If there's one good thing that rose above the noise of SG50 pride, it’s that our local chefs found themselves suddenly bang on trend. So it comes as no surprise that the National Gallery Singapore puts homegrown cuisine on the same pedestal as fancy Western ones. Violet Oon's new restaurant is testament to that.
Oon, doyenne of Peranakan cuisine and former journalist, combines her two loves in a restaurant at the Gallery's City Hall Wing with an archive of photos on the wall that chronicle Singapore’s food history. Overall, National Kitchen doesn't deviate in look and feel to her recently revamped Bukit Timah restaurant, where stiff-upper-lip fixings and furnishings meld seamlessly with Peranakan flourishes.
As for the cooking, that same archival frame of mind carries through in the menu. In addition to the rempah-rich Nyonya plates Oon has built her name on, an effort has been made to bring back the dishes slowly eroding from our cultural memory. Like a trio of steamed black lentil idly cakes ($7), soured to hark of thosai, served on wooden boards with a fiery lentil sambar and plummy tomato chutney. Or the mochi-like, hand-kneaded Hakka abacus beads ($17) – biting into them fills the palate with the umami of stringy black fungus, minced pork and shiitake mushrooms. And the stew of fish head curry ($42) takes the recipe back to its mildly spicy, tomato-rich Kerala roots.
With the exception of the tame curry, the food has hardly been dumbed down for tourists. The lovely Ju Hee Char ($13) is a crunchy mess of sautéed jicama, carrots, shiitake and cuttlefish – it has an addictive quality, helped on by the thinly sliced, fried and salty sprinkling of cuttlefish.
Dessert is where interpretation starts to edge in on tradition – chewy lace doilies of roti jala ($10) are served with a small cup of banana soused in melted gula Melaka instead of the usual curry, and pineapple upside-down cake ($12) with the texture of sugee cake sits with butterscotch in a low bowl.
There are plans to eventually open up a small Padang-facing terrace for sundowner drinks, but for now, give the cocktails a miss. Our HaliaTini ($20) is tipped in balance too far in vodka's direction, and those floaty bits of chopped ginger flowers hardly pass for a garnish.
Yes, National Kitchen might be slurred as too atas and pricey for what mum used to make at home. But make no mistake – this isn't a showpiece or token gesture for the city's fêted new opening. Come get acquainted with the dishes we forgot as a population, and you might leave with a head and tummy filled with more than just new knowledge you picked up ambling through the Gallery.
Time Out Singapore reviews anonymously and pays for all meals. Read our restaurant review policy here.
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