It is hard to appreciate the full, chameleonic range of Violet Oon’s talents, but sitting in the dining room of her eponymous restaurant on Bukit Timah Road is a good start. There, on the wall opposite, is an array of frames: a personal history told in dog-eared, hand-copied recipes, newspaper articles and photographs.
Did you know, for example, that Violet – the face of Peranakan cuisine in Singapore – began her career as a music critic? That she was an opera singer (and still sings)? There is a photograph of her playing Princess Tuptim in The King and I. In another photograph, she is being recognised as a Noble Dame by the Grand Ordre de Rocamadour du Diamant Noir et du Vieux Vin de Cahors (the Order of the Black Diamond and the Wine of Cahors) in France.
Violet Oon Singapore (the restaurant formerly known as Violet Oon Kitchen) is the latest incarnation of the indomitable lady’s talents, and also a collective labour of love by her family. Her son Tay Yiming heads up operations and sources Arabica and Robusta beans for the new Violet Oon (VO) kopi blend. Her daughter Tay Su-Lyn, a fashion designer and mama of three, is responsible for the restaurant’s elegant and understated décor, perfectly exemplified in the lovely hostess uniform, produced in collaboration with local label Ong Shunmugam.
The décor at Violet Oon’s is a feast for the eyes, and its food a thing of beauty for the palate. It is clear that the menu revision and staff training that took place in the six weeks of restaurant closure have paid off well, as dish after dish converted us with their complex and well-balanced flavours.
The Tau Hu Goreng ($13) is a good starter, the sauce an excellent mix of sweet and tart flavours with a kick of spice. The Ngoh Hiang ($18) delivered a surprisingly full-bodied taste of prawn and crab in a small package.
The slow-braised Daging Chabek (beef cheek in spicy taramind gula melaka gravy, $35) was very tender, sweet without being cloying, leaving a pleasant endnote of chili. Babi Assam (tamarind pork stew with whole chilis, $19) was mouthwateringly sour and spicy.
Many dishes use chili to a varying extent; for example the Udang Goreng Chili (prawns in chili padi garlic rempah, $32) is a gorgeous dish for a spice-lover. Be sure to ask the waitstaff’s advice if you would prefer less or non-spicy dishes.
The perfect accompaniment to a spicy Peranakan meal is the Honey and Kesturi Lime Soda ($8) or the Old Fashioned Ginger Beer (“brewed till fizzy with spicy ginger bits”, $9). Give the Ice Cream Soda ($8) a chance, too: the luxury of cream, effervescence of soda and slight bitterness of cocoa make for an intriguing blend.
The desserts, too, are big on taste and low on sweetness and richness. The Gula Melaka Cake ($12) looked potentially deadly (food coma-inducing, even) but was surprisingly soft and fluffy. The Mini Kueh Sarlat ($7) balanced sweet pandan custard and savoury glutinous rice impeccably and were perfect mouth-popping size. The VC kopi is a great finish – the beans are roasted in margarine and sock-brewed, and the kopi velvet smooth.
Violet Oon Singapore is a spot that opens early: they open at 9am on weekends, and you can have a hearty, smeary breakfast of homemade kaya on toast ($7) or roti prata “drizzled with condensed milk and topped with calamansi infused sugar”($7). This is also a good place to bring friends, family or colleagues visiting Singapore to introduce them to Peranakan and Singaporean cuisine.
They’re opening a second restaurant in Singapore this October and their first overseas outpost in London next summer. After this superb meal, I’m happy for Violet Oon to lead the charge and conquer the world with Singaporean cuisine.
Violet Oon Singapore is organizing culinary workshops for the Singapore Food Festival in July, where you can learn how to make roti prata or thosai, wrap ketupats or cook satay ayam goreng. Click here for more details.
Opening hours: Tue-Fri, Lunch 12-2:30 and Dinner 6-10:30; Sat-Sun, Breakfast 9-11:30am, Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm, and Dinner 6-10:30pm.