Chef Malcolm Lee in his new kitchen
It’s always great to discover a new, fabulous little restaurant. Even better still when the chef-owner is a bright, earnest, young guy that you’ve watched grow from strength to strength.
One of the most rewarding things about producing The Miele Guide (Asia’s only truly regional and independent restaurant guide) each year is that, thanks to several partners, we’re able to give out scholarships to young Asians looking to fulfill their dreams of attending a world class culinary school and kickstarting potentially great careers. Since we started this tradition, we’ve awarded scholarships to two students a year to attend professional classes at the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. One student each year has been a Singaporean while the other student has come from another country in Asia. The very first Singaporean recipient of the scholarship was a young man named Malcolm Lee.
Malcolm was an impressive candidate. While attending the Singapore Management University, he took over one of the university’s cafes and literally turned it around. He revamped the eatery’s menu, transforming what I’ve been told was a very so-so place into a campus favourite. Through what was meant to be an extra-curriculur activity, Malcolm found himself and found his calling. Then, while attending At-Sunrice, his teachers reported to us that he was scoring ridiculously high marks. No one, my colleagues and I were told, scores all As. But Malcolm was, even winning a few A+s along the way. This guy, we all said, was going to go really, really far. Months before he graduated, we started to speculate which great chef would bring Malcolm under his or her wing.
So, when we heard that this smart, young graduate wanted to open his own restaurant straight after school, we all got a little worried. Questions like, “What the hell is he thinking?” and “Oh my god, does he know what he’s getting himself into?” were thrown around our office. Understandably, we were really worried that this young chef was biting off way more than he could chew.
Then he told us that the restaurant would be a Peranakan one, focused on celebrating the food that his mother and grandmother cooked for him all his life. The twist, he said, would be that he wanted to use his newly-acquired culinary skills to find ways to refine the methods of producing this usually super labour-intensive cuisine. I thought this was actually a really cool concept. He assured me that the food would, for any diner, seem traditional. He wasn’t trying to do something as far-fetched as molecular Nyonya cuisine. He just wanted to find the best ways to make his family’s home-cooked food for the rest of us.
Clockwise from top left: ngoh hiang, kueh pie tee, fish fillet with garlic chilli, prawns with petai
That was several months ago. And now, finally, after a few hiccups, Malcolm Lee’s restaurant, Candlenut Kitchen, is open. My darling and always hungry wife S, some colleagues, and I made sure to be among the first to congratulate this ambitious young chef. And of course, to try his food.
We pigged out. No understatement. We started with some ngoh hiang, kueh pie tee, eggs tempra and a bowl of itek tim. We then had chap chye, ayam buak keluak, fish fillet with garlic chilli, petai with shrimp, and a white curry chicken dish Malcolm calls “Yeye’s curry”.
The ngoh hiang (steamed then fried pork rolls) were deliciously fresh. In fact, one of the things that S was really pleased by was that everything tasted fresh. You could really taste the ingredients (and especially the herbs and spices) in the food. I loved the kueh pie tee. They tasted lovingly homemade — which is maybe the best compliment anyone can give Nyonya food. The eggs tempra were also yummy — the yolks were kept nice and runny.
S loved the itek tim, which Malcolm makes with pork trotter as well as duck (in fact Malcolm uses a gorgeously obscene amount of pork in his food). The soup, as S put it, “makes you pucker” due to its sourness, which is, in her opinion, the desired effect. As you can probably tell, while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t my favourite dish.
An empty plate as testament to a great meal
I really loved the ayam buak keluak, which may be the first version of the pungent and spicy dish that I’ve ever eaten that I can actually say has a level of subtlety which I really appreciated. Usually, this dish’s flavour are overpowering — overpoweringly bitter, spicy, (if done badly) salty. Malcolm’s version was mild and the stuffing in the nut was really flavourful without being too one-dimensional. The chicken was also amazingly tender, something all of us appreciated. I think we’ve all had too many ayam buak keluaks with hard, overcooked chunks of chicken. The Candlenut Kitchen version was simply delicious.
Yeye’s curry was equally slurpilicious. This is a dish, Malcolm told us, that has been in his family for 4 generations. His great-grandfather used to make this white, very lemak chicken curry. Again, as with the ayam buak keluak, the chicken was gorgeously tender. The curry sauce was really tasty as well, with discernable accents of lemongrass and white pepper. S was equally pleased by the very simple but sensationally well-prepared dish of petai (which some call stink beans) with shrimp in a slightly spicy, slightly sour sauce. She just couldn’t stop eating it.
Desserts were good too, especially the “chendol cream” with gula melaka. It’s kind of hard to describe — sort of a panna cotta with the flavours of chendol — so just go have it for yourself.
Please support Malcolm. He and his new restaurant definitely deserve it. But also, please, have patience. The restaurant has just opened. And any small restaurant needs a bit of time to hit its stride. So be kind. And have a great meal.
25 Neil Road
Tel: +65 6226 2506
Open Monday to Saturday, 1130am – 230pm, 6pm – 10pm