• Jenni Lien

[Singapore] Candlenut | The world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant

Sometimes people ask me how I got into food blogging. It’s a simple story, really: I had just moved from Singapore to Hong Kong and missed the food in Singapore so much that I wrote a guide to eating in Singapore, pitched it to Foodie, they liked it, and things moved from there. There’s plenty of excellent food in Hong Kong but I can never find the strong, intense, complex Southeast Asian spices that I love so much.


Peranakan food has the spice mix I crave and then some. The first time I tried it was in Malacca at the renowned homestyle restaurant Nancy’s Kitchen. I’d never had flavours like in the earthy, bitter ayam buah keluak (chicken with black nut curry) before. It was definitely a meal that expanded my palate and made me think about how on earth people started eating the poisonous buah keluak to begin with since it’s only edible after fermentation!


On a recent trip to Singapore, my friend P and I were discussing where to eat for a catch-up date and settled on Candlenut. We’d been wanting to go for years, years before they became the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant. Alas our early twenties budgets didn’t stretch that far, but I suppose that’s one good thing about getting older… more spending power for palate-expanding meals. ;)


Vibe


For me, Singapore is the perfect mix of city and tropical glam, and Candlenut’s design executes this vibe perfectly. It’s housed on the right side of a large bungalow at Dempsey and shares the space with a homewares store and an Italian restaurant. But once we sat at our table, the rest of it melted away. From the Peranakan tiles on the floor to the large rattan chandeliers on the ceiling to the colour coordinated table tops and wall panels, the whole space was the best of island chic.


The ‘Ah-ma-kase’ menu

Peranakan cuisine is known for its focus on the family. Recipes are passed down through generations and Chef-Owner Malcolm Lee has said he grew up surrounded by the smell of his grandma’s traditional Peranakan cooking. It’s a nice tribute to her that the set menu is called ‘Ah-ma-kase’ with ‘ah ma’ meaning grandma. Guests have the option of ordering a la carte or from the set menu but P and I love to eat so the 15-item ‘Ah-ma-kase’ (S$128, roughly HK$750) sounded good to us.


Starters

Guests are served a bowl of keropok (deep-fried crunchy fish crackers) with kicap manis chili padi dip (like a sweet soy sauce with chilis) to start. It was surprisingly nice and light, and didn’t spoil our appetites for what was to come.



The menu started with this appetizer platter of kueh pie tee with Boston lobster, kueh bakar berlauk with chicken, bergedil “Bu Jian Tian” with pork buah keluak, and a charcoal-grilled Maori Lakes lamb neck satay with a kicap manis glaze. While each bite was small in size, it was packed with flavour. My favourite was probably the kueh pie tee - simply constructed but the laksa-leaf dressing was an explosion of spice in the mouth.



Next came a hee peow soup with a stuffed Japanese tofu puff, fish maw, carrot and fried shallots. Quite a rich broth with a homestyle taste.


Mains


All of the mains were served family-style and I was very excited to get my curry on. We had a ‘Yeye’ (grandpa) white curry with local chicken, green banana, and kaffir lime leaf and a Kurobuta pork kapitan curry with pumpkin. The chicken curry was delightful, light and sweet with the banana and lime leaf adding that something extra. While the gravy in the pork curry was nice, the pork itself was tender but very lean which wasn’t my favourite.


The Kuhlburra Ocean barramundi fillet with masak merah and chilis was killer. So much flavour, with rich, spicy, complex kicks.


We also loved the wok-fried sambal belachan with blue swimmer crab, wing beans and petai beans. The sweetness in the crab went well with the sweet heat of the belachan and the bitter, fragrant beans.


The Tiger Beer-battered local oysters with sambal merah were presented beautifully. Thankfully the sambal was delicious and not as debilitating as it looks.


A surprise hit was this small plate of various vegetables. There was fresh guava, prawn paste-stuffed okra with dried scallop sambal goreng; chayote shoots with young jackfruit kerabu; and an achar with cucumber, carrot, and pear on cocktail sticks (sour, sweet, and oh so spicy).


Dessert


With the starters and mains being so fragrant, it was nice to cool down with this bowl of fresh soya milk with tofu skin, shaved young coconut ice, and pulut terigu (like sago). Very refreshing and a palate cleanser of sorts before our final course.



How beautiful is this plate of traditional Nyonya kuehs and sweets? P and I decided to split each dessert in half so we could have two rounds. After one bite of the kueh salat (the pale green one with a custard of pandan and coconut milk on top of a creamy glutinous rice cake), she exclaimed “Good… but there’s one problem with it… it’s way too small!” Haha indeed!


I thought the deserts were all well balanced. The carrot cake was light in texture and went perfectly with the hearty candied pecan. The kueh jagung with coconut and corn was enhanced by hit of sea salt. And the kueh keria’s (donut) crisp glazed crust was perfect with the starchy, chewy dough.



As a surprise at the end, P had informed the staff it was my birthday and they brought out this lovely plate. Inside the bowl was… buah keluak ice cream! How crazy. I’d never had that in anything but the chicken dish I mentioned earlier. The ice cream was very rich and the earty flavour went surprisingly well with chocolate and popping candy.


Verdict

Candlenut was definitely a palate expanding meal for me. I’m amazed at how much flavour and spice was packed into the meal, and yet my tongue was never overwhelmed and no dish overpowered another. Overall, I’m happy I went and had this experience. However, the portion sizes are quite small and I wouldn’t say I was all that full when I left or at least not as full as I wanted to be. Also, while the service was attentive, I would have loved it if it had been more informative as I love to learn about food. I’ve had experiences where servers take a few minutes to present each dish and explain the chef’s inspiration, origin of the ingredients, what’s traditional vs. a twist, etc. So taste-wise, I had a great time at Candlenut. But experience-wise, I thought it was a bit flat.


17A Dempsey Rd, Singapore 249676, Singapore, +65 1800 304 2288


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