One-Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut has become better in some ways with its move to Dempsey Hill at the beginning of this month.
The first of the food and beverage outlets to open in the multi-purpose Como Dempsey by Club 21’s Mrs Christina Ong, it has a dining room that feels a lot more spacious than the one at its previous Dorsett Residences premises.
The airy feeling is partly the result of the lofty ceiling of the colonial army barracks building.
Photo: Wong Ah Yoke / ST
A cluster of hanging lamps, sheathed in what look like gold rushes, hang from the rafters, creating a lovely focal point for the room. So much so that you pay scant attention to a wall painted in a Peranakan tile pattern.
The other thing that has improved is that the restaurant now offers an a la carte menu, instead of just a $65 set. It does not make dining there any cheaper, but you get to choose what you want to eat.
Prices that look reasonable on the menu – with small bites under $20 and main dishes mostly under $30 – are deceptive. Portions are tiny, enough for three persons at the most, so you will need to order a number of dishes to fill up.
What is good is that the menu is bigger, so it is not difficult finding dishes to try. Unfortunately, not everything is worth trying.
That inconsistency has been my bugbear with chef Malcolm Lee’s cooking since he first opened Candlenut in Neil Road in 2010. He can be excellent with some dishes and yet so ordinary with others.
Unlike most other Peranakan restaurants here, Candlenut takes a different approach towards the cuisine. While some dishes are cooked according to traditional methods, chef Lee, who was trained at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, a local culinary institute, often employs modern Western cooking methods.
This works well in some instances, but not in others.
A visit earlier this year while the restaurant was still in Dorsett had me falling in love with the pong tauhu soup, for example – it boasted the intense flavour of a well-reduced shellfish bisque.
Unfortunately, it is not offered during my lunch in Dempsey last week as the restaurant serves a different soup each day. I do not fancy the itik tim on the menu, so soup is out.
But other dishes impress.
The Candlenut Buah Keluak Fried Rice, Sunny Side Up Egg ($28) is an innovative dish that goes down very well.
The rice is delicious, with the Indonesian black nut giving it a rich, distinctive flavour. And the egg, which you break into pieces and mix into the rice, is an inspired addition. It relieves the monotony that the dish would otherwise suffer from.
The Blue Swimmer Crab Curry, Turmeric, Galangal, Kaffir Lime Leaf ($28) is another dish I like a lot.
The curry is spicy – as it should be – but it does not overpower the crab, which still comes across sweet and fresh. Another good thing is that the crab is shelled and the meat comes in chunks.
Other dishes such as Local Squid, Sambal Belachan, Cherry Tomato, Red Onions ($20) are also cooked to perfection. This dish’s sambal is spicy, but not burning, and the squid springy, not leathery.
Photo: Wong Ah Yoke / ST
The Wing Bean Salad, Baby Red Radish, Lemongrass, Cashew Nuts, Calamansi Lime Dressing ($16) is a good dish too, with plenty of crunch from the vegetables and nuts. More texture comes from a sprinkling of crispy ikan bilis, which the dish description fails to mention.
Other dishes can be better.
The Homemade Kueh Pie Tee Shell, Braised Local Turnip, Pork Belly, Prawns ($12) boasts four exquisitely thin and perfectly shaped pastry shells.
But the attention to detail is not followed through in the seasoning for the turnip filling. It lacks character, something that the prawns and perfectly even strips of pork belly do not help.
Lacklustre seasoning also fails the Crispy Beancurd Skin Ngoh Hiang, Minced Pork, Prawns, Water Chestnut ($12), which is unfortunate as it boasts a good bite.
Drenching it with the accompanying sweet sauce helps improve it though.
The Crispy Pork Belly, Pickled Mustard Greens, Chincalok ($20) is an example of a dish that does not improve through innovation.
The meat has been slow-cooked before being deep-fried. That gets it very tender, but it also loses its juices and flavour. I prefer my meat to have some bite too, rather than some over-boiled pork.
The Buah Keluak Of Braised Local Chicken, Peranakan Signature Black Nut Sambal ($20) has departed from tradition from day one – in a way that I do not understand. Instead of cooking the chicken from scratch in the black nut sambal, it appears to have been poached separately and added to the sambal just before serving. The texture of the chicken is perfect – smooth and firm – but the sambal does not penetrate beyond the skin.
So whether or not you like this version depends on how you like your chicken: smooth or soft. I like the smooth texture, but I would be more impressed if the chef had managed to infuse the meat with buah keluak as well.
Both the desserts I try disappoint.
The Hand Grated Tapioca Kueh Bangkit, Gula Melaka Ice Cream ($12) comes in a teeny-weeny slice. It is also too dense. But the ice cream is delicious.
The Candlenut’s Classic Chendol Cream, Pandan Jelly, Gula Melaka ($10) tastes even more watered-down than when I first ate it in Dorsett. Where is the coconut milk richness, the fragrance of pandan or the moreish sweetness of gula melaka? This pallid version hints at them, but fails to deliver.
Block 17A Dempsey Road; tel: 1800-304-2288; open: noon to 2.30pm (daily), 6 to 9pm (Mondays to Thursdays), 6 to 10.30pm (Fridays to Sundays and public holidays)
Food: 3.5/5 stars
Service: 3.5/5 stars
Ambience: 4/5 stars
Price: Budget about $70 a person
This article was first published in The Straits Times.