In between bites of rojak and sips of house coffee, Violet Oon has within 10 minutes laughed off a five-week stint in the hospital recovering from a stroke, discussed an upcoming soirée in which she’s cooking and singing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster, and noted, with pride and mild embarrassment, that she’s essentially the first Singaporean to appear in the official National Gallery Singapore trailer.
That National Gallery, which opened in November 2015, is kind of a big deal. Like SGD$532 million (US$382 million) to make it happen big deal; like the largest modern art museum in Southeast Asia, and the biggest collection and public display of Southeast Asian art in the world big deal.
Ms. Oon — music critic, food journalist, author, tv personality, restaurateur, mother, I could go on — is kind of a big deal herself and, in many ways, at 66 years old she’s just getting started. Fresh from a mid-2015 reimagining of her upscale Bukit Timah bistro Violet Oon Singapore, in November Ms. Oon debuted National Kitchen by Violet Oon, the National Gallery’s signature restaurant. Whereas the menu in Bukit Timah focuses on Ms. Oon’s signature Peranakan — a cuisine incorporating Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other influences — at National Kitchen Ms. Oon turns to all foods Singapore.
That’s trickier than it may sound.
Japanese restaurants, Thai restaurants, Vietnamese restaurants–fine. Most people know what to expect there, but in a Singaporean restaurant? Hmmm. In Singapore, a place with one of the world’s most celebrated food cultures, its food is ironically one that’s rather difficult to define, much less to encapsulate on a single menu, due to the many regional cuisines from which it draws.
“We have things like chili crab, fish head curry, and Indian idly and chutney that we make from scratch,” said Ms. Oon. “But it’s curated and archived–it’s not like a remix of hawker centers.”
What she means, essentially, is that this isn’t standard hawker fare served in a fancier setting with a higher price tag. Drawing on her life’s worth of food memories in Singapore, Ms. Oon has tried to create and curate a selective menu reflecting the many kernels of what you might call “culinary input” the republic’s cultural spectrum contributes. That means, in addition to things like chili crab (“Always with the fried bread, never rice,” said Ms. Oon.) and Hainanese chicken rice — the two dishes perhaps most commonly associated with Singapore — there’s also coronation chicken with yellow raisin chutney, beef rendang, and fried red snapper drenched in chili padi.
Ms. Oon says the intimate 70-capacity restaurant is often fully booked. Indeed, when I caught up with her during a recent three-hour window between the last lunch and first dinner seatings, staff was putting the final touches on place settings for two separate parties comprising nearly 50 guests. The food has to be good to draw crowds like this, of course — and it is — but National Kitchen’s jewel box of a dining room helps, too.
Designed in large part by Ms. Oon’s daughter/business partner, Su-Lyn Tay — her son, Yiming, and TWG Tea co-founder Manoj Murjani are also partners — the space is a sweeping melange of beaded chandeliers, black-leather banquettes, etched mirror ceilings, and authentic Peranakan tiles sourced over the past few years from shophouses, condemned buildings, and other structures around Singapore. Framed photographs and assorted memorabilia add a familial, homely touch.
“It’s Singapore life in food—some are from my publications, some are my recipes, some are other families, some are restauranteurs,” said Ms. Oon. “There are so many ways to be Singapore, but we thought this [design] was more grounded than that… well, floral stuff. A restaurant has to be masculine and feminine.”
National Kitchen by Violet Oon is located at National Gallery Singapore, 1 St. Andrew’s Rd, #02-01, City Hall Wing. +65 9834 9935. Open 12pm – 3pm and 5:30pm – 11:30pm daily.