The last we caught up with Norman Hartono, the restaurateur was knee-deep in operations with Dancing Crab and Lokkee, two concepts he created while climbing the ranks of Tung Lok Group, his family’s culinary empire. These days, the creative director of Ebb and Flow Group is down in The Dragon Chamber, a Chinese-style speakeasy joint that also serves some unusual grub. More on that later.
The Dragon Chamber has all the trappings of a bar that make for a huge splash in social media. Access to the bar is via a refrigerator door within a kopitiam. Behind it lies a sordid corridor covered in graffiti and artwork that leads to the bar. Once inside, you’ll feel like you’re transported to a gambling den in the 19th century. The moment you get over the surroundings, get ready for your palette to be treated to a handful of unorthodox dishes on the menu — think reptilian reproductive organs cooked into a hearty soup, or, as Hartono describes with a cheeky grin, “a collagen-rich shaft”.
For most, eating a braised crocodile’s foot or penis in a double-boiled soup is more than just a little offbeat.
“These dishes play on the stereotype of Chinese food being made up of weird stuff. Here, they’re done tastefully, and are the type of food you’d dare your friends to eat.”
The Dragon Chamber spotlights what Hartono terms “global Chinese food”.
“It’s Chinese food from all over the world. Depending on where Chinese diaspora has spread its cuisine to, the product that comes out of that area differs. For instance, Chinese people in China won’t understand Chinese food in the States and vice versa.”
This broad-minded perspective on Chinese food is second nature to someone who grew up surrounded by food. “Since I was a kid, I’ve been exposed to mostly Chinese restaurants and food. I’ve been familiar with the flavours since an early age. It gave me a head start in terms of understanding concepts behind food.” In our interview with him two years ago, Hartono shared that his “parents would always give [him] some weird dish and [he’d] have to eat it.” This exposure to Chinese food fuelled him to start Lokkee, and The Dragon Chamber, as a contemporary expression of traditional Chinese food.
But lest you think it’s all about playing up the novelty factor, Hartono wants to encourage conscious consumption by getting everyone to embrace nose-to-tail dining. “You can’t always have prime rib all the time. We need to understand that the rest of the animal can be delicious and should be used too.”
This all-animal approach is nothing new, as zero waste and maximising nutritional benefits are big one the culinary scene now, whether in Singapore or other parts of the world.
Has it been a difficult process ever since he decided to be part of his family’s business? Hartono reveals: “It’s something that I’ve always been familiar with. I waited on tables on and off in high school and middle school. In university I did a management trainee programme. After a year, I came back and I just jumped on board full-time.” As a third-generation restauranteur, Hartono brings a fresh approach to the business by introducing modern brands to the fold, including Western ones such as Dancing Crab, his first venture. However, Hartono stresses that the Dancing Crab wasn’t a solo effort.
When asked how he plans to sustain interest in the restaurant’s theatrical concept and menu, Hartono explains that he wants every one to be treated like a friend here — an approach we’ve come to expect from the restaurateur who professes to loving Indomie Goreng, and rarely dines at restaurants. “We want to make [The Dragon Chamber] feel like everyone has their own story coming to this place. It’s everybody’s secret gang hideout.”
For the moment, The Dragon Chamber is a cosy spot for people to catch up over dinner and drinks since it closes by 12 midnight. But Hartono also shares that he plans to turn the restaurant into a major event space, and transform it into a bar and lounge once it gets the licence to extend its operating hours to 2am.
We can’t wait.
The Dragon Chamber, 2 Circular Road, Singapore 049358
All photos of Norman Hartono are from our October 2016 cover story