The Mitchell Lin Guide: Labyrinth

A re-review of that Mod-Sin place
by JUNK
Mitchell LinSeptember 14, 2018
Looking for a second opinion on that Michelin-starred restaurant people won’t stop talking about? Introducing the Mitchell Lin Guide, where JUNK re-reviews Singapore’s Michelin-rated dining establishments. 100% local. 100% honest.

Restaurant

Labyrinth

 Cuisine

Modern Singaporean

What Mitchell Lin says...

“Reimagine chilli crab with sorbet? The mind says NO, but Labyrinth manages to convince our tastebuds otherwise. We came skeptical, we left impressed.”

Best for…

Bringing your local friends out for an unconventional trip down memory lane.

Worst for…

Bringing your ang moh friends out for a taste of “true Singaporean” cuisine.

The Food

Appetisers

Chef LG Han’s “Homage To My Singapore” starts with a trio of little bites, dedicated to the chef’s favourite local street foods. The “Nasi Lemak” Cheong Fun mashes up two breakfast favourites, and manages to acquit itself decently on both fronts; it tastes like nasi lemak, it tastes like chee cheong fun, and – bonus! – it doesn’t taste awful. If you initially regarded this menu with as much skepticism as we did, you might start to think here that this meal might not turn out half as bad as you expected.

The other two bites are the Braised Baby Abalone and the Heartland Waffle. If the waffle had been anything other than a spot-on recreation of those soft, slightly chewy, HDB-bakery waffles, the dish would be a pretentious fail, but as it is, Chef Han’s fancified waffle feels nostalgic, utterly Singaporean yet “fine dining”, and hints at the chef’s sense of humour as well. The baby abalone, on the other hand, is a much more reverent and traditional throwback, recalling Chinese New Year reunion dinners, and Ah Ma’s pressure-cooked masterpieces.

The appetisers are rounded off with some jellied Ah Hua Kelong Lala Clams, served in a deep-fried wanton skin. The most outstanding thing about this dish is its presentation, but its flavours are perhaps a bit too delicate to truly blow the mind.

Mains

Things pick up with the Labyrinth Rojak, a dish that sounds horrible on paper, but turns out to be unexpectedly delightful. We surreptitiously think, “What is this BS?” as we politely listen to the waiter describe the garden herbs, the cempedak sorbet, the “natural stingless bee honey”. But despite its affectations, we can’t not like this dish. Even the cempedak sorbet serves as a lovely contrast to the rich prawn paste, and helps give the dish a lightness its hawker counterpart doesn’t have.

Again, the “Ang Moh” Chicken Rice comes off as something we decidedly wouldn’t like, but ends up winning us over with its faithful notes of garlic paste, chicken fat, and chilli, all in one little dumpling. But with Grandma’s Fish Maw Soup, the meal loses steam once more. The broth is rich and flavourful, but the steamed fish maw gets lost under a pile of not-very-springy fish cake, and the fish maw cracker is just negligible.

But then we get to the Local Wild Caught Crab, the latest in a long line of Chef Han’s reinterpretations of the classic chilli crab. With its chilli ice cream, egg white noodles, and crouton-style mantou, this cold dish is straight-up weird… but, yes, somehow wonderful. You appreciate how well thought-out this plate is: the egg white noodle-things texturally approximate those curds of egg that make regular chilli crab sauce so deliciously slurpable. The chill temperature of the ice cream makes the crab flesh taste sweeter and fresher. The little mantou croutons and the crisped curry leaves add some much needed crunch. This isn’t our familiar Singaporean comfort food, but we wouldn’t mind eating this again, which already says a lot.

The rest of the mains are just kind of okay. Nothing reaches the level of the chilli crab, even though they are all technically well-cooked and well-presented. The Uncle William’s Quail feels like a particularly weak attempt at the game of substitution: the “satay” is a quail’s leg (complete with its petrified claw), the “ketupat” is some muah chee, the “satay sauce” is a satay espuma, and you get the idea. Yes, the quail’s leg is tender and the satay espuma is fairly tasty, but, no, if you’re going to play this game, we’d rather have charred, chewy chicken on a bamboo skewer, dipped in thick satay sauce studded with peanut.

Dessert

The dessert service largely reaffirmed our suspicion that Mod-Sin cuisine tends to be about substituting “expected” things for “fancy/local” things:

– Instead of salted chocolate, the Bean to Bar featured a scoop of chocolate ice cream laced with dark soya sauce and shaoxing wine for a hit of umami.
– Instead of rose and sugar syrups, the Clam Leaf Snow was an ice kachang flavoured with the subtly floral Clam Leaf. Beans, attap seed, and chendol were substituted with pomegranate, dragon fruit, and a flake of meringue.
– Instead of butter and kaya, the Cristal De Chine Caviar had caviar and an ice cream that tasted more like gula melaka sandwiched between two toasted coins of fluffy white bread.

Not that these all aren’t nice to eat; they are actually quite delicious, the Clam Leaf Snow in particular. But you wonder if there’s perhaps another level of creativity to reach. Does everything have to be a reinterpretation of something else? Maybe if there were more “new things”, as opposed to “new spins on old things”, Labyrinth could be our elusive 3-Kueh-Tutu restaurant?

As it stands, we thoroughly enjoyed most of our meal. The fact that Chef Han had the audacity to reinvent several well-loved classics and the results weren’t dismal failures is a testament to the quality of his cooking, his palate, and his deep understanding of Singaporean cuisine. We like the nostalgia, the knowing homages. We like the considered use of local ingredients. We especially like that there are things you would only find surprising/delightful if you are a Singaporean. But after a while, the reinvention thing does get heavy-handed. So our question is, if he didn’t just stick to that, what else would he do?

The Extras

Ambience

Theatrical but not overbearingly so. The walls are dark and the tables are lit with an overhead light to spotlight the food. It fits with the Esplanade location and is especially handy for those who love to take photos of their food (i.e. Singaporeans). The kitschy cushions and iced gem lights that decorate the waiting area are out of step – they look like they came straight out of Naiise. But once you’re in the dining room, they don’t bother you so much.

Overheard

“Now I’m craving rojak already.”
“Okay, you get the Sling Fling and I’ll try the Kopi-tini.”
“Wait, I take photo first.”

Service

Smooth. There’s a lot of explaining to do for each course and most of it is quite precious but the staff manage to be quite genuine about it.

Price

$$$$$

We ate a lot of food. At the very least, Chef Han knows the way to his countrymen’s hearts is to give them bang for their buck. Plus, there’s free stuff to take home! (Postcards and a little bottle of chilli.)

 
 

You want to eye-roll this rice roll, but you shouldn't.

Homemade oyster sauce? Ridiculous! But admittedly tasty.

We wanted to not like this but we couldn't.

Dumplings are trendy these days, huh?

Chilli crab... or chilly crab? Or both? Confusingly delightful.

First thoughts: Oh god, the claw is still on it.

A very nice, simple fried rice. But needed sambal.

Our favourite dessert – an updated ice kachang.

Fancy kaya toast! Not bad, but the kaya ice cream translated more as "gula melaka".

This place is dramatic! But, considering the Esplanade setting, not inappropriately so.

Photos taken with the Huawei P20 Pro.


 
 

Read the rest of the Mitchell Lin Guide here.

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