever so careful and delicate with marine life; strictly no touching of anything in the sea, gentle guiding of the turtles to swim closer to the surface (where 10 people were floating), and making sure people stayed at the edge of the reef where the corals were quite shallow.

One of my pet hates  is when people feed bread to the fish – it’s not good for them! And the people here don’t allow it. Kudos.

The hotel offered us a room to shower before we head off to catch our flight, the hospitality of the people here has no boundaries. I arranged speedboat transfer with iCom Tours for $20pp at 5pm. I think all hotels offer transfers too, with prices dependent on the number of people travelling – check the notice boards in the hotel lobbies for times and availability.

May is the start of the rainy season in the Maldives. That said I understand from the locals that it rarely rains for a full day, only heavy showers or sometimes thunderstorms for a couple hours. We were lucky in the sense that our mornings started with grey skies and a couple of heavy showers for 10 minutes, then the skies gradually cleared over the course of the morning to leave a very thin veil of clouds over the blazing sun. I definitely prefer this kind of weather to 10 hours of sizzling sun, much more gentle on the skin and more comfortable with the cooling winds. Low season also meant the island was not overcrowded; I had a one-on-one dive with my dive master, while the other pair shared another; the snorkelling excursion had 15 people, looked after by 5 snorkelling guides, not to mention ample space on the boat; the streets and the bikini beach on Maasfushi was mostly quiet, leaving the laid back vibe of the island undisturbed.

My trip to the Maldives was short but wonderful; the majestic ocean and vibrant sealife were as extraordinary as one imagines. I’m grateful that I had a chance to experience the country beyond its luxurious reputation and chat with the incredibly friendly locals.

Till next time!