There’s nothing like dining in a restaurant with a history that stretches back a century, and that’s what Permata is all about. Built in the mid-19th century, and previously home to four generations of the Haji Yusoff family, is the historic mansion Gedung Kuning. Also known as ‘Yellow Mansion’, it is located at the end of Arab Street right next to the Malay Heritage Centre, and is led by the effervescent Chef Mel Dean.
A quick Google search on Gedung Kuning brought me over to BiblioAsia, a free quarterly publication produced by the National Library Board, where I tucked into the story of award-winning author, Hidayah Amin, and her recollections of living in the mansion from her childhood years. As a history buff, I can go on about my findings but I’d rather leave the reading to you, and food reviews to me.
For the uninitiated, Nusantara cuisine stretches across the Indonesian Archipelago and is an old Javanese term to mean ‘the outer islands’. I immediately knew I was about to go on an epic foodventure when I found out Permata’s main focus was to serve up traditional dishes with a modern twist.
What I tried
The moment I entered the beautiful mansion, I was enthralled by P. Ramlee’s melodious voice, albeit faint, but loud enough to send a wave of nostalgia my way. It was like I stepped into a portal to the past. Think encaustic tiles paired with the traditional architectural forms of a cosy rumah kampung. Needless to say, I was gobsmacked.
Immediately as I sat down, I was served three delightful starters: Nasi Ulam Cakerawala (S$16 for three), Kerabu Daging Sri Mersing (S$18), and Permata Samudera (S$22).
The Nasi Ulam Cakerawala is essentially ulam rice balls mixed with sambal bajak, salted fish, and rice crackers dipped with spicy turmeric gel. Resembling a croquette, I bit into the crunchy ball and was blown away by the amalgamation of flavours.
To accompany the rice ball’s the Kerabu Daging Sri Mersing. A refreshing beef salad inspired by Sri Mersing, it comes with grilled chateaubriand tossed with young mango, king salad, and ginger flower lime dressing.
The Permata Samudera, also known as Nusantara ceviche, is inspired by Chef Mel Dean’s late native Sarawakian grandmother’s umai. To elevate the otherwise one-dimensional-looking dish, it comes with a visually stunning and savoury blue pea and orange ginger gel as its base, topped with fresh seafood chunks tossed in ginger flower lime dressing in a cocktail glass. Like the samudera, each bite was akin to the susurration of gentle waves crashing onto the shore.
In accompaniment to the ceviche is a hearty bowl of Soto Banjar (S$10).
Inspired by the street food in South Kalimantan, the earthy yet comforting chicken consommé comes with chunks of rice cakes, quail egg, sambal oelek, and with a potato cutlet sitting atop a bed of boiled vermicelli. Unlike the common bowl of mee soto I’m used to, the Soto Banjar, is mildly spicy and surprisingly light, so you can easily devour this bowl without fear of filling up your stomach too soon.
Chef Mel Dean’s rendition of Nasi Rawon is one dish that made a lasting impression. Usually served as a messy pile on a plate, the Rawon Risotto (S$28) at Permata made me believe I was staring at Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Yellow Red Blue’; a visual masterpiece is what I’d call this dish.
It comes with buah keluak, an umami ramen egg, sambal belacan, tall tempe chips, coconut floss, and rice crackers atop a creamy risotto. The different textures, from the crunchy crackers to the melt-in-your-mouth floss to the custard-like egg gives the originally rustic dish a major lift.
We often find dishes like ayam or ikan percik during Hari Raya, however, Chef Mel Dean’s all about innovation, thus, the birth of Permata’s Rusuk Percik (S$36). With a painstaking process of preparing and braising the New Zealand lamb ribs for four hours before char-grilling and basting, it’s no wonder this dish has its own fanbase.
Bringing history to life, this is one dish that will resonate with the older generation. A uniquely Singaporean dish, the Mee Wak Katok (S$26) was famous in the ‘70s and was peddled by an uncle named Wak Katok from his mobile bicycle stall, similar to the ones you can see on the streets of Vietnam today. Finally, a dish to put an end to the never-ending Singapore vs Malaysia vs Indonesia ‘food war’.
As with all the twists in his dishes, Chef Mel Dean’s recreation of the noodle-based dish uses spaghetti instead of the original yellow noodle, in spicy beef broth with sliced chateaubriand, and a poached egg. Personally, I’d have preferred for the dish to be spicier, but it superseded my expectations and is the winner in my books. It’s one of those dishes you have to try for yourself instead of forming an opinion based on the tasting notes of a food reviewer.
Ending off on a sweet note, is the Cek Mek Molek (S$12). The must-order, fried sweet potato dessert, rarely available in Singapore, is dusted with icing sugar, crushed almonds, topped with espresso caramel, and served with a side of vanilla ice-cream. No matter how stuffed you are, this is a dish not to be missed.
More than just a restaurant, Permata is a personal diary of Chef Mel Dean’s childhood. He has not only managed to elevate popular comfort that we know and love, but has restored life to long-lost dishes. I doubt you’ll be able to eat everything in one visit, hence, multiple visits are to be expected to this historical mansion.
If you’re lucky to bump into Chef Mel Dean, don’t miss the chance to get him to tell you the tales that are tied to this gem— this is one history lesson you would certainly enjoy!
Expected damage: S$26 – $55 per pax
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Price: $ $
Our Rating: 4 / 5
73 Sultan Gate, Singapore 198497
73 Sultan Gate, Singapore 198497