Since March this year, Restaurant Ember, the 14-year-old restaurant (tel: 6347 1928) at the boutique Hotel 1929 along Keong Saik Road, has a new executive chef at the helm. Chef Alex Phan took over from chef Sufian Zain, who relinquished his role two years after taking over from the restaurant’s founding chef Sebastian Ng. During chef Ng’s time, the restaurant had made its mark in the local food scene by giving an Asian spin to contemporary European cuisine. These days, chef Phan has this challenge on his plate: to keep long‑time customers happy while attracting new ones.
Thus, part of his approach involves keeping a few of the restaurant’s signature dishes such as the sakura ebi pasta, which has been amped up on the heat factor. The other part sees him taking advantage of the restaurant’s location a few steps away from the Chinatown Wet Market. There, he sources for local ingredients and coaxes classic Asian recipes from the vendors, and later prepares them using the various European techniques he’s picked up in his career. This forms the foundation of his market-to-table concept. He eventually wants to frequent the wet markets at Tekka Centre and Tiong Bahru to see what else he can unearth.
For now, the angel hair pasta starter is sprinkled with crunchy cubes of jicama or Mexican turnip you would typically find in popiah or rojak. Served cold with locally sourced shimeji mushrooms, the noodles are tossed with spring onion oil and made moreish with bits of bonito flakes. Chef Phan created this in response to the growing popularity of cold pastas among diners.
The pork belly that he also gets from the local market is sous vide, rendering it tender. Then, it is glazed with balsamic vinegar for more flavour. Enhancing the appearance of this dish are brightly flavoured salsa verde, deep-fried enoki mushrooms and cracked cashew nuts, all of which help to cut the fattiness of the meat.
In line with the current trend of local restaurants using kelong-bred fish for unbeatable freshness, chef Phan gets his seabass from Ah Hua Kelong, a local no‑chemicals fish farm situated off Changi and Sembawang. To make what is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, he pan sears the fish until its succulent meat is lightly browned and its skin delightfully crispy. It is then laced with tomato butter which lifts the fish’s natural sweetness, while wild fungus and charred corn kernels add texture.
The most memorable and positively Singaporean dish here is a dessert that packs a punch—a Tiger Beer-infused sorbet is served with a crumbly lap cheong (cured and dried Chinese sausage) cake and topped with shards of dehydrated pineapple for a hint of fruitiness and garnished with more lap cheong bits. It is more addictive than it sounds. How did the inspiration for this memorable dessert come about? We find out that it was inspired by sous chef Pan Sihui’s habit of munching on the sausage as she swigs a can of Tiger.
And as we look up from our plates, we see three vibrant watercolour paintings by local artist Paul Wang immortalising the daily bustle of the Chinatown Wet Market, and juxtaposed against the clean lines of Restaurant Ember’s postmodern furniture—an apt reflection of the menu’s witty blend of Singaporean and European influences.