The one thing I look for when they announce each year’s new Michelin Star list is whether another of our hawkers managed to get a star. I have been disappointed every year since Tai Hwa and Hawker Chan won it in the inaugural guide. Now that Hawker Chan no longer has his star, we are left with only Tai Hwa. When will we see another local dish getting a Michelin Star? I know some foodies eschew the stars as something of a gimmick, but a Michelin Star is instant worldwide recognition which puts our dishes immediately on the world stage. So, I would really like to see another hawker dish winning a Michelin Star.
But, in order for that to happen, we need hawkers who think like Michelin Star chefs. Unfortunately, most hawkers have a pragmatic approach to their dishes. They need to make it tasty but also cheap and affordable. That usually means that they need to compromise on certain things which makes it difficult to create that perfect dish where attention is paid to every single component.
The good news is that we have a new generation of chefs like Royce Lee who are passionate enough on creating that perfect plate of wanton noodles. After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a degree in Finance and Economics, Royce spent a few years working in a bank before he decided to pursue his real passion in food. He tells me that his grandmother is the source of his inspiration as she used sell yong tau foo and wanton mee in the 70’s.
I first met him last year when “Laifabar” was located at club street. He had just taken over the premises which used to be a bar (hence laifa-bar — they have since dropped the “r”) and had started selling wanton mee without doing any renovations to the interior. It felt a little disconcerting to eat a very traditional-looking bowl of wanton mee in a bar, but it was evident that Royce had plenty of drive. He roasted his own charsiu, minced his own pork to make the wanton and spent hours simmering the noodle sauce with a recipe handed down by grandma.
Fast forward a year and Laifaba is now settled at their new premises in Bukit Batok. This time, the old school decor is much more fitting and I am encouraged to see that Royce has made further improvements to his wanton mee.
He is now using fresh “bu jian tian” and roasting it in an Apollo oven with charcoal and lychee wood which gives his charsiu a very nice wood smoked flavour. This is an improvement over the last time when he was using a combi-oven. He has also started to roast sio bak and roast duck. The charsiu is very good, but he has a little way to go with the sio bak and roast duck before he can be called a roast master.
His wonton, sui gao and soup are very good. The sui gao in particular is full of minced pork which is nicely seasoned. I also liked the texture of their noodles which is springy but still tender and toothsome. It isn’t stringy and crunchy like how they like it in Hong Kong, but more substantial and bouncy to the bite. Royce has plans to invest in a noodle machine to make his own noodles in the future. That would really complete the picture of a truly artisan wanton mee!
I was also very impressed with the soup which is made from lots of ikan bilis, dried sole fish (which is grilled over charcoal first) and other dried seafood. I think this is the best indication that our friend is serious about making his wanton mee something you would want to travel to Bukit Batok to try.
So, coming back to my next hawker Michelin Star story…..
I think eateries like Laifaba have a shot at winning a Michelin star. I am not saying it is at that level already, but if we are to see the next hawker Michelin Star, it should come from an eatery such as Laifaba where the owner is putting so much effort into every component of the dish.
The bowl of wanton soup is very good. The noodles are good, but the sauce still lacks that knockout punch. The charsiu is good, especially with that extra wood smoke flavour, but somehow the combination of the charsiu, noodles and sauce still failed to hit that crescendo for me. However, seeing Royce’s drive one year on, I am confident that the best is yet to come! 4.25/5
A very promising next-generation wanton mee made with attention to details on every aspect of the dish. It has yet to reach its full potential, but I am confident that it would be further improved on my next visit.