National Kitchen by Violet Oon has been on my to-eat list ever since Violet Oon, the doyenne of Peranakan cuisine, announced she was opening yet another eponymous dining concept in the heritage building. I've always liked Violet Oon's Nyonya cuisine, even if I've found her restaurants tend to get a little inconsistent after the 5-year mark.
The first time I was here, we got seated outdoors, which fortuitously turned out to be the best seats in the house with its expansive view of the Padang and the Marina Bay Sands beyond. Save for the masses packing the balcony terrace during the F1 and National Day festivities (or any other time when there's fireworks to be seen from this vantage), the alfresco outdoors is a serene contrast to the bustling crowd of the indoors. And it feels a lot more private because tables are spaced much further apart on the balcony.
Food-wise, we were, tbh, apprehensive when we first walked into the restaurant and saw a sea of Caucasians. Tourists, mainly, from the look of it. We were half-expecting the food to be a watered-down version of our beloved spicy foods, so it was surprising to find that National Kitchen by Violet Oon held back no punches. I'm pleased to report that the rempah caused a steady stream of sniffles and the relentless need for top-ups of ice water. But stick to the Peranakan stuff, and give a hard pass on the hawker dishes; they were middling at best and entirely unsatisfactory.
Like with the dismally pedestrian Rojak ($7), which was soggy and wayyy too sweet. Suffice it to say, we didn't finish this.
The Pong Tauhu Soup ($11) was fantastic. The red-tinged bisque was redolent with taucheo and shrimp stock, toasty and umami and sweet, laced with julienned bamboo shoots, a ginormous ball of minced chicken, prawns and beancurd and lashings of bawang goreng (fried shallots).
A must-try, the Daging Chabek ($36) was a hunk of beef cheek slow-braised till fork-tender, and slathered in a toasty nutty spicy rempah with hints of piquant tamarind, fragrant coconut and smoky-sweet gula melaka. It's not a dish frequently found anywhere except in home kitchens during the most special of occasions, so this was quite the treat.
Also a must-try but one that's available across Violet Oon's restaurant group unlike the daging chabek, the Beef Rendang ($23) of melt-in-your-mouth beef shin rich in a coconut milk-based rempah and enlivened with kaffir lime leaves was superb.
The Udang Goreng Chilli ($32) of succulent angka prawns was grilled and tossed in a chilli padi and garlic rempah. This was fiery, bold and gutsy, and lit my tongue on fire. Also a must-try.
The Cod ($39), baked till crispy, was served on a bed of laksa cream sauce, coriander pesto and lime to brighten it up. I loved the East-West fusion of this, it was a resounding hit.
Yet another memorable dish, the deep-fried Sambal Bajak Barramundi ($30) was burnished with a flurry of chili padi sambal sweet with caramelised onions.
The Indian Red Snapper Fish Head Curry ($42), dotted with omatoes, baby eggplant, and okra was competent, but forgettable.
The Hainanese Chicken Rice ($18) was a woeful dud. The chicken was dry, the rice was lacking in flavour, the sauce was bland and the chilli was oddly sweet instead of spicy. We didn't finish this either. The saving grace of this was to use the rice as a somewhat flavoured set-up for the gravied dishes.
Ditto for the Nasi Lemak Rice ($2), which was less-than-fragrant, but made for a great base for the sambals and rempahs and gravies.
Another must-try, the Buah Keluak Noodles ($24) was a modern interpretation of the use of buah keluak. This was smoky, piquant, nutty and kicky. So so good!!
Our dessert order de rigueur, Pulot Hitam ($12) was the perfect juxtaposition of cold coconut ice-cream and warm black glutinous rice pudding sweetened with gula melaka. Best pulot hitam, bar none.
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
National Gallery #02-01
1 Saint Andrews Road
Tel: 9834 9935
Open daily for lunch from 12noon to 2.30pm;
tea from 3pm to 5pm;
dinner from 6pm to 10.30pm