Labyrinth has always been divisive. Helmed by banker-turned-chef Han Li Guang, the fine dining restaurant—heavily inspired by local cuisine—first started out with the “neo Singaporean” label (perhaps to distance himself from the term “mod Sin” which had, at that point, lent its definition to a saturation of mediocre chilli crab and laksa pastas) when it opened in 2014.
Back then, Han had a menu that was heavily recognizant, if not directly inspired by the playful modernist cuisines of the like of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià. It’s unsurprising, given that Han had trained in the kitchens of places like the wildly inventive Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, and Mirazur in France.
His penchant for experimentation resulted in the re-presentation of familiar dishes like cendol, spherified; and chilli crab served in the guise of an ice cream. These dishes were succeeded by ones that played subverted notions of what local favourites should look like: what looked like bak chor mee would turn out to be thinly shaved squid colored yellow with saffron; a veneer of century egg porridge reveals itself to be sweet beancurd and grass jelly, topped with a sphere of salted egg custard. Most of these, while no doubt well-executed and sometimes delicious, focused heavily on techniques, with the goal of surprising the diner—which made it fodder for critics who felt that the classics should not be messed with, and foreign guests who had no frames of reference.
Labyrinth’s new menu, however, has put most of this in the rear view mirror. Driven by a confidence that local favourites can be manipulated to resemble a fine-dining degustation menu, Han is moving onto new pastures. Much of the modernist techniques—spheres, powders and gels—have been abandoned in favour of a focus on locavore ethos, and more restrained techniques.
For 80% his ingredients, Han’s limited himself to whatever can be found within Singaporean shores, which surprisingly, amounts to quite a selection: various greens, herbs, silver perch, quails, goat’s milk, lala clams, and even wild-caught flower crabs. While it’s definitely easier to conjure up delicious food using the best ingredients flown in from around the world, Han shows that locally-found ingredients, can too hold their weight in a culinary scene where having Japanese scallops sit alongside asparagus from France is the norm.
If anything, being surrounded by water makes seafood one of the easiest local ingredients to source. Here, Han takes surprisingly sweet and clean-tasting lala clams from Ah Hua Kelong (one of the most prominent fisheries—run by a couple of young-ish guys—in recent times, thanks to a mix of clever marketing and high-quality fish), and sets them neatly in a jelly made with the clam liquor and tamarind. This is served in a crispy tart of fried wonton skin alongside a dollop of homemade XO sambal.
Meanwhile, locally-farmed silver perch comes served with black garlic, and Brazilian spinach grown on the same farm as the perch. It all sits in a herbal bak kut teh broth made with Han’s localised take on dashi, prepared with ikan bilis, sea grapes, and soy sauce.
There is the Labyrinth Rojak, a salad that brings to mind Michel Bras’ Gargouillou, where cempedak-jackfruit ice cream serves as the base for a smorgasbord of locally-grown herbs and vegetables that vary depending on whatever is available—dressed in a rojak sauce made with hae gor (fermented prawn paste) and tangy honey from stingless bees reared by a local producer.
A few dishes on the menu are also homages to Han’s grandmother—a chicken rice dumpling served with grandma’s secret recipe chilli sauce, and a button mushroom sauce (the story here is that Han’s grandmother once adapted chicken rice to include a mushroom sauce in order to cater to the tastes of a caucasian family that she cooked for).
Somewhere in between your courses will also be presented with one of Han’s old signatures—the chilli crab ice cream, which has gone through more than a few reincarnations since its conception. This time round it’s served with live flower crabs that are caught in a local kelong, egg white ribbons and a shaoxing-chicken fat emulsion.
The latest incarnation of the chilli crab ice cream is perhaps most indicative of the cuisine’s maturation at Labyrinth—there is a confidence, because you’d have to be to put a savoury ice cream course out in this day and age; and there is finesse, because it doesn’t need quirkiness carry it. It’s a far cry from early versions which came with a whole soft shell crab, and edible mantou “sand”, complete with a tiny umbrella.
At the end of the meal, before the petit fours are rolled out, you’re presented with an ice cream sandwich. It’s kaya toast, but the kaya has been made into a rich ice cream; the toast is traditional white bread from a local bakery, but grilled over coconut charcoal. Then the crowning glory: a heaping spoonful of briny, creamy caviar (as in, real caviar from a fish. Not spherified drops of whatever) in lieu of the usual slab of salted butter. It’s defiance, it’s a little bit of fine-dining arrogance, it’s maybe even over-the-top. But most importantly, it works.
#02-23, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore. 8 Raffles Ave, Singapore 039802. Tel: +6223 4098