The Best of Singapore: Candlenut

Singapore is a food lover's paradise. Everyone knows that by now, thanks to the likes of Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain, and me. The Singaporeans are in constant competition with the Taiwanese and Japanese to see who is more obsessed with food. To say the tiny city-state is chock full of restaurants would be an understatement. As a visitor (and even as a local), the question becomes: where should I eat? Nearly every magazine, TV show, or blog will say one of the following:

It's so cheap! You should just eat at these hawker stalls. You'll only spend $10 a day!

If you like sushi, you must try Waku Ghin. For $400 a person, it's totally worth it.

So those are your options: you either eat outside at a hawker center or spend hundreds of dollars eating at a "celebrity" restaurant.

The country is quickly becoming a playground for celebrity chefs, just like Dubai and Las Vegas. Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Jamie Oliver—I could go on—they all have restaurants in Singapore now. Some of these are excellent—Batali's Mozza and Boulud's DB Kitchen were both wonderful every time I ate at them, but they're all so heavily hyped by the Singaporean media (both bloggers and professionals), I think Gordon Ramsay could literally shit on a plate and the bloggers would be lining up to take pics and discuss how innovative it is—and how it's so much better than anything Singaporean restaurants are making.

On this last trip, Patricia and I wanted to eat at an unpretentious restaurant with great food, helmed by a local chef. Deciding to do that instead of spending $700 at JAAN proved to be a brilliant move.

The two best meals I had in Singapore this past trip (and quite possibly in all my time there) were at Artichoke, Bjorn Shen's funky modern Middle Eastern eatery, and Candlenut, Malcolm Lee's foray into contemporary Peranakan cuisine. Both restaurants have the fine-casual feel that American restaurants have shifted towards. Service is relaxed and friendly, the atmosphere is fun, and the focus is on creating great food that doesn't require a $250 tasting menu.

These two chefs couldn't be more different. Shen is brash and foul-mouthed. He's like Singapore's own Anthony Bourdain, and honestly, I think Singapore needs a guy like him. Lee, on the other hand, is quiet and contemplative, more like Thomas Keller. These are the two chefs cooking the best and most exciting food I had in Singapore.

Part 1: Candlenut

I can't think of another meal that has floored me quite like my first meal at Candlenut. After 3 years in Singapore, one meal completely shifted my perspective on what Singaporean food was and what it could be.

I knew about Candlenut before eating there, but only so far as knowing that it existed. The cuisine—modern Peranakan—I knew almost nothing about. I just knew they had some type of nut that, if not properly prepared, will kill you. Great!

Peranakan cuisine is a mix of Chinese, Indonesian, and Malay ingredients and cooking styles. Not satisfied with churning out the classics, Candlenut's wunderkind chef Lee is serving up beautiful modern renditions.

It's the most exciting food I ate in Singapore and what I would expect more restaurants to be doing: taking the food the Singapore was built on and letting a team of young chefs make it their own. Visiting chefs and foodies, this needs to be at the top of your list. Not Restaurant Andre.

Below are the menus from our two meals there; you probably won't recognize most of the dishes, but we'll get to that.

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18 July Menu

Jiu Hu Char, Homemade Kueh Pie Tee Shell

Warm Relish of Minced Pork, Banana Chili, Dried Shrimp

Wagyu Beef Rib, Buah Keluak Sambal, Turmeric Egg

Tumbuk Prawns, Laksa Leaf, Starfruit

Pong Tauhu Soup, Prawn & Crab Meatball, Shellfish Bisque

Grilled Red Snapper, Dried Shrimp Sambal, Smoked Salt

Baby Sweet Potato Leaf Curry, Sweet Prawns, Crispy Whitebait

Maori Lake Lamb Rack, Dry Red Curry, Roasted Coconut, Kaffir Lime

Wok Fried Wild Baby Squid, Sambal Petai, Fried Shallots

Wing Bean Salad, Baby Radish, Cashew Nuts, Lemongrass, Calamansi Lime Dressing

27 July Menu

Jiu Hu Char, Homemade Kueh Pie Tee Shell

Warm Relish of Minced Pork, Banana Chili, Dried Shrimp

Grilled Spice-Marinated Chicken Satay, Peanut Sauce

Tumbuk Prawns, Laksa Leaf, Starfruit

Rawon Oxtail Soup, Buah Keluak, Fried Shallots

Grilled Red Snapper, Dried Shrimp Sambal, Smoked Sea Salt

Chap Chye Braised Cabbage, Sweet Beancurd Skin, Pork Belly, Prawn Stock

Blue Swimmer Crab, Yellow Turmeric Coconut Curry, Kaffir Lime

Wok Fried Wild Baby Squid, Squid Ink, Tamarind, Chilis

Local Chicken & Black Fungus Kerabu, Gingerflower, Mint, Kerisik

Buah Keluak Ice Cream, Salted Caramel, Warm Chocolate Espuma

"Kueh Salat", Kueh Bangkit, Coconut Sorbet

Candlenut's Signature Chendol Cream, Pandan Jelly, Gula Melaka

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Jiu hu char: dried cuttlefish and vegetable stir fry

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Warm relish of minced pork

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Tumbuk Prawns, Chicken Satay

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Wagyu beef, buah keluak sambal

Buah Keluak is the name of the potentially fatal nut I mentioned, and it is the flavor I'd used to differentiate Peranakan food from all others. It's often referred to as the Asian truffle, given its black color and intense, hard to place flavor. I don't think it's actually similar in flavor at all to a truffle, though. To me, it's like a chocolatey Oaxacan mole.

It was served three ways during our dinners: the first, seen below, was my favorite. Wagyu beef rib, cooked until it was falling apart, sat over a turmeric crepe, accompanied by a spoonful of thick buah keluak sambal. We didn't know what hit us. This single bite was like some Willy Wonka candy that simultaneously tasted like a Mexican mole, a wintry braised beef, and a Southeast Asian sauce.

It was one of the best things I've eaten—not just this year, but ever.

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Wing Bean Salads

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Pong Tauhu Soup, Chap Chye

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Wok-fried Squid

The term 'wok hei' refers to a flavor imparted by cooking in an incredibly hot seasoned wok. Both squid dishes at Candlenut had so much 'wok hei', I almost cried.

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The darker dish, cooked with squid ink, had a more earthy, briny taste, but a little tang and sweetness from the tamarind. The other, cooked with a spicy sambal made with petai (otherwise known as bitter beans or stink beans) and fried shallots had a more familiar Southeast Asian flavor that we couldn't stop eating. Spicy and sticky from the sambal, it was just fantastic.

Swimmer Crab Curry, Sweet Potato Leaf Curry

If pizza didn't exist, I think curry would be my favorite food on earth. Americans love curry, yet every Asian menu has just two types: red and green. Get with the times, people. There's a whole world of curry out there!

The blue swimmer crab in a yellow turmeric coconut curry with kaffir lime was a sweet, delightful curry. The curry itself was similar to the one that made me fall in love with Chris Bailey's cooking, but the incorporation of the tender swimmer crab took it to another level. Our other curry, a thicker, vibrantly orange bowl of amazing, was full of baby sweet potato leaves, sweet prawns, then topped with crispy fried whitebait to add crunch.

Both curries were phenomenal, but the upper hand goes to the sweet potato leaf curry with sweet prawns.

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Beef Rawon

When we sat down for our second dinner and I saw that there was oxtail soup with buah keluak, I squealed with glee. When it came to the table, things got tense. One bowl was brought to the table. Patricia and I both eyed the bowl, then each other. I knew I was supposed to be a gentleman and let her have it first, share it equally, blah, blah. She knew it too. The thing is...I didn't want to share it. I wanted it all.

Just before we would have gotten into a relationship-ending brawl over the beef, they brought out another bowl. Phew.

It had all the great flavors you'd expect from an oxtail stew; that thick gravy; the meat that's falling apart. Take the best beef stew or braise you've made, then add a few secret Southeast Asian ingredients, then add the chocolatey, bitter buah keluak. What do you get? An orgasm.

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Lamb Rack, Red Snapper

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Buah Keluak ice cream, Kueh Salat

Oh, dessert. You sexy temptress.

Buah keluak ice cream, you say? Yes, sir. On its own, it was almost too intense; the mix of high grade dark chocolate and the buah keluak almost create the taste of a boozy chocolate milkshake. A bite with the salted caramel, chocolate espuma, and pop rocks evened things out. One of the most intensely chocolate desserts I've had.

Kueh Salat is typically a two-layered gelatinous dessert. The bottom is made of glutinous rice, the top is a green pandan custard. Lee and his team break it down: an intense pandan custard topped with coconut shavings, crushed Kueh Bangkit (coconut cookies), and a coconut sorbet on the side. The coconut sorbet all by itself is almost good enough to be one of my top desserts of the year. This is Singapore in a dish.

Part of why we went back to the restaurant a second time was just for this. The balancing of coconut and the vanilla-ish pandan is just unreal. I would consider this a perfect dish. Of all the desserts I can ever remember eating, I've liked none more than this.

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Chendol Cream

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The photos may look like any decent Asian restaurant's, but I can assure you all the flavors were far beyond any I've had before. If Candlenut was in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or even St. Louis (well, probably not), it would completely booked every night. If you're a Singaporean or planning to visit Singapore, you must go.

When I was picking my Top 5 Desserts and Top 10 Entrees this year, it was hard not to include more of Candlenut's dishes. I always sway towards Asian-influenced desserts, and all 3 we had could have made the list. This was, and still is, the best meal I've had this year. 

Check back Wednesday for a post on Artichoke.