What do you do 12 years after opening the only Peranakan restaurant with a Michelin Star? For Malcolm Lee, he decided to refine the cuisine for the modern diner, this time in an upscale setting at Pangium.
The chef and owner of Candlenut has launched his new restaurant at the Gallop extension of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, this time named after the tree that produces the buah keluak seed. The focus is still on Straits flavours, delivered only through lunch and diner tasting menus that tackle dishes many locals hold close to their hearts.
And boy, do they feel strongly about it. On a TikTok video of our recent meal here, someone commented, “expensive, small portion of food.” Another: “[Expletive] names are these [dishes]? If we want Straits flavour, we will eat tze char. Cmon [sic] go to Odette, it’s way better.”
To the first commenter, you are right, a meal here is costly, ranging from S$198 to S$258. Portions start off small but the eight courses are supplemented by four snacks. A rice course also came with so many side dishes it bordered on a buffet spread. To the second commenter, if you want French flavours, will you eat Eddy’s duck confit at Hong Lim Food Centre? Cmon, go to Les Amis, it’s way better.
Pangium is a throwback to traditions, which Lee said stemmed from nostalgia. “We see old hawkers retiring. Our grandparents or parents are no longer able to cook because of old age. This sense of loss is driving us to retrace our steps to understand what we have missed out.” At Pangium, this wistfulness is manifested in following lost recipes and laboriously making every dish from scratch.
At the same time, the new restaurant is Lee’s way of looking forward. “We ask ourselves: ‘How would we do it if we were to approach the same dish with a similar mindset as the people who first created it, but prepare it in the context of today so that present day diners might connect with it?’ ”
His approach appears immediately in the snacks. Top Hat Kueh Pie Tee is a bite-sized, delicately crunchy rendition with fresh bamboo shoots, dried cuttlefish, and a bright chilli sauce found in a 1966 cookbook. Chewy abalone elevates an already textural Ngoh Hiang. Mee Sua Kueh, a fast-disappearing dish, is revived with springy tea tree mushrooms. Keropok packs in Ang Kar prawn from Tekka market, prawn oil and stock for an intense sweet-saline bite. “We try to stuff in as much prawn as possible,” Lee said.
Some dishes are deceiving. A crusty, Hong Kong-style bolo bun is Pang Susi in disguise, a rarely-seen Eurasian pastry filled with caramelised Iberico pork cheek. Turmeric ravioli is actually Dumpling Udang Nanas Lemak, packing Mooloolaba king prawn otah and lobster, and bobbing in an airy pineapple coconut broth. Hee Peow Soup is a celebration of Eastern Chinese and Peranakan ingredients, with crunchy lion’s head meatball and a soft, spongy fish omelette. “It is like a Swiss roll, just much smaller,” said Senior Manager of F&B Operations, Jessline Lee.
Ikan Chuan Chuan, the only protein course, is heady and silky but the Bentong ginger sauce could be more emphatic. It precedes the traditional Malay dish of Nasi Ulam, and that does not not put a foot wrong. Served like a bento box, the fluffy, herbaceous rice came with a wealth of sides from an earthy duck satay to a chocolate-like buah keluak, but it was a bittersweet durian chilli paste called Sambal Tempoyak Kuning that I still daydream about.
A refreshing Musk Melon Sago signals a turn towards dessert, followed by Sagun, or young coconut sorbet. Made simply from the juice, flesh, and milk of the coconut, it is incredibly creamy and light, but is very labour-intensive to make, said Lee. A quartet of sweets was served with it, including a fluffy Ondeh Ondeh hiding gooey palm sugar, a buttery Pandan Kueh Ambon, Kueh Bingka, or tapioca cake with crispy edges, and Buah Keluak Bonbon with Valrhona chocolate, which somehow lacked the chocolatey punch of the savoury version.
Ultimately, it is hard to fault Pangium. Maybe for its elevator music, and its uneven pacing between courses, but we are nitpicking here. In a landscape awash with fine-dining European restaurants, Lee dares to haul our beloved local food into that realm. Commenter number two, find me a tze char restaurant that does that.
Pangium is located at 11 Gallop Road Gallop Entrance, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 259015. Book here.