Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Review of Restaurant Labyrinth, Singapore - No Bull?

One of my favourite Greek myths when I was growing up was that of Theseus and the Minotaur.  Theseus, the son of Poseidon and legendary founder-king of Athens, volunteered to be sent to Crete with an annual tribute of seven youths and seven maidens fair, who would enter the maze known as the Labyrinth.  In the Labyrinth, Theseus would encounter and slay the vicious Minotaur, the hybrid man-bull which demanded fresh human flesh as part of its diet.

Unlike Theseus, I was hoping, as I entered Singapore's Labyrinth, that I wouldn't have to put up with any bull.

Cooks in Action at Labyrinth's Counter-Style Kitchen
The narrative behind Labyrinth is almost as compelling as the legend of its namesake.  Owner-chef Han Liguang, a former Goldman Sachs / Citibanker turned autodidact cook, created Labyrinth as an outlet for his modernist interpretation of Modern Singaporean Cuisine.  It opens only for dinner and serves only two set menus, which is quite demanding for a restauranteur-chef with no prior reputation or following.  But it has been very well-received by the Singaporean dining public, and prices on the two menus have increased significantly in the six months since its opening.

On entering, the first thing you notice is the open kitchen and the surrounding counter-style seating.  There is only one table away from the counter, which seats six, and which I am guessing will be in heavy demand for larger parties where counter seating would not be appropriate.  It is, however, as warm as Tartarus in here, and that is before I have actually had anything to eat or drink.


Labyrinth offers two set menus: a five-course "Signature" menu with three choices of main course for $98+ (Labyrinth doesn't yet charge GST, though that day is surely not far away), and an eight-course "Degustation" menu for $138+.  Tonight, three of us go for the Signature menu, and choose the 2011 Domaine Laporte Sancerre Grandmontains from the quite limited but well-priced wine list.  Minerally but still requiring some coaxing before it opens up, this Old World Sauv Blanc costs me $75+ (L'Entrecote steakhouse charges $95++ for the same vintage; I can only presume that the extra $20++ is the premium due when your restaurateur is an angmoh).

Anyway, here is what we had:

Amuse-Bouche: Carrot Jelly, Ground Black Pepper

A rocky start.  The essential taste of carrot is there, but it is waaaay too sweet for an amuse, so much so that we reckon some sugar must have been added to the mixture.  It is refreshing, largely due to the fact that it is served cold, but hardly an ideal palate cleanser.

Bread Service

Courtesy Danny Leong

One of the things I like about Labyrinth is that a lot of attention has been paid to the details, such as bread service.  I recently lauded Les Amis for its four-types-of-bread-and-seven-types-of-Norman-butter bread service.  Admittedly, Labyrinth's ambitions and resources are more limited, but bread here comes with three distinct homemade condiments.  From left, a garlic espuma (foam to you and I), dehydrated olive oil and balsamic vinegar jam.  The espuma is garlicky enough to scare away a coven of vampires, but I like garlic and don't watch True Blood, so that's all good in my books.  The olive oil powder is texturally smooth but too subtle in flavour.  The balsamic jam is again almost tipping the scales on sweetness, but is thankfully balanced by a vibrant acidity.

Entrée: Tomato "Steak" Tartare

Roasted Australian tomatoes presented as a tartare, with a mango spherification in place of the traditional quail egg yolk.  Flavours are clean and pure, and I like the textural contrasts provided by the croutons, salad, raw tomato dice and the marshmallow made from tomato water.  It is, in short, a salad made sexy on steroids.  That said, it's not a particularly original idea (insofar as anything is original anymore), and I encountered the first Singaporean iteration of this dish at Catalunya back in 2012.  Labyrinth's version, though, is a far more complete and delicious preparation - good stuff.

Second Entr√©e: Labyrinth Chilli Crab

Courtesy Danny Leong

Han has a very focused, clean style of plating, and this is illustrated perfectly in the "Labyrinth Chilli Crab".  My first couple of mouthfuls tick all of the boxes: flavour combination (essentially your classic Singaporean chill crab) - tick.  Texture (crisp tempura batter against creamy ice-cream) - tick.  Temperature contrast (deep-fried hot versus freezing cold) - tick, tick, tick.  

However, much like love from one of Eros' darts, this dish, with its deep-fried and creamy elements, subsequently proves quite heavy going.  The seaweed is neither here nor there, and the mantou soil, which seems at first like a great idea (and sets the context for a very beach-like presentation), turns into unpleasantly soggy breadcrumbs when it comes into contact with crab's juices.

Main Course: Satay Marinated Steak, Pan-Fried Foie Gras, Peanut Mochi

I loved the peanut sauce, was indifferent to the peanut mochi (Labyrinth's reinterpretation of the traditional ketupat rice cakes), and I'm not sure the foie gras adds much to the equation. 

All in all, it's quite a decent dish.  I call over the manager / sommelier afterward and observe that no one asked me how I like my steak done.  He says "Oh sir, the beef is wagyu ribeye, so chef is very particular that it be cooked medium-rare".  This is puzzling to me, because my steak was most definitely cooked to medium and like chef Han, I too prefer my steak medium-rare.  I also didn't think the quality of the meat was such that the diner's preference should not be canvassed.  The manager is apologetic and promised to feed this back to the chef, but I don't hear anything back from him on the point.

Other Main Courses: "Siew Yoke Fan" and "Miso Black Cod"

Courtesy Danny Leong
This was not my main course, so my comments will be brief.  My friend D enjoyed the dish, especially the crunchy crackling.  However, he commented that the cut of pork used was quite lean, so it didn't have the unctuous, fatty juiciness that a classic Cantonese siew yoke would.

Courtesy Danny Leong
D's wife enjoyed her miso black cod very much.  I didn't get to try it, but it was apparently very well-cooked, spending a spell in the sous-vide machine before being seared off.  

Palate Cleanser: Cucumber Sorbet

This sorbet is served as a palate cleanser after the strong flavours of the satay steak.  This is very good, with the distinct, cleansing bitterness of cucumber.  It's not particularly easy to eat, however: the scoop is too large to be taken as a single mouthful unless you want a bad case of brain-freeze, and the spoon-like vessel is way too small to serve as a bowl.

Pre-Dessert: Chendol Xiao Long Bao

A pandan-infused wanton wrapper envelopes red bean and coconut spherifications, as well as a gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) icicle and grass jelly.  A "vinegar" bottle contains more gula melaka syrup for the sweet-toothed amongst us.  An intelligent reinterpretation of a local favourite into a dessert version of another local favourite.  Very good.  Again, despite the staff's exhortations to take it all in one mouthful, the morsel is really too large for that.

Dessert: Apple Crumble

This is a tour de force of apple, featuring the fruit in some five different versions (stewed, jelly, tuile, dehydrated chip, sauce), along with some nicely tart yoghurt ice-cream and a white chocolate crumble.  An excellent and not-too-sweet finish to a rich meal.

Petits Fours: Salted Caramel Choux Puff, Starfruit Jelly, Durian "Madeleine"

Decent.  I must admit that I couldn't tell that the jelly was made from starfruit.  The "madeleine" tasted quite nicely of durian, except of course that it was not a madeleine but rather a financier.


There is a lot to like about Labyrinth, and it is a very easy restaurant to like.  Han pulls no punches when it comes to flavour, which is rare at this level, and the fact that his flavour palette (not palate) is familiar has already made Labyrinth a popular destination.  His re-imaginings of classic dishes also show a lot of thought, and the amount of technique(s) that goes into composing each dish is quite extraordinary.  Prices represent relatively good value, while the moderately priced wine list also deserves a mention.  And even when the restaurant is packed to its 20-seat capacity, the staff-diner ratio is barely 1:2.

I also like that Han is trying to bring his own avant-garde, haute cuisine twist to Singaporean flavours, and it is probably worth an article in itself on how the three (most?) prominent practitioners of Modern Singaporean Cuisine, Willin Low, Adrian Ling of Pidgin (formerly Pamplemousse) and now Han, are former white-collar professionals (lawyer, trader and banker respectively) turned chefs.

At the same time, however, closer reflection reveals a few aspects that I am not particularly fond of.  Some of the platings are not particularly practical, nor is staff advice on how to eat some of the dishes.  Han also relies too heavily on certain presentations, in particular the "soil", which appeared in three of my dishes on the night.  The interpretation of mantou as a soil, while imaginative and beautiful on the plate, does not improve the eating experience one iota.  There is also a sense of "my way or the highway" (not asking your customers how they like their steak cooked is a prime example of this, and it looks worse still when the hubris is not backed up by the execution), which I do not find particularly attractive in the finest Michelin-starred restaurants, let alone a restaurant that is barely six months old.

Like I said, there is a lot to like, and I would happily return on another occasion to spend my money on the Degustation menu.  And maybe I am being overly critical.  But food that purports to show a lot of thought and engage with our preconceptions demands that same level of thought from its customers, otherwise we would all be just uncritical, vanilla production-line writers / bloggers, heaping indiscriminate praise on the next hot restaurant of the day.  Now that would be a fate worse than being consumed, bones and all, by a hungry Minotaur in the darkness of the Cretan Labyrinth.

5 Neil Road
Singapore 088806
Tel: +65 6223 4098
BYO Policy: $50++ per 750mL bottle. BYO not otherwise allowed.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations highly recommended.  Budget between S$108 nett (approximately US$87) and S$155 for dinner, plus drinks.

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