Our World Singapore sampler: Haute to hawker taste test

Star spotting in the Lion City entails trying out several of the Michelin-starred restaurants.

The first time I visited Singapore I was seven. I was a picky eater and my parents were worried I would baulk at the hawker stalls, turn up my nose at the unusual smells and not eat anything. 

As it turns out, they didn’t have anything to worry about. And so began a lifelong love affair with the city-state and its food.

This trip to Singapore was to be a culinary adventure like never before with the chance to check out a few Michelin-starred establishments, from hawker food to haute cuisine.

The Michelin website is thankfully searchable by ranking, cuisine, location and how much you want to spend. The rankings remain current until the 2018 stars are unveiled on July 25. 

First stop, one-Michelin-star Liao Fan Hawker Chan for its famed soya sauce chicken rice. This is a Cantonese-style dish quite different to the ubiquitous Hainanese chicken rice.

Queues form early outside the clean, modern and air-conditioned restaurant on Smith Street in Chinatown, which has a Bib Gourmand rating. The one star belongs to the tiny original Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle outlet in the Chinatown Food Complex down the road, which can sell out by mid-afternoon.

Hawker Chan (real name Chan Hon Meng), originally from Malaysia, arrived in Singapore in 1989. He opened his original stall in 2009, regularly working 18-hour days. He was awarded his first Michelin star in 2016, the success paving the way for a joint venture and expansion beyond Singapore.

“Hainanese chicken rice is very common in Singapore so I wanted to choose something I am good at and also something different from Hainan style,” Chan says through a translator.

“That is why I chose Hong Kong-style chicken rice and roast.”

Chan picked up his skills while working in a restaurant that had different departments such as dim sum, seafood and roasting.

The most popular dish in Singapore and in the outlet he opened in Melbourne late last year is soya sauce chicken rice followed by char siu pork.

At the restaurant, a plate of “the star” soya sauce chicken rice will set you back $SG3.80 ($3.80) while the melt-in-your-mouth char siu barbecue pork rice costs $SG4. Meals are still cheaper at the original stall at $2.

The good news for foodies is that Hawker Chan is set to open a second Australian outlet in Perth.

The next night, it was dinner at the other end of the spectrum, venturing to Labyrinth in Marina Bay to experience the “new Singaporean” dining experience.

Chef LG Han, a former banker with dual degrees from the London School of Economics, reopened his renovated restaurant only a few days before my visit.

“It was time for a change and also the old decor was pretty ugly,” Han jokes at the end of my journey through his chef’s tasting menu, My Homage to Singapore ($SG178, paired with wines for an extra $SG80).

Han’s new menu and renovation are his dual attempt to redefine Singapore cuisine as more than cheap street food.

The menu tells a personal story largely influenced by the cooking of his paternal grandmother. Illustrated cards come with each stunning, delicately assembled course, explaining the origins of the dish. Highlights are the heartland waffle flavoured with pandan and topped with duck liver pate and goji berry; Ang Moh chicken rice reimagined as a dumpling, with home-milled rice flour, grandma’s chilli sauce and braised chicken; plus the local wild-caught crab with signature chilli ice-cream, egg white and salted mackerel.

Gone is the chilli crab that helped put the restaurant on the map.

“The chilli crab is what got us going,” Han says. 

“Back then it was the star dish but that dish itself, the older version, became a liability to the restaurant because customers were always looking for that dish when they came. So I removed the dish, changed it to showcase local produce, which is the local flower crab, which is really good.” 

The walls of the intimate 30-seater also tell a story.

“The first wall is the produce we use from Singapore. The second wall, all the ceramics, looks like random mishmash but they are ceramics from my late grandmother. She passed away last year, she is my hero chef. And the last wall is the art wall, about hawkers doing modern stuff. So the three walls are about how art, history and produce come together on the plate.”

The new menu is firmly focused on local produce.

“This is quite a shock, people are shocked by the quality we have on our shores,” Han says.

“How can you create a fine-dining menu without any beef, without any scallops, without any lobster, any foie gras? 

“Going local is not easy. We cannot be farm-to-table as a gimmick, we have a huge responsibility, the farmers are depending on us in a sense to showcase what they grow. We are a showroom for what they are doing.”

Completing the trilogy of Michelin experiences, I head for a late lunch at the two-star Shisen Hanten on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Orchard. It’s the first overseas branch of the Sichuan restaurant group from Japan, established in 1958. 

This is fancy dim sum with pristine white tablecloths, attentive servers, chandeliers and views.

Dim sum for one is tricky so I stick to the favourites: shanghai dumplings ($SG6.50), sea perch and asparagus dumplings ($SG8) and crystal prawn dumplings ($SG6.50). 

Unable to eat a whole serve of egg tarts, I go for aloe vera lemongrass jelly with calamansi sherbet. Cold, with explosive citrus notes, it’s a perfect end to a Singapore meal.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Sue Yeap travelled to Singapore as a guest of Singapore Airlines and was hosted by Hawker Chan and Labyrinth. They did not review or approve this story.

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