Candlenut Kitchen

Some time ago we heard that Malcolm Lee, a bright, savvy culinary school graduate, had finally opened his much anticipated (in foodie circles, at least) Peranakan place on Neil Road. The guy’s got balls alright, we thought then. Opening a Nyonya joint in the Tanjong Pagar area, where there’s a surfeit of kickass Peranakan outlets, is certainly setting the cat among the pigeons. It’s a tidy little place; its dark, wooden floors contrast nicely with whitewashed walls. The contemporary vibe is nicely complemented by the old school wooden beams on the ceiling—it’s in a Straits-style shophouse, after all. This 30 person (or so) establishment was a third full when we trooped in early one weeknight. A sourpuss of a waitress showed us to our table—no smile, no hello, just a sharpish slap of the menu on the table. We got straight in and ordered, and while we didn’t mind the longish wait, the food arrived in dribs and drabs, which was infuriating because a) we didn’t order much b) by this time there was only another table (a party of six) being served. And the food was an utter letdown—possibly one of the most pedestrian dining experiences we’ve had this year. The Java sambal goreng, a curried dish with eggs, prawns and vegetable had none of the spicy, sharp flavors that it’s known for; while the Nyonya otah was lacking in flavor and overpriced. Even the classic chincalok omelet was all egg and possessed hardly a hint of the salty fermented shrimp of the chincalok. The babi pongteh, with its juicy bits of pork belly stewed in a hearty fermented bean sauce, though, was delicious. And while all the dishes were well portioned, we would gladly have traded in quantity for quality. The real saving grace was the la chendol, an exquisitely plated version of the popular local dessert served with fantastically fragrant gula melaka, red beans, attap seeds and chendol ice cream. The unsmiling, indifferent service continued throughout; the dozy staff swiping our credit card against the wrong bill (overcharging us by three fold, before it was sorted out). The question is not so much whether we’ll be back (we won’t), but whether they’ll still be around in the next few months. Quite frankly, we’d like them reincarnated as a hole-in-the wall chendol shack in their next life.