A sneak peek of the dishes you can expect at MasterChef Asia winner Woo Wai Leong’s new restaurant in Chinatown.
For someone who’s opening a restaurant for the first time, Woo Wai Leong appears relatively calm. Perhaps it’s because he has had ample experience staying cool under pressure—think winning the inaugural MasterChef Asia competition in 2015, no less. Since then, he has been bartending at places like The Horse’s Mouth, judging drink competitions, and doing pop-ups and chef collaborations at home and overseas.
Now, the self-taught chef is ready to start his own place, and it is cleverly named Restaurant Ibid. The word “ibid” may remind you of school days spent labouring over term papers. Literally meaning “in the same place”, ‘ibid” denotes a preceding source.
For Woo, the name is shorthand for the way his food references his roots and origins. As a Singaporean Chinese, he is just as influenced by his childhood memories in Singapore, as by ingredients from his Chinese heritage and the Western culinary techniques he has picked up. Rather than modern Singaporean or modern Chinese, he prefers to label his cuisine “Nanyang-style” in association with Nanyang artists like Liu Kang or Georgette Chen, who came from China but later produced decidedly local works that synthesised East and West.
Through an a la carte menu for lunch, and four-, six- and eight-course sets for dinner, Woo will be putting up plates that are inspired by a key Chinese ingredient, say, angelica root or tofu, and built upon with his memories of the past and present. For drinks, diners can expect a selection that includes craft cocktails “as ‘simple’ as Moutai highballs to drinks that incorporate oolong milk tea, moonshine and chrysanthemum or cachaça and celtuce juice.”
As the restaurant evolves, Woo hopes to weave Chinese teas, traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients and Chinese wines into the menus. And true to his drinks expertise, Woo is planning to include some dishes that heavily feature alcohol in good time.
Woo reflects that not much has changed in his cooking style since his MasterChef days. He was already influenced by East and West then, even if it was unconscious. “In the final episode for example, I did a brown butter puree with mirin-glazed leek. This dish already had an Asian touch as I incorporated soy in the sauce. In a way, it was good that this was one of the last dishes I did on the show as it set the stage for the rest of my popups and cooking that followed. There’s still much more to learn and explore in the world of Chinese cuisine; to see how we can bring it back to our own so that the food we make is not East, not West; it’s ours.”
Here’s a peek at four of Woo’s dishes (barring tweaks here and there) you can have at Restaurant Ibid when it opens at the end of the month:
Spring onion shao bing with yeasted butter and laksa leaf
Inspired by shao bing, the ubiquitous baked flatbread snack found across different parts of China, Woo’s pillowy, chewy spring onion shao bing is filled with mozzarella, sesame oil and spring onion, and paired with a great big dollop of yeasted butter and pandan oil on the side.
A great starter to get the appetite going, the warm, savoury bread is made even more moreish with the aromatic, umami butter-pandan oil spread. Says Woo, “People look at the oil and the first thing they’ll think about is spring onion oil, but it’s actually pandan oil. Pandan has a very alluring scent. And why fried bread with butter? Because fat on fat means more flavour.”
Egg yolk jam with onion soubise, gingko nuts and tea broth
“Taiwanese tea egg is a snack that is commonly found sitting in huge vats of tea, soya sauce and spices. Most of the time, the eggs are cooked beyond recognition; sometimes even grey on the inside. Having worked in a ramen shop for close to half a year, I learnt to appreciate a good yolk, and wanted to reproduce that in this dish.”
Woo does that by presenting a tidy “sunny-side-up” rendition of sous-vide egg yolk and onion-soy milk egg white steeped in a tea broth made with aged Mandarin peel, pu-erh and a dashi of kombu and other seasonings. “In Chinese cooking, you have a good balance of all the five tastes. For some slight bitter notes, I added gingko nuts—fried in brown butter to give it a hazel-nutty aroma—and added some fennel fronds for a touch of freshness.”
Beef short ribs with black garlic, angelica root, black fungus and dehydrated Asian pear
This dish has been a signature dish of Woo’s for quite some time, and he regularly cooks it for his popup events. A dish with harmonious, intense flavours, it is definitely a must-try on one’s first visit to Restaurant Ibid. The USDA beef short rib is cooked sous vide for 48 hours, “but rather than low and slow, I cook it at high temperature, more like a braise,” says Woo.
The beef is paired with a smooth and silky black garlic and potato puree, a crunchy black fungus that is pickled in Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, then charred to give it a light crispness. Finally, the dish is topped with silky nashi pears that have been dehydrated and rehydrated and drizzled with a luscious chicken jus with caramelised onions and angelica root.
Soy bean ice cream with toasted sesame, Sarawak pepper and almond
Woo had tried some soy bean soft serve ice creams in his time, but none had the perfect consistency he was looking for. So he decided to experiment with it until he got a version he was happy with. Like the short rib, this dish has been well-traveled, appearing often in his pop-up lineups.
To enliven the textures of the dessert, he adds crunchy bits of Sarawak pepper meringue, sesame cake, a sea of sesame seeds, and an almond foam. The result is a light dessert that is not too sweet, yet gives a melange of flavours that one can savour long after the meal.
18 North Canal Road. Tel: 9151 8698