A maze of flavours with a surprise at every turn.
Over the many years we’ve walked in and out of the Esplanade, never once have we stepped into the discreet restaurant in black, tucked away on level 2 and just out of plain sight. A visit to Restaurant Labyrinth then, is not by coincidence, but a deliberate choice on the diner’s part to discover what it has to offer.
There’s good reason for doing that too – Singaporean chef Han Liguang (LG Han) and his team run a tight ship as diners embark on a mod-Sin culinary journey, where courses call to mind local flavours and nostalgia for the past, evoking childhood memories of a time gone by for Singaporeans, and impressing with the innovative presentation and preparation methods that highlight our cuisine in a new light. They have the accolades to prove it too, having recently netted 40th place in the 2021 rankings for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, as well as a Michelin Star in the 2021 Michelin Guide (Singapore).
From its name alone, it’s clear that exploration and discovery is at the heart of Restaurant Labyrinth, almost taking the form of a ‘culinary lab’, the menu alone invites curiosity, with exotic sounding ingredients turned into local favourites. From the moment our meal begins, this is clear, with their signature Labyrinth Chili Crab. While chili crab is a perennial favourite amongst locals, few to none have probably experienced it as…ice cream. Served with freshly picked, meaty pieces of flower crab, it paired well with the ice cream, and brought out the inherent spices and kick of the chili crab. You can’t possibly serve chili crab without mantou, and Labyrinth delivered on this as well, serving up warm, mini mantous to enjoy with it, bringing out the flavours of the crab ice cream even further.
For their House Cured Lap Cheong, the sushi-like creation comprised Chinese sausage (made in-house) wrapped around a crispy claypot rice cluster, evoking memories of scraping for burnt grains at the bottom of the pot when my own parents used to make it for meals.
The Liu Sha Bao (molten custard egg bun) is a favourite amongst Singaporeans, but with Labyrinth, they’ve made the popular dim sum even more of a crowd pleaser, with luxurious ingredients such as Bafun Uni and Kaluga Caviar in their ‘3-Egg Liu Sha Bao’. Best enjoyed in a single mouthful, the first thing you taste is the creamy uni, before biting into the bao allows the ‘liu sha’ to flow out. All of these flavours come together, and can only be described as pure decadence.
Even the humble murtabak gets an upgrade under Chef Han, with Uncle William’s Quail and Russian Caviar. Served as bite-sized versions, the mini-murtabak allows one to enjoy all the flavours you’d want in the actual Indian snack, and elevated further still by the caviar.
After those opening acts, it was time to whet our appetites for the rest of the evening, with the Kuhlbarra Barramundi. Sourced from local farmers, the dish perfectly exemplifies what Chef Han wants to do, in supporting local and showing off just how much potential it has to become a great dish. Sliced up and arranged as a fresh flower, the dish also included lightly pickled daikon, strawberries picked from the north of Singapore, ulam rajah flowers, Nutrinest Farm honey and fermented tomato water. Not only was it beautiful to look at; the tartness of the dish certainly made our mouth water and crave even more, and proved how local produce can come together to form a symphony of colours and flavours when prepared just right.
As the founders of Bakchormeeboy.com, you can imagine how excited we were for the upcoming dish “Bak Chor Mee No Bak Chor Mee”. Another one of their signature dishes, just as its name suggests, the dish itself has absolutely no ‘mee’. The ‘noodles’ you see are actually strands of Jurong Fishery squid cooked in saffron to give it a yellow colour. As for the rest of the dish, the ‘bak chor’ flavour is replicated with burnt onion power and dried scallions. And the icing on the cake? What we thought was fried fishcake turned out to be some very well-disguised Hokkaido scallops! Well-seasoned and cooked to perfection, it takes great skill to get the scallops seared just right to achieve the ‘fishcake’ illusion, and helped make this dish a highlight of the evening.
Fish soup has always been a wonderful way to warm us up on a rainy day. Chef Han’s tribute to that dish uses Ah Hua Kelong Garoupa, delicately cooked and wrapped in a crispy ‘fat choy’ to replicate the seaweed one usually finds in a bowl of fish soup. Served in a shallow pool of milk, the dish was complete with the fried scallions that completed the taste, and gave us a familiar but different take on one of our favourite comfort foods.
For the next two dishes, Chef Han pays homage to his grandfather and grandmother. In the first, An Ode To Cairnhill Steakhouse, he recalls how his grandfather owned and operated the titular steakhouse back in the ’60s. Known as one of the finest of its kind back in the day, the dish impresses first with its presentation, giving us a throwback to the good old days with its vintage chequered table mat (typical of steak restaurants in the past), an actual candle, and even a ‘menu’ containing newspaper clippings of a review, and an old family photo featuring Chef Han and his grandfather.
The steak itself was a Tochigi A4 Wagyu Striploin and drizzled with a Hainanese red wine sauce, with a side of mashed baked potato with bacon bits and vegetables, all served on a stone hotplate. The amount of effort that goes into creating such a nostalgic scene may seem overwrought at first, but works well to activate all of our senses and essentially, achieve the desired effect of transporting you to the past, with a good old celebratory steak meal. In short – it puts a smile on our face, and we savoured the moment thoroughly.
In his tribute to his grandmother, Chef Han presents the ‘Ang Moh Chicken Rice’. Recalling his ‘Po Po’, he remembers how she created her own version of the traditional Hainanese chicken rice during the colonial era while working for a British family, using a button mushroom ‘roux’ sauce that she has since passed down to him. Cooked ‘live’ in front of us, the burnt smell of the claypot rice filled the air, and readied us for the meal ahead. Served with confit chicken on the side, this was intended to be eaten with the chili and ginger, which were well-balanced and not too overpowering. How should you eat this? Take a spoonful of rice, a piece of chicken, top it off with chili and ginger and let the result dance in your mouth. Let’s not forget about the flavourful soup, a component people often put aside; this is one soup you wouldn’t want to leave behind.
Finally, it was time for our desserts, with the Oyster Plant. Comprising ingredients such as Wandering Jew, roselle, and tropical fruits, the ice cream and granitas were refreshing, and served as a palate cleanser.
In the cheekily-named ‘My Favourite Pasar Malam Snacks’, Chef Han transports us back to the heartland night markets of our childhood, and combines familiar snacks from popcorn to cotton candy, biskit piring to muah chee all in one elegantly plated dish. To our surprise, we’re asked to mix it all up, resulting in a fascinating mix of textures and flavours that ends up as more than the sum of its individual parts. The star of the show is the salted popcorn, popping candy, and bits of muah chee, bringing together these childhood memories in a heady swirl, constantly surprising our palate.
To finish off the entire meal in an unorthodox way, we are served our final course – “Kaya, Teh Tarik & Eggs”. Kaya toast may often be served at the start of the day, but in this case, it makes for a surprisingly hearty end. Served with Bordier butter, this dish was not only beautiful to look at, but its level of luxe and lusciousness again underlines Chef Han’s drive to take local food to the next level. While it is ostensibly still kaya toast, the Russian hybrid caviar atop the toast elevates its taste to something truly spectacular, and taking that first bite, you know you’ve entered yet another labyrinth of flavours.
The experience at Labyrinth can only be described as a journey into the past. Leading us on a trip around Singapore, familiar flavours come through so strong due to our own memories of the humble kopitiam, bustling pasar malam, or the family-friendly steakhouse. But what Chef Han does so well is to simultaneously pay homage to these flavours and local ingredients, as well as prepare them in such a way that transforms them into fine dining. Every dish is (pardon the pun) ‘a-maze-ing’, with how the flavours and textures come through so clearly, each one telling an entire story on their own. All this is testament to the hard worth the team have put in over the years, fully deserving of the praise and accolades they’ve received. A meal at Restaurant Labyrinth is an opportunity to get lost in Chef Han’s unique vision, and to open your eyes to these reimagined versions of our local cuisine.
Restaurant Labyrinth is located at Esplanade Mall ( 8 Raffles Ave, #02 – 23, Singapore 039802). For more information and reservations, visit their website here