With Chinese New Year nearly upon us, many restaurants will be offering special Lunar New Year menus featuring seasonal dishes usually eaten at this time of the year. One of these restaurants will be Tamarind Hill, owned by the luxury hospitality chain Samadhi Retreats. To get to it, you’ll have to drive (or take a long walk) deep inside Labrador Nature Reserve, where the forest will part to uncover a bungalow that looks like it was built in the colonial era for the residence of a British official. That’s not far off from the mark; it started as Labrador Villa, the residence of George John Mansfield, a British shipping magnate. But in 2018, it’s now a fine dining restaurant specialising in Thai and Shan cuisine.
While Chinese New Years are known to be raucous celebrations, here in Tamarind Hill, the enjoyment will take a more serene approach. It’s easy find oneself relaxing once you step into the bungalow and the aroma of lemongrass and incense rushes up to greet you. You get a sense of traditional Southeast Asia as you walk through the rooms, past the Buddhas who gaze silently from the corners, and examine the framed souvenirs of cultural clothing and tapestry from Cambodia, Myanmar, and other parts of Indochina. Or you could just lounge in the atrium, sitting on the handcrafted chairs that creak under your weight. The core of the bungalow is a high-ceilinged room with chandeliers casting a warm and dim light over the bar, with lit candles that have melted over their holders like mature stalactites.
It’s from this bar where you can imbibe one of Tamarind Hill’s signature cocktails: the Lychee & Lemongrass Smash ($22), a delicately flavoured mix of vodka and some refreshing ingredients: lemongrass, lychee, and lime, served in a homemade bamboo receptacle.
No Chinese New Year menu is complete without the customary Yu Sheng ($38 or $68). In addition to the usual, familiar ingredients, like carrot, salmon slices, and crispy pillows, they have some unique additions such as shredded taro, sweet potato, and tamarind sauce. Of course, it all becomes indistinguishable in a colourful, yummy mess once the toss is done.
The appetiser begins with two steamed Sago Pork Dumplings and Fish Roe with Red Curry. The sago pork dumplings resemble tiny soon kueh with a chewy, gooey skin, with minced pork instead of peanuts within. After popping them into your mouth, unwrapping the banana leaf reveals a reddish morsel that looks like otah. But it’s not spicy fish meat; it’s a sac of deliciously eggy fish roe that has soaked all the Thai red curry flavour contained within the leaf.
My favourite dish of the night was probably the Barramundi and Ginger Soup. One taste of the sour and inviting broth, and I knew that it had been stewed with fresh fish, ginger, and some lemongrass. It was a good opener for my appetite. The slices of barramundi were firm but flaked easily with a bite; they were a grade above the typical whitefish slices you get in usual fish soups.
The main course brought Five Spice Braised Pork Knuckle and Tiger Prawns with Salted Egg Yolk Sauce served with Longevity Noodles, blanched kailan, and cold seaweed. This course was probably the least bold, with overly familiar and unwavering takes on braised pork and the salted egg prawns, not unlike what you would find at any Chinese restaurant. The lightly stir-fried egg noodles were as thin and soft as mee sua, almost fluffy and not mushy. The unseasoned vegetables were a basic, contrasting counterpoint for the savoury pork and prawn.
The Chinese New Year menu ends with an immaculately plated row of pretty desserts. The bright yellow and green Glutinous Rice Balls Stuffed with Sesame were, in essence, tang yuan resting in a bowl of sharp gingery syrup. They reminded me of the soft and gooey sago pork dumplings we had at the start; savoury beginnings and sweet endings mirroring each other. A fresh cold magenta slice of dragonfruit was placed between the glutinous rice balls and a bowl of Honeydew Sago with Vanilla Ice Cream. I actually spent so much time taking photos that I only realised my ice-cream had melted when I began to eat it. Although it had become runny, it was still creamy as I spooned it into my mouth with soft sago and sweet, chunky pieces of orange honeydew and red ruby.
I found the dishes being served slower than I would have liked, but I was told that the pace of the meal was deliberately measured and unrushed. This was nice; the frantic Singaporean within me hushed by the quiet environs of a colonial bungalow in the heart of Labrador Nature Reserve. This is the experience that Tamarind Hill promises for your Chinese New Year: a relaxing, quiet dinner away from the bustle.
Tamarind Hill’s Lunar New Year Set Menu ($88+ per person) will be available until 2 March 2018. The Yu Sheng is $38 for 3 to 4 persons and $68 for 7 to 8 persons.
Thank you Tamarind Hill for the invitation.