What: It took more than two years before Woo Wai Leong, first ever MasterChef Asia winner, finally opened his first restaurant. Located on North Canal Road, Restaurant Ibid (short for ibidem, a Latin word meaning ‘from the same source’) sits in a charming shophouse where Chinese merchants used to sell dried seafood.
What to expect: Their old shutter gates remain out front, which chef-owner Woo decided to keep, adding a lovely touch of character and its transition to tasteful Chinoiserie-themed interiors served somewhat as an unconscious prelude to his Nanyang-style, contemporary Chinese cuisine.
Admittedly, I was confused when first presented with the concept, but in reality it's really less perplexing than it seems. Not to be confused with modern Singaporean, Chef Woo plates up an epicurean storytelling of his own heritage, presenting classic Asian dishes—think Chinese tea egg, porridge, and even satay—with Western cooking techniques and some clever twists.
I visited when the restaurant had just launched, and was open only for dinner (ranging from $78 for 4-courses, $88 for 6-courses, and $118 for 8-courses), though I hear chef has recently unveiled a new lunch format.
His Spring Onion Shao Bing is one item I'd gladly queue for (if he ever does decide to branch out into a snack business), and I really hope this makes it onto his day menu. Pan-fried till scrumptiously brown and toasty on both sides, the springy Chinese spring onion pancake is made even more savoury with stuffings of cheesy mozzarella and black pepper.
Great by itself, it's more divine with side of rich yeasted butter, made from whipping butter with a yeast paste, crowned with fragrant laksa oil and crisp, fried laksa leaves.
Then arrives chef's gorgeously smokey 'satay', which isn't actually satay at all!
Escargot, laboriously skewered and brushed with dou ban jiang (a salty and spicy Chinese fermented bean paste), is grilled over charcoal and dipped in bawang goreng (crarmelsed shallots). Then finished by wrapping in betel leaves and charred again for an extra depth of alluring smokiness.
Chef's Tea Egg is a combination of two recipes. A mix of Pu-Er tea leaves, aged mandarin peels, crystal rock sugar for hint of sweetness and kelp for umami form his tea broth—a recipe he had perfected for a fish dish in the past.
When you eat it, there are varied layers of flavours: a mild yet complex tea broth, gingko nuts and shiitake mushrooms that's been fried in brown butter, velvety 'egg white's of white onions-sour cream mash, and an organic egg yolk sous vide at 65 degrees for 1-hour.
I would have liked it better if the yolk was a bit more oozy, but that does not detract from the experience. It's part heart-warming childhood memories, part head-tilting intrigue.
A Lamb Tartare already brings newness to a classic, and and Chef plays up his rendition with some heat.
Lamb rump is charred, chilled and hand-chopped, then mixed with finely chopped celery and white onions for texture, and a spice mix of cumin, dried chillies and szechuan peppercorns to balance the gaminess. A roasted garlic yoghurt dressing lend a creamy dose of savoury earthiness.
The Ah Hua Kelong Grouper is what I call the result of a beautiful experiment. A curious mind led Chef Woo to add butter when blending tofu at home. This 'tofu butter' and a rich emulsion of fish stock, butter, shallots, Shaoxing wine and black peppercorn make up the creamy seabed where charred Kailan, lily bud—for an interesting burst of floral—and deftly executed fish rests.
His re-imagined Porridge is likely to split views. Inspired by century egg porridge, white radish trimmings (cooked with overnight rice, soy milk, butter and salt till a creamy paste) is dotted with grated century egg white and pickled radish strips, then topped with crunchy battered bamboo shoots that's been dusted with dehydrated century egg yolk powder.
Short Rib, a signature dish of Woo’s for quite some time, is also featured on the menu and a definite must-try. USDA beef short rib is cooked sous vide for 48 hours at high heat till deliciously fork-tender, and paired with crunchy black fungus that's been pickled and charred for a touch of Wok Hei, as well as a smooth and silky black garlic-potato puree.
The dish is topped with Chinese pears that have been dehydrated and rehydrated again for a chewy sweetness, and finished with a drizzle of luscious sauce made from roasted chicken stock and caramelised onions, infused with Angelica root for a slight bitterness.
Also exquisite and return-worthy is his Momoiro Collar, which sees tender pork brined then grilled over charcoal till pink, served with twice-fried sweet potato and a sweet and salty gastrique—which reminds me of char siew sauce—made of caramel glazed with black vinegar, red fermented beancurd, red rice wine lees and butter.
And just when you thought he's done, he continues to wow with a stunning Lotus Rice.
It comes topped with seared foie gras and shavings of preserved liver sausage, but even without, the aromatic and full of flavour rice itself—steamed short grain and glutinous rice married with a delicious shiitake mushroom mix, and steamed again—would satisfy.
For desserts, look forward to some unexpected twist, like chef’s ingenious take on tau huay, a light, dairy-free Soy Milk Ice Cream dessert—consistency is closer to that of gelato with the addition of tofu—with sesame cake, almond foam and inventive use of Sarawak white pepper for a gentle heat.
The Hibiscus Dessert turns out to be a 'dry' tang yuan dish. Chewy rosella tang yuan is planted on Chinese ginger sugar crumble soil, enjoyed with house-made red bean jam and hibiscus jam, hibiscus leaf, red-vein sorrel, as well as yoghurt ice cream.
Verdict: Chef Woo's debut restaurant is a gem with many winning dishes and I really liked how he flirts with acidity and herby/floral notes. It does feel like there's a lot he's trying to squeeze onto the plate, but it is the early days and his very first restaurant, so this just makes me look forward to the next iteration of his menu.
This was an invited media tasting session, though all views expressed are my own.
Address: 18 North Canal Road
Tel: +65 9151 8698
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 6.30pm-10.30pm