It is not often that classic Singaporean dishes and hawker fare get translated or rather, deconstructed into fine dining. I think the reason is because the original versions are so good that messing with the formula wouldn’t do them justice at all. Enter Willin Low. Formerly a lawyer by profession, who quit the formulaic career grind, and even then, broke the rules of Singapore food to create what he coins ModSin, short for Modern Singaporean food.
Ever since he went into the culinary scene 8 years ago, Willin now runs 3 restaurants across Singapore, with Wild Rocket being his flagship restaurant that serves an intriguing Singapore Omakase meal.
Like myself, Willin Low was not a professionally trained chef, but trained from passion at home. Willin tries to interpret his love for traditional Singaporean fare coupled with modern gastronomy techniques into the menu at Wild Rocket. I was very happy to finally visit Wild Rocket during this return to Singapore, and met up with the man himself.
Wild Rocket is housed on the ground floor of a chic little boutique hotel on top of a hill, named Mount Emily. The restaurant is modestly sized, and sits about 30 people or so. The omakase course is usually served at the chefs table, where the presenting chef would introduce each dish to you. Decor is clean and simple, Japanese inspired. Fine, but not high end. The environment was clean and felt private, even when there were other diners around. Lighting is comfortable. I actually quite liked the place, despite there being no discernible highlight. I suppose that is a form of zen-ness? 8.5/10
The servers were polite and attentive. Courses would be timed to be served only when you’ve finished your current plate, and wait times were never more than 10 minutes. I liked how the head chef would take turns with the sous chef to come out and introduce the dishes, although it was clear that Willin was more charismatic. Chef Willin Low would playfully have us guess what mystery ingredient was used in certain dishes, and disclosed the answer when he served the next course. 8.5/10
The omakase meal comprised of 8 courses, with the dessert course split into two courses.
At $118, it is not cheap by local standards, but a fair price to pay for a memorable and truly creative menu.
Hokkaido Scallop Sashimi with preserved radish, shio konbu and a dash of truffle oil
This was Willin’s take on the classic Singaporean or rather, Teochew ‘Chwee Kueh’ , a snack made from rice flour, steamed and topped with preserved radishes.
This would be an elevated representation of the original, as opposed to a deconstruction because the ingredients are nearly entirely different. However, the umami bomb was similar.
Traditionally comprised of soft wobbly rice cakes, the soft and fresh scallops mirrored the delicateness of the original, but with extra bite and flavour.
The preserved radish was actually quite different, because in the original dish, the radishes would be cooked and braised, interestingly, it was the combination of the preserved radish in this rendition, together with the dried konbu bits that gave an explosion of umami, matching that of the original. As if that wasn’t enough, a dash of truffle oil married the various components together in yet another dimension of flavour. This was a truly bold and imaginative attempt by Willin, but one that I actually thought made sense, and connected with the original. It was, however a little bit salty. 9/10
This dish came as somewhat of a surprise, firstly because it looked almost like a dessert, secondly because it is actually a rendition of a Thai dish — curry duck.
The highlight of the dish was the curry sauce, or lack thereof. The sauce came in the form of an ice cream, which I would later find to be delightfully refreshing. The duck came in the form of rolled thick slices, and were magnificently cooked medium. The duck slices were so well cooked that their texture almost tasted like beef. The brain receptacles would not believe that this was duck.
Paired with the curry ice cream, it was quite a marvel to witness the feelings of hot and cold, the texture of soft tender meat and cream and finally the flavours of lemon grass and duck meld together. The ice cream sat on a mound of vermicelli, which nicely soaked up the melted parts of the ice cream, before getting slurped into the belly.
The accompanying vegetables on the served mainly as garnish, and did little for the dish other than visual impact. Presentation, flavours, textures, technical execution, this dish pretty much nailed it all. 9/10
Shrimp Paste ‘Chicken’
Chef Willin Low’s take on the classic Shrimp Paste Chicken, a dish I take great pride in at my restaurant Hello Miss Dong in Shanghai. The catch? There was no chicken used in his rendition! He had asked us to guess the ingredient, but having lived in Shanghai for 9 years, one look at the cartilage across the strips revealed the ingredient to be pigs ear. Let it be known that unlike my mainland Chinese counterparts, I have never enjoyed pigs ears for their crunchiness. Wild Rocket’s rendition had a different type of crunchiness — only on the outside. This was because the strips had been pre-cooked, before getting battered and deep fried to a crisp. The expected shrimp paste flavours were apparent, and the batter resulted in a light and airy crust with a slight bouncy chew when bitten into. They could have almost passed off as calamari. Remarkably creative. 9/10
Char Kuay Teow
Based on appearances, this looked identical to the real thing. As a matter of fact, it tasted very similar as well, sans the wok hei (breath of wok) and cockles. Willin again, asked us to take note of the ingredient used for what would normally be flat rice noodles. I guessed many things: fish cake slices, even duck intestines. Turns out, the flat noodles in his rendition of char kuay teow was made out of thinly sliced squid! No wonder the noodles had a naturally subtle seafood taste, and were very bouncy to the bite. In this manner, the noodle dish didn’t need any additional accompanying ingredient, because the noodle itself is the highlight! Truly remarkable! 9/10
Hokkien Prawn Mee
This was said to be Willin’s rendition of the hokkien prawn mee. Hokkien prawn mee could be a few types of noodles. Two of the most popular ones are the stir fried noodle with prawns and squid, and the soup noodle with prawns. I believe the version he was trying to replicate was the fried version. A single king prawn was grilled on top of a mound of dark looking pasta. A calamansi lime wedge was provided to add some brightness to the mix.
Truth be told, I didn’t feel the dish managed to resemble either hokkien prawn mee. You need the incredible broth to do the soup version, and you need some eggs in the mix along with a strong wok hei for the fried version.
I would however say that this was a very excellent spaghetti ala king prawn. Spaghetti was cooked al dente, with a strong stock made from the king prawn’s shells and heads. It was so strong that it tasted slightly fishy, which I remedied with a squeeze of lime.
The grilled prawn was delicious, crunchy, but slightly over seasoned. My companion was remarking that several of the dishes so far have been quite salty. This one is a little tricky to rate, because as a dish on it’s own, it was quite good. But as an adaptation of a classic Singaporean dish, i didn’t think it made the mark, but with all things considered, I still award it an 8/10.
The next dish was somewhat of a disaster, which was a pity, having enjoyed our meal so far. It was a take on cantonese claypot rice. This version stuck quite closely to the original, except that instead of sweet cantonese sausages, a piece of pan-seared barramundi liver was used as the luxury ingredient. I suppose it was meant to be achieve the same effect as foie gras, which the sous chef did mention of their similarities. He also warned us that it might be a little fishy, hence a small dollop of preserved/candied ginger was provided to offset the fishiness.
The rice was actually decently done with some charred bits and the expectant soy sauce. The duck liver sausages that accompanied it were quite nice and true to home.
However, the Barramundi was unbelievably fishy, especially in it’s medium cooked state. No amount of pickle could mask that fishiness, and after 2 tries, I simply gave up finding a way to appreciate it. As a fishiness comparison, the barramundi liver would have made cockles tasted like scallops. We found this dish rather foul, and agreed that it shouldn’t be on the menu. 3/10 due to the fact that the ingredient was bad tasting, and really didn’t work together with the rice as a dish. Points go for a passable claypot rice with liver sausages.
Seared wagyu beef with buah keluak mash
Our final main dish was a take on a malay/peranakan beef dish cooked with buah keluak (candlenut) sauce. The Tajima wagyu was perfectly cooked medium rare, and had a good ratio of fat and soft tender muscle.
The candlenut mashed potatoes were surprisingly tasty despite it’s dark gloomy color, and had an unmistakably savoury peranakan flavour. This was a simple but perfectly thought-out and executed dish. 9/10
Sugarcane sorbet with preserved lemon peel and rum soaked sugar cane
The first of our 2 desserts. One I’m very pleased with, because sugar cane juice is a very iconic Singaporean beverage that everyone grew up with. Somehow it has rarely made the limelight. The sugarcane juice sorbet was very light and refreshing, as do most sorbets. What made the dessert really stand out was the strips of preserved lemon peel — a very cantonese and actually salty ingredient, paired with the dried crumbled preserved orange peel — A candy snack we often ate as kids. Those two preserved fruits really provided a sharp accent to the dessert. The rum-soaked cane then mellowed everything else and provided a satisfying boozy conclusion to the dessert. One might find the rum-soaked sugar cane mysteriously fitting, that is probably because rum is distilled from sugar cane juice. 9/10
Black Glutinuous Rice Ice cream with jackfruit, sea coconut and black glutinuous rice, coconut cream.
Black glutinuous rice is another classic chinese dessert, infact enjoyed throughout many parts of China. I never would have thought it would be able to be made into an ice cream, and again, worked extremely well. It had a faint hint of what a red bean ice cream tasted like, but with the characteristic taste and mouthfeel (not texture) of glutinuous rice. The jackfruit was also a very odd pairing, and provided a very stark contrast of flavours. Remarkably, the two eaten together were not repulsive at all. Sea coconut didn’t do much for me, but the coconut cream was again quite out of the norm. It tasted like cream made from coconut candy, and not fresh coconut cream. My favourite part of the dessert was eating the sorbet and its original glutinuous form side by side. Very intriguing and memorable. 10/10 for creativity, execution and putting jackfruit in this mix.
You might visit Wild Rocket with super high expectations after reading my review. I urge you to keep an open mind and expectations neutral. The fact is that if you were to compare these remakes to the original dishes, they would never come close to the same flavour, feeling and personal attachment. Eating the char kuay teow at Wild Rocket will not bring you back to the char kuay teow you had in your childhood. What I marvel at and appreciate is how chef Willin Lo is able to create dishes inspired by those traditional hawker fare, elevate them with unique ingredients and still create something tasty. I really enjoyed the little gastronomical adventure over the 8 courses, except the fish liver dish, and look forward to my next visit to sample some other things.