7 Dishes: Han Li Guang

Walk into his Labyrinth, where he has many dishes to share.

By W Tan | 27 December, 2019 | Food, People, Profiles, Restaurants
2019-12-27 09:30:08 2019-12-23 17:49:15

In a quiet nook past the shiny shopfronts of Esplanade Mall lies a nondescript entranceway flanked by a sleek bar. Inside, shadows dance off white linen and dark walls, adorned with various bric-à-brac and paintings of local hawkers showing off their craft.

Spotlights on. Food emerges. A star is born.

This is Labyrinth, a one Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by Chef Han Li Guang. From the moment you enter, it’s easy to lose yourself within the theatre. Like its décor, the restaurant is a curious blend of juxtaposition – of old against new, of light against heavy flavours, of traditional recipes against modern cookery techniques. In Chef Han’s words: “[Dining at] Labyrinth is a journey, like an adventure through a maze. Every corner is going to be a surprise. We’re not going to serve you normal, boring old food over here.”

And surprise he does. Chef Han catapulted Labyrinth into the limelight years ago with his experimental mod-Sin cuisine and novel dishes, such as chilli crab ice cream and chendol xiao long bao. But where he’s once known for playful gastronomy, Chef Han channels his creativity these days into championing traditional Singaporean flavours with a modern locavore twist.

The focus here? Produce. 90% of Labyrinth’s ingredients are sourced locally. Unbeknownst to many, Singapore’s farms yield a variety of high-quality produce, from oysters grown in Pulau Ubin to organic silver perch to fresh vibrant herbs. The smaller farm-to-table window is important, says Chef Han, and his mission is to showcase the uniqueness of these “amazing produce” to his guests, to help them understand how local food can be “on par with the value perception placed on other cuisines of the world”.

“We don’t just feed our guests. Service is also about education. Educating our guests not just about Singaporean dishes, but also sustainability. Singapore has farms; where are they located at? We haven’t even combed through all of them yet. Exploring what our farms and our seas have to offer is like writing a narrative about Singapore. That’s why we included postcards for our tasting menus, to explain why our produce is special and why our dishes truly belong to us.”

In his hands, familiar dishes like yusheng and chicken rice are given a fresh spin. Unconventional as they may seem, judging by the culinary accolades and the constant stream of satisfied diners, both local and foreign, clearly Chef Han must be doing things right.

“I’m happy where we are right now. I’m never truly contented, and I’ll push Labyrinth as far as I can for the future, because I think what we’re doing has a lot of soul and meaning. We’re not a big restaurant. But if we can change the way people see things – even if it’s just one or two people – it’s a win for us. At the end of the day, we just want to elevate Singaporean cuisine.”

Pulau Ubin oyster, served as “takoyaki” with sambal and egg floss

When you have only one bite to impress, you have to pack it full of flavour. That’s exactly what Chef Han has done in this takoyaki, which is usually served as an amuse-bouche at the start of the meal. Instead of serving the locally-farmed oyster raw – which might draw unsavoury comparisons to foreign varietals such as French Gillardeau or Belon – Chef Han has chosen to dice the oyster up and coat it in a fried starch ball, topped with sambal and an oyster leaf for added flavour. So it looks like Japanese takoyaki, but tastes like our homely orh luak (oyster omelette).

Labyrinth rojak, with edible garden herbs, natural stingless bee honey and cempedak (jackfruit) sorbet

Pretty as the dish looks, it’s actually an intellectual study of terroir – a showcase of how Singapore’s climate and soil play a role in producing aromatic, vibrant greens. Sourced from Edible Garden City, there are 14 different herbs and flowers used here, including both white and blue pea flowers, red and green wood sorrel, marigold flower, Mexican terragon, terragon leaves, Indian borage, Okinawan spinach, moringa, sweet potato leaves, ginger flower, and cat’s whiskers.

Local wild-caught shrimp, with Victorian nasturtium purée

This is Chef Han’s nod to crispy wasabi mayonnaise prawns, a dish created and popularised by celebrity chef Sam Leong. Here the wasabi is replaced by local Victorian nasturtium (recognisable by its distinctive red veins running behind the leaves), which tastes reminiscent of wasabi. The Victorian nasturtium is presented both as a raw leaf and as a creamy mayonnaise, so diners can taste the difference between its original and processed forms.

Local wild-caught crab with Sustenir strawberries, served with signature chilli ice cream, egg whites and salted mackerel

A sentimental mainstay of his menu, Chef Han’s signature chilli crab ice cream has undergone countless iterations over the years. Not only has he tweaked the formula of the ice cream, the star of the dish has now shifted from the chilli crab-flavoured ice cream to the fresh and sweet flower crabs wild-caught by fishermen working with Ah Hua Kelong.

Kuhlbarra barramundi, with ulam rajah, fermented local tomato dressing and yusheng dressing

An ode to yusheng that’s 100% local. The dainty pink flowers aren’t there purely for aesthetic purposes; they’re actually an edible native herb known as ulam rajah, which adds a green mango flavour to the dish.

Claypot “ang moh” chicken rice, with kampong chicken, local mushrooms and Grandma’s chilli sauce

Growing up in a close-knit Hainanese family, Chef Han has a soft spot for chicken rice, which his late grandmother often prepared for her British employers. To keep her memories alive, he serves up her rendition of “ang moh” chicken rice at Labyrinth, albeit with some changes. The recipe remains the same in essence – rice cooked al dente and folded into a creamy chicken and mushroom roux, almost like a risotto — but Chef Han has made some tweaks for flavour, switching out button mushrooms for abalone mushrooms and cooking the chicken differently so it stays tender and moist. Just don’t ask him exactly how the chicken is prepared. “It’s a secret,” chuckles Chef Han. “We spent a month perfecting it!”

Nippon Koi Farm silver perch, served with otah rempah, all-spice leaf and kaffir lime oil

In traditional otah, the taste of the Spanish mackerel is often overwhelmed by the spices in the rempah. In his modern interpretation, Chef Han uses organically-grown silver perch sourced from Nippon Koi Farm. Instead of blending the fish together with the spices, he spreads the rempah on top of a fillet of silver perch, before folding it into a banana leaf and grilling it over charcoal. The result is a mouth-watering slab of tender fish otah, redolent with the scents of smoked banana leaf and kaffir lime.

Served alongside is a plate of omega-3 fats extracted from the silver perch, doused with a sweet-and-sour fish consommé for a lighter, acidic touch to cut through the intense flavours of the otah.

A writer by profession, a gourmand by passion.