As a nod to our heritage, the Michelin Guide will probably award stars for Singaporean cuisine. There are four strong contenders: Labyrinth, Wild Rocket, Candlenut, and the latest restaurant, just opened in November, National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Gallery.
I think National Kitchen is aware of the Michelin honor involved, and Violet Oon’s handsome son, Tay Yi Ming, takes charge of the restaurant floor himself, going from table to table, introducing the concept. The stunning decor builds its motif around the iconic Peranakan tile, a pink rose with emerald green corners (see above). (Emerald green also happens to be the dominant color of the restaurant, because you know that Peranakan play? Emily of Emerald Hill? I kid.) Pineapple, meaning prosperity, is seen on the VO (Violet Oon) coat-of-arms, and elsewhere. (I jested with Tay, “If I can find all the 4 pineapple motifs in the restaurant, is my meal free?”)
As a national kitchen, the daguerreotype and sepia photos on the walls tell stories of families’ histories with food in Singapore. For instance, there is a photo of the inventor of yusheng. Family recipes are also framed for customers to snap on their phones.
The direction of the food is towards authentic traditional Indonesian-styled Peranakan, with some Singaporean dishes. (It’s called the National Kitchen, after all.) Indonesian-styled Peranakan tends to be sweet, so the beef rendang ($22) is sweeter than usual, not spicy. I used the words “towards authentic traditional” because some modern culinary methods are used to improve the food: the beef rendang is first braised in oven—last time people no oven hor—for 6-7 hours before simmering, giving it the tenderness of a lovesong.
As with the beef rendang, their interpretation of ayam buah keluak ($23) is different from elsewhere. (Tay didn’t neglect to inform us his mother is damed by the French Grand Ordre du Rocamadour du Diamant Noir. Anyone with knowledge of French would spot “black diamond,” which also refers to black truffles, and Oon views Singapore’s black diamond in buah keluak.) Buah keluak has always tasted like Marmite to me, but here the poisonous fruit tastes less pungent and less sharp. The curry of the ayam (chicken) is assam-like, sour and tangy.
I always prefer the Chinese style of assam fish head curry. Not a Peranakan dish, the Indian red snapper fish head curry ($35) is fresh, meaty, and good-valued, but the curry isn’t intense nor thick enough for me. Other places do a better rendition of this dish.
Their Achilles heel, I feel, is the desserts—diabetically, diabolically sweet. The only dish I didn’t enjoy was the upside-down pineapple cake ($12), which tastes like an concentrated sugary version of the 8-in-a-packet egg sponge cake 鸡蛋糕 you can buy at supermarkets (see photo above). Kueh beng kah ($9) is much better. I know Bengawan Solo does a rendition of the tapioca cake too, but National Kitchen’s version is at once more dense—no airy gaps between the cake—and lighter, less heavy. Still too sweet though.
Upside-down pineapple cake
Compared to the other three contenders, these are my four concerns for National Kitchen in achieving the Michelin stars:
(1) It’s a tedious and long process to cook Peranakan food, and the longer you stew the meat in the sauce, the tastier it is. Unfortunately, inherent in this culinary process, it means the food is prepared and cooked beforehand, and is kept warm until served. Compared to the other 3 contenders, perhaps Michelin inspectors would prefer the unpredictability of hot food prepared a la minute?
(2) Like Italian food, Peranakan recipes are passed down and different families have different variations. This means that Violet Oon’s recipes may be more suited for the 1970s tastebuds, for the older generation. Our tastes are cultivated by the food we grow up with, and younger people may not appreciate the traditional tastes. Candlenut, for instance, modernizes and updates the Peranakan food to contemporary, global tastebuds. Looking around the restaurant, you can see the crowd here is of an older generation.
(3) I know Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong do communal dining, but if only a Singaporean restaurant is awarded stars, restaurants that serve individual portions may have a slight edge over communal portions, simply because the Michelin inspectors are used to the former. National Kitchen is best enjoyed in a group of 4. Any more and you’ll have to order 2 plates of the same dish. Portions are small.
(4) Many of their signature dishes are gravy-based. After a while, it gets monotonous.
Kueh Beng Kah
I’ve modern tastebuds—as I am often told by others—and although I can appreciate traditional food, the traditional food at National Kitchen is slightly off-key for me: too sweet, or too sour, or not sour enough, or not spicy enough (coming from someone who cannot take spicy food), or not viscous enough, or not moist enough. But I also recognize how the older generation may find this traditional, rustic form comforting and nostalgic. It’s a place to bring parents, and in-laws, and a place for meeting your partner’s parents for the first time. In fact, I have already made reservations to bring my parents for Reunion Dinner here. Besides, they charged us for nasi lemak rice ($2) that we didn’t order. Maybe I can get a refund.
We spent $113 for two persons, or $56 for one.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
1 St. Andrew’s Road #02–01, National Gallery Singapore 178957
T: +65 9834 9935
Service: 6/10 (Servers forgot orders, needed several reminders. Charged us extra for things we didn’t order. Brought us warm water when we asked for iced. Generally, attentive but careless and goldfish-memory service.)
Overall rating: 3.719/5
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.