As Peranakans who aren’t super fond of buah keluak (criminal, we know), we are presently shovelling away spoonsful of rice coated in the black nut’s inky paste at an alarming speed. We pause only to stab at meltingly soft wagyu short ribs slathered with more of that unctuous mush. That’s saying something about chef Malcolm Lee’s cooking chops, deeply rooted in his Peranakan heritage, yet given a few modern flourishes where applicable. It’s our second visit at the soft-spoken, intense, slightly adork-able 32-year-old’s one Michelin star restaurant Candlenut, which relocated from its humbler Dorsett Residences home to its larger designer-casual Dempsey digs a month ago. It’s now housed at COMO Dempsey, owned by the stylish Christina Ong behind Club 21 and the COMO hotel chain.
THE LOOK & VIBE: For some reason, we never made it to the original Candlenut at Dorsett. But we like what we see here: a breezily chic dining room with plenty of whites and soaring ceilings from which resort-worthy straw-clad lamps dangle from. There’s plenty of room with 92 seats. Interestingly, it shares an open space with the soon-to-be-opened Ippoh Tempura Bar by Ginza Ippoh, and The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar by New York-based chef Jean-Georges Vongerichton. We’re not sure what the noise levels and ventilation would be like when all the eateries are up and running. On both our visits, the place teemed with well-heeled creative types and high-powered people, including a minister.
THE FOOD: Dinner via the signature Ah-Ma-Kase Tasting Set ($88 for 10 courses) during our virgin visit just two days after the restaurant opened was good to middling. For instance, the Beef Cheek Rendang was gratifyingly full-bodied but the meat a bit chewy. And the Blue Swimmer Crab Curry was toothsome, but the Red Lion Snapper Fillet with Black Green Mango Sambal a smidgen dry. However, our a la carte lunch here weeks later is a far more delicious affair — perhaps chef needed time to break in his fancy new kitchen. The standout: the aforementioned Buah Keluak Fried Rice ($28). It’s modestly sized for the price, a small heap of blackened rice almost engulfed by a lacy-edged sunny side up with a yolk that seeps luxuriously when broken. Each grain has a whiff of smoky wok’s breath and is densely coated with creamy buah keluak paste. The nut’s polarising characteristics — part bitter olives, part earthy mushrooms — are slightly offset by sambal so more umami notes sing harmoniously alongside its inherently robust flavours. So irresistible, we tapowed a packet for dinner later. The Wagyu Beef Ribs in Buah Keluak Stew ($28) makes a gloriously rich companion to the rice. The petite portion is barely enough for two people, but what you get is 100 per cent rib-sticking lusciousness. Wobby flesh that melts into a morass of sludgy sauce brimming with the nut’s earthiness.
Adding lightness to all this decadence are the vegetable dishes, also impressive in their own right. The Wing Bean Salad ($16), is a zesty treat of crunchy beans, crusty ikan bilis, toasted cashews and aromatic lemongrass, all tossed in a bracing calamansi lime dressing. The Nonya Chap Chye ($18) features juicy cabbage and shrooms soaking in a broth reminiscent of uber concentrated prawn mee soup. Mainly because the stock is indeed simmered with prawn heads. What we find quite mediocre here, however, are the desserts. While our dining partner enjoys the restaurant’s popular Buah Keluak Ice Cream ($15), a satiny dark chocolate number punctuated by the nut’s potent savouriness, salted caramel sauce and chilli-infused chocolate crumble, we find the mixture somewhat jarring.
The Chendol Cream ($10) with pudding-like coconut cream, pandan jelly worms and gula melaka sauce is yummier, but still not quite as lust-inducing as a bowl of the old-school stuff.
VERDICT: ***1/2 Refined Peranakan cooking by a talented, intense young chef in a casually luxe setting. Not every dish works, but what does is worth splurging on. We can see why the restaurant won a Michelin star. $$ - $$$
Blk 17A Dempsey Rd, S249676. Tel: 1800-3042-288. Open daily. Sun-Thur noon-2.30pm; 6pm-9pm, Fri & Sat noon-2.30pm; 6pm-10.30pm. Last orders 30 mins before closing. www.candlenut.com.sg