Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Candlenut Kitchen review Singapore Peranakan restaurant - just like how it's done at home


Candlenut+Kitchen+review+Singapore+Peranakan+restaurant+Neil+Road+sign

Address: 25 Neil Road
Singapore 088815
Tel: +65 6226 2506
Nearest MRT station: Outram Park
Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: Below S$50pp
Service charge: 10%
Taste: ****
Service: ***
Ambience: ***
"What?! You spent that much on a beef rendang?" YQ exclaimed during our lunch at Moro. Understandably, no one spends S$35 on beef rendang in Singapore when you could probably get the dish for a fraction of that at a hawker centre. Interestingly, no one would bat an eyelid blowing £20 on a fish and chips at a fancy London restaurant while you could get one for just £3 at a local chippy.

Well, with a little one in tow, we didn't get many chances to dine out while we were in Singapore a couple of weeks back. And we intended to make it count. We figured that we should give European cuisine a miss since London probably offers better options at a more reasonable price so we went local instead. And what could be more local than the Peranakan cuisine?

The word Peranakan originates from a unique culture when the indigenous Malay community in the present day Malaysia intermarried with the Chinese who settled here in the 15th century. Peranakans are mainly known for two things - their unique traditional long dresses (baju panjang) and beaded slippers (kasot manek) as well as their cuisine. In fact there is a saying that one would be fortunate to have a Nonya (Peranakan lady) for a wife as Nonyas are known to be great cooks.

Wife came across Candlenut Kitchen after searching online for where to eat in Singapore. Its owner, Malcolm Lee, an up and coming chef in Singapore's culinary scene, is apparently known for his no frills but good and honest food.

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As it was a last minute decision, we called for a reservation only hours earlier and were surprised to find that tables were available even on a Friday evening. We found out later that 7pm on a Friday night is too early for dinner as the place eventually got filled up towards the end of our meal.

A number of items caught our eyes immediately when the menu was presented. As I had imposed a 2kg weight increase over my two week stay in Singapore (my weight invariably shoot up after every trip back home), we had to restrain ourselves.

After placing our orders, a bowl of keropok appeared on our table with a small serving of belachan. For lovers of this spicy tangy dip, Candlenut Kitchen's belachan alone warrants a visit to the restaurant.

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Starters came in the form of ngoh hiang and kueh pie tee. Ngoh hiang is a favourite dish of the carnivorous me. The meaty bite with the occasional crunch lent by bits of water chestnut never failed to cheer me up. That was before the days when people start to question where the minced meat within came from. Candlenut Kitchen's ngoh hiang ($8.80) was stuffed with minced meat, prawns, sliced pork belly, black mushroom and water chestnut, served wrapped in a lightly fried crispy beancurd skin. I never knew that ngoh hinge can taste so light yet bursting with flavour. Even Wife became a convert.

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We caught sight of the factory made pastry cups (still in their sealed plastic containers) used in Candlenut Kitchen's kueh pie tee ($6.80 for four) on the way to its washroom. That took away the magic somewhat. Even so, the braised turnips with pork belly fillings topped with prawns coupled with the slightly moistened pastry cups made the dish unforgettable.

Candlenut+Kitchen+review+Singapore+Peranakan+restaurant+Neil+Road+ayam+buah+keluak

The ayam buah keluak ($18) is purported to be the Peranakan's signature dish and we had to try it. Apparently, the keluak nuts (two per dish) are the main items here, not the chicken chunks. A small needle spoon was even provided to scoop the softened nut from its hard shell. Unsurprisingly, the chicken chunks took on a heavily smoked nutty taste. I thought that the chicken could be more tender and there was a silent agreement the nut itself ($2 for an extra nut) is an acquired taste. It reminded me of a thicker and more bitter bone marrow.

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The dish that we had been waiting for finally arrived. The beef rendang ($35) was made with beef cheeks from corn fed cows aged 120 days. The meat cooked in its own fat was tender, not flaky or dry, which I suspect the normal beef rendang also offered at half the price would taste like. The accompanying coconut gravy was spicy with the ever slight tinge of sweetness, which is exactly what it is supposed to be. The gravy itself screamed out for rice and fragrant white rice is offered for $2 per person (free flow).

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All that required something soothing to wash down. The barley drink ($2) was just sweet and thick enough. There were some barley at the bottom of the cup to show that it didn't come out from a can.

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A Peranakan meal is incomplete without either a coconut or durian dessert and we went for the latter. The chilled durian soup ($7) was essentially durian ice-cream (made in-house) in durian purée. The tiny portion left us longing for more but good things do come in small portions. The rich and creamy durian purée cut through our rendang tainted palates and the ice-cream just accentuated that.

There was a bookshelf full of cookery books on the way to the washroom. I have no idea what Markus Wareing and Gordan Ramsay have to say about the Peranakan cuisine but theirs were among the most well-thumbed tombs on the shelves.

While we were there, I couldn't help but notice that most if not all diners weren't local. Candlenut Kitchen isn't exactly the most affordable Peranakan restaurant in town. It gave us the feeling of dining in an aunt's place who happened to be a brilliant cook. There were some attempts to spruce up the place with some Peranakan traditional blouses and beaded shoes but the restaurant, which is housed in a shophouse, can be described as cosy at best. That said, a staff helpfully informed me that they are tremendously busy during Saturdays evenings so it would be prudent to call for a reservation if you are thinking of dropping by then.

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