Labyrinth has been a stalwart in the Mod-Sin scene for some time now and I’ve been fortunate to observe Han’s growth as a chef since he opened in Neil Road. Han had declared his food “Neo-Sin” in the past to differentiate himself from Willin Low’s Wild Rocket but with the unfortunate closure of the latter’s restaurant, I don’t see a need to subdivide what is already a tiny culinary genre. It has been awhile since I’ve tasted his food, so I seized the chance to attend the collaboration between Wolf Blass and Labyrinth.
There are many Burgundy drinkers that will tell you that the ability of a wine producer should be judged, not by their Grand Cru bottlings, but by how good their village-level wines are. The reasoning goes that anyone can make a good wine when the grapes are the best of the best, but it takes a winemaker of true skill to be able to produce something sublime out of the ordinary. I suppose that, too, is how one should judge the Wolf Blass Gold Label. At the price point, it would be unrealistic to expect a ground-shaking experience.
What the Gold Label range sets out to achieves is to provide wines that are affordable, approachable, and archetypal. I wager that it does all of this. They are bottles that you open for a casual drink in the afternoon without worrying if present company or your bank account might find it disagreeable.
That being said, it is precisely this characteristic that I feel makes it unsuited to a wine pairing of individual dishes. The flavours are typically fairly generic Austrialian: Low oak and a medium dry flavour for the Chardonnay, relatively soft tannins, and fruit forward for the Reds (Shiraz more so on this scale than the Cabernet Sauvignon). The wines do not have enough individual character to pair in a way that accentuates certain flavours in a particular dish, but they are perhaps more well suited towards drinking with a broad range of dishes when one does not want to mull too much over the possibility of a jarring mismatch. This versatility was demonstrated in the dinner with each wine being paired with multiple courses.
We begin with a trio of nibbles: An Orh Luak Takoyaki Ball, a Chicken Liver Waffle, and a Quail Tea Egg.
The orh luak takoyaki is an intelligent concept, to distill all the flavours of a hawker dish into a single bite. But as with most ideas, the crux always lies in the execution. The batter was slightly undercooked resulting in an overwhelming taste of flour with a slightly soggy texture. This is anti-thetical to the texture one might find in a orh luak, where one wants a shaterringly crisp exterior contrasted with a softly yielding interior. The flavours, however, was unmistakably those of a dish I grew up eating.
The waffle, on the other hand, was a triumph. One taste took me straight back to my childhood sneaking bites of strawberry waffles in school, praying my teacher would not call me out for the smell permeating the classroom. The was a far cry from the limp waffle that I recall, toasted and crisp on the outside and fluffy inside. The chicken liver pate works for what it is, although part of me wishes Han stuck to “traditional” flavours. But that’s a personal preference more than anything else.
The quail egg was perhaps the most forgettable of the three. The egg is cooked accurately, but it could have done with far more intensity and maybe smokiness.
The next dish was a clam tart with XO sambal sauce that was obviously inspired by Rene Redzipi’s clam tart from his Noma Japan pop-up in 2015. The deep, complex, XO sauce made from dried shrimp certainly complements the clams, but I had a niggling feeling that this was partially to distract from the fact that local clams do not quite have the same level of flavour as the wild ones you might find in Japan. Cost is obviously a factor (there is no way Han could have made a clam tart out of wild Japanese clams at this price point), and to be quite fair, Ah Hua Kelong is probably one of the best seafood farms in Singapore. Han makes the most of what he reasonably has access to here.
A deep fried wild shrimp served with sea grapes and a wasabi-nasturtium sauce was next. My guess is that this is a spin on the old-school zi char dish of wasabi prawns. Unfortunately, this fell a bit flat compared to the other dishes, the batter far too thick, and not deep fried particularly well. If there is one failing of Labyrinth, it is that the kitchen is not very successful with its deep-fried dishes. I have nothing against utilising deep-frying in the context of a high-end restaurant, but it is an issue if it is executed badly, especially when there are multiple instances utilising the technique. As if the diner needed reminding about the failings of a dinner! I’m not a fan of the sea grapes in the context of this dish as well. While I suspect it is intended to provide some extra textural crunch to enhance the dish, I’m not sure the sea grapes used were large enough neither was there enough used to really add anything.
Silver Perch with otah rempah and tom yum broth was an interesting concept on paper. The fish itself was well-cooked and of reasonable quality. I enjoyed the otah rempah spread on the fish skin, which added a delicious savoury dimension to the dish. More acidity and spice in the tom yum would have been welcome, though, to balance out the fish.
Three near-identical “chicken” satays arrived next. Titled “Sustainability”, the idea is to show the diner that there are other, more sustainable, alternatives to chicken meat in the form of frog and crocodile. This was quite a fun dish, the flavours and textures of all three meats indeed being quite similar. Perhaps one way to make things more exciting is to label each stick of satay with a number and have diners guess the identity of each mystery meat.
The first of two main dishes is the “Claypot Ang-Moh Chicken Rice.” Han has attempted quite a number of chicken rice dishes over the years, and I wager that this is his best variation yet. No more messing around with a chicken-less, rice-less, chicken-rice-flavoured tofu, or pretending that a cheong-fan-dumpling is a substitute for rice. Han uses his grandmother’s recipe of soaking the chicken rice in a butter roux that gives it a rich, creamy, texture. The chilli sitting between the chicken and the rice is piquant and fiery, the perfect way to lift up the rest of the dish. And of course, the chicken is cooked to perfection. This is gorgeous, honest, cooking. It is a showcase of how Han has matured as a chef, no longer looking to dazzle through outrageous concepts but instead focussed on anchoring his modern cooking on tradition.
The final savoury dish of grilled quail breast, har cheong quail thigh, and sambal kale brought things back down to earth and felt slight confused to me. While the breast was good, and the sambal kale made the most out of an unpalatable vegetable (I spent countless hours in London frying my kale with Sambal, too!), the har-cheong thigh repeated the theme of underwhelming deep fried dishes. It certainly didn’t help that there was no unifying element in the dish, just a disparate array of techniques and flavours used.
“Clam leaf snow,” was pleasant enough but did not taste like much more than a grape-flavoured ice kachang, which I suppose is what it’s supposed to be. The final dish of the menu, thankfully, more than made up for the underwhelming feeling I had from the previous dish. Kaya ice cream sandwiched between two slices of perfectly toasted bread from local bakery Sing Hon Loong was topped with caviar. A perhaps-not-so-strange cross between kaya toast and your traditional ice cream sandwich, this was an absolute delight to eat. The caviar sealed the deal, a pure stroke of genius on Han’s part. The subtle salinity brought all the gula melaka notes to the forefront, transforming the kaya flavour into that of a localised salted caramel on steroids.
As with any long tasting menu, there will always be highs and lows. While there were some let downs, the dishes that did work were very good indeed. It is fascinating to see Labyrinth moving from strength-to-strength and despite Han’s virtual monopoly in the high-end Mod-Sin space, he is clearly not resting on his laurels. A Michelin Star well-deserved. For more information of Wolf Blass’ masterclass and dinner with Michelin star restaurant chefs, do check out https://wolfblassfyf.com/.
Joel misspent much of his youth eating and drinking his way around the world. Now he has no choice but to continue. Follow his silly thoughts on Twitter: @aPigCurious