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Why Magic Square, a Singapore pop-up, is letting young chefs take over the restaurant

Handpicked by Tan Ken Loon, owner of The Naked Finn, these young chefs have worked in restaurants such as Odette, Whitegrass and Blackwattle.

Since the start of this month, curious diners have been schlepping to a colonial-era neighbourhood in Portsdown Road to find out what kind of culinary sleight of hand is being cooked up at Magic Square, a one year pop-up for promising young chefs.

There are three of them here: Desmond Shen, Marcus Leow and Abel Su. They are all under 30 and have worked in the likes of Odette, Whitegrass and Blackwattle. They’re handpicked by Tan Ken Loon, owner of The Naked Finn and an ardent supporter of local talent. He pulled this project together on a wing and a prayer – answered in the form of a fully-equipped kitchen from Miele and POS systems from DBS, among other well-meaning sponsors.

(Related: What to expect for your meal at Magic Square)

It’s a cheap but cheerful stage for something a lot more valuable – a chance for the young chefs to run their own restaurant that they otherwise couldn’t afford to.

Each month, they take turns to create an original nine-course menu based on Mr Tan’s loose storyline of cultural heritage and local ingredients. Priced at a very friendly S$78, the first to kick off is 25-year-old Chef Shen, a rising talent with an affinity for fermentation, a good palate for balance and texture, and strong technical skills.

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He’s like a very good HR manager for ingredients, seeing potential in wilted greens, leftover egg white and beans with a BO problem and no friends. You imagine petai bending their pods in gratitude as he tames their inherent stinkiness, creating a mellow, cheesy, two month-old creamy miso that he aerates with creme fraiche, serving a blob with a salad of chopped up wing beans and fresh petai beans in a zesty dressing. You scoop both into homemade rice crackers, trying not to ask for more.

He can even get you to (almost) like bitter greens, tying a bunch of sharp, acidic leaves into a little bouquet that you dip into a caramel made of juiced greens, dusted with ground hazelnut.

While others order rojak and a fresh coconut and stop there, Chef Shen reimagines it in a starter of raw Hokkaido scallops, unsweetened coconut jelly, pickled turnip slices with a hint of rojak-ginger flower sweetness, green turmeric leaf oil and nasturtium for a herbal finish. They’re all seemingly unrelated, yet he somehow finds a common thread to pull them together.

Shaoxing, rather than white wine, lends an Asian fragrance to a rich beurre blanc that coats charred asparagus and green onions, although the greasy fried mantou buns provided for scooping are a mismatch. Meanwhile, the cream sauce trope continues with a turmeric and galangal coconut cream sauce that partners with a melting-soft slice of pumpkin topped with a fragrant crispy fried grated coconut and herb mixture.

A crowd favourite for its familiarity is a modernised fish soup – steamed threadfin and glutinous rice are wrapped in a tender sweet potato leaf parcel, which you break apart and let it collapse in a rich, milky fish broth. Deep-fried egg white threads add crunch on top.

Meanwhile, the second main course of sous vide pork collar gets a nice char and a glaze of plum fermented with sugar for 10 years which has a really nice tangy, fruity richness but otherwise is pretty average.

Both desserts are ice cream-based – soursop sorbet on lemongrass granita drizzled with longan honey is simple and safe, bitter orange sorbet on pomelo segments spiced up with chilli salt and a green chilli cream has a nice edge to it.

It’s not a show-stopping meal, but it’s an indication of good things to come from these young chefs and the Magic Square project. That said, there are a couple of things to bear in mind.

For one, there seems to be too much emphasis on cooking from the head rather than from the heart. It’s as if they’re taking an exam, trying to show how much they know, and how well they can apply it. It’s nice to appreciate technical skill, but what we like more is food that’s cooked with joy and spontaneity.

The communal setting doesn’t sit too well with Chef Shen’s food either, which is fine dining at heart and requires a quieter, more contemplative space to appreciate its nuances. It’s hard to understand what his food is about when he has to feed 18 people at the same time and only has time for a quick explanation to a crowd that just wants to get back to the party at hand.

He needs to interact with the guests a lot more, and the other chefs, too.

Magic Square is a noble project, one that we hope is sustainable. It may be a challenge to keep it financially viable, but so long as it keeps the fires of passion burning, and gives the chefs enough ownership to grow it naturally, we can expect some real magic coming out of this square.

(RELATED: Why elevating Singapore cuisine is so difficult, chefs weigh in)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Magic Square

Magic Square
5B Portsdown Road
Tel: 8181-0102
Open from Tuesday to Saturday: 6pm to 8pm and 8.15pm to 10.15pm