As a brand new resident of Singapore and being hard-at-work eating all the local food in the past three months, I was delighted when my friend Cristina made a reservation at Candlenut, the world’s first and only Michelin starred Peranakan restaurant.
Helmed by Chef Malcom Lee, Candlenut is located in Dempsey Hill, an heritage site from the British colonial era, currently housing upscale restaurants, cafes and lifestyle shops. The interiors of the former army barrack have been designed by Italian architect Paola Navone, who mixed some general colonial flair with typical Peranakan elements, namely the absolutely stunning tiled floor.
The meal starts with a basket of complimentary prawn crackers, accompanied by their Homemade Sambal Belachan Sauce. I like to pride myself for my high tolerance to spiciness but man, this belachan is mean (and truly delicious!).
The best dish, and the reason why I will go back to Candlenut with visitors, is their fabulous, decadent Westholme Wagyu Beef Rib Rendang (S$36++). The meat is cooked for over four hours with a sublimely balanced star anise, cumin and coriander rempah. While having that buttery, melt-in-your-mouth feel, the lemongrass and turmeric zesty notes cut through the wagyu beef’s heaviness, so the flavors remain bright and the dish doesn’t taste too fatty. Our table of foodies thoroughly discussed whether it’s a waste to use wagyu in rendang, which traditionally is made with cheaper choice meat, since the spices and long cooking time mask its nuances. Personally, this was the best rendang dish I’ve had in Singapore so far, and I’d therefore vote for a definite yes, absolutely worth it.
The Assam Sotong Hitam (S$28++), despite the looks of it, delivers joy to the palate. The baby squid is cooked to perfect consistency, the ink sauce is bold and rich in tamarind notes. The candid spiciness from the chilies allows this dish to come across as authentic and unapologetic of the upscale environment.
The Blue Swimmer Crab Curry (S$36++) is good, but not great. The quality of the crab is exceptional and the quantity generous: the bowl is packed with crab meat and the flesh is sweet and tender, cooked to utmost perfection. The curry sauce itself is a bit shy though, presenting more typically Thai flavors and, overall, it feels kind of undertone.
So does the Ayam Buah Keluak (S$26++), the quintessential Peranakan dish that I’ve learned to love so much. While the chicken is well-cooked and high quality (they use Toh Thye San chickens, the same supplier of Labyrinth), the rempah doesn’t have much character. This is a dish that should be bursting with that unique nutty, bitter and kind of medicinal taste of candlenuts. Instead it lacks in depth and complexity. It’s as if the chef’s concern is to not scare off foreign customers who are unfamiliar with this recipe’s traditionally bold flavors, and therefore chose to compromise with the authentic taste and aromas local people grew up with and are fond of. Coming from a restaurant whose name is Candlenut, this dish tastes of disappointment.
I also wouldn’t recommend the Kueh Pie Tee. The DIY concept of assembling your own portion is fun and interactive. The taste though was just ok and at S$16++, I’d just rather eat something else.
Chef Malcom’s effort in creating international awareness on Peranakan food is truly admirable – it’s not easy to take up a massive heritage, revive it and elevate it in a way people from all over the world will appreciate and understand. Nevertheless, starting from the intermittent service, to the fact that the restaurant can’t suitably cater to a shrimp allergy, all the way to the somehow withdrawn flavors of some of the dishes, the experience doesn’t live up to the hype of Candlenut being the first and only Michelin starred Peranakan restaurant in the world.
Address: 17A Dempsey Rd, Singapore 249676
Reservations: 1800 304 2288 or via Chope.