Restaurant Ibid Serves an East-West Mashup of Flavours Familiar to Home
The legal profession is no stranger to seeing its members hang up their black suits for chef’s whites. But fledgling-lawyer-turned-restauranteur Woo Wai Leong has a slightly different claim to fame. In 2015, Woo bested 14 other amateur cooks to emerge champion in the inaugural run of MasterChef Asia – a win that has since entrenched him resolutely in the food and dining business.
Ibid – Woo’s entrepreneurial debut in the restaurant scene – is also an outlier of sorts. It makes no attempt at aligning itself with the wave of casual (and what some would call hipster) eateries that has taken the local dining scene by storm. Instead, the ambitious setup dives straight into serving up a swanky, dinner-only degustation menu, which is a dining concept that sits rather incongruently with the establishment’s locale – a precinct dotted with watering holes and laid-back eateries plying grub for the lunch crowd and after-hours drinker.
We were hosted to dinner on a Tuesday evening. Even on a weekday night, Ibid was running a full house, which is a remarkable feat for a young eatery contending in Singapore’s fickle F&B landscape (where many a startup have come and gone). Waiters scurry between waiting diners, and there is a palpable buzz coming from the open kitchen – hotplates sizzle, an occasional flame rises, and chefs call out earnestly for service.
Ibid’s clockwork precision is matched by an equally elaborate gastronomic philosophy – what Woo coins as being Nanyang-style cuisine. The restaurant prides itself on creating dishes that marry Southeast Asian elements with European influences. Woo, however, stresses that he is by no means coasting by on a run-of-the-mill, east-meets-west cliché. Rather, he builds his creations on what he calls “food-related” memories and experiences: by taking a distinct ingredient or flavour from our common childhood and heritage, then putting a modern, refreshing twist on it.
Woo walks the talk by working his dishes around poignant themes. Take, for instance, his spin on the familiar tea egg. The classic hard-boiled egg is replaced with a runny, sous vide variant. A pu-er broth that zings brightly of infused mandarin peel takes the place of the dark, soy-sauce broth from which conventional teas egg draws their flavour. To this delicateness, Woo throws in buttered shitake mushrooms and gingko nuts for textural contrast. What used to be a traditional, hearty street-side snack now comes imbued with a touch of lightness and elegance.
Even as Ibid tries to carve out its own conceptual niche, it does not get carried away. The food does not lapse into the indulgent excesses of foams, shards, and morsels that have become synonymous with upscale dining (which can be a rude shock for hungry diners). What you are promised is what you get. As if to underscore its generosity right from the beginning, the eight-course menu starts with a shao bing (Chinese layered flatbread) stuffed with mozzerella cheese and fresh spring onions. Nothing out of the ordinary, until you take a swipe at the laksa butter that accompanies the bread. The resulting flavours are jarring, yet reassuringly familiar; almost like what you would expect from a hearty hawker breakfast.
Likewise, when the menu said beef, it was a whole short rib we received – moist, tender, with strips that tore nicely off the bone. This was one of two mains that arguably stole the show that evening. The richness of the meat sang a complex tune when paired with garlic mash and a jus steeped using butter and angelica root. Charred black fungus pickled in vinegar and soy sauce balanced the dish off nicely by providing a subtle, tart relief from what was otherwise an intense and earthy course.
Dessert brought in yet another familiar sight – tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) rolled with hibiscus flower, and served with a ginger-sugar crumble, red bean jam, and a yoghurt ice cream. There were no surprises with this finale – just a comforting sweetness you would want and expect from a traditional Chinese dessert, but layered with pleasant, floral undertones.
Ibid is one fresh face that has managed to break away from the stagnation and homogeny of the local fine-dining scene. It is inventive, yet grounded; bold, yet stops short of pretending to be more than what it actually offers. As with any multi-course menu, there were hits as much as there were misses. But Woo’s mastery of flavours, adept execution, and a clear understanding of what he wants to put on his plates make Ibid a promising restaurant to look out for.