Helmed by Malaysian celebrity chef, Chef Wan, 1 Market (Tel: 63419159 | Opening hours: Daily 11.30am–2.30pm, 6–10pm) at Plaza Singapura almost needs no introduction with the hype around it since its opening in November 2012. On a daily basis, makcik (Malay aunty) fangirls of Chef Wan’s queue up for a dining spot in the 450-seater halal buffet restaurant.
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We had been warned by friends that it has been close to impossible to get a reservation, so we tried calling several days in advance. True enough, the line was either busy or left unanswered. Luckily, someone picked up just before lunch hour, and slots for dinner were still available. Tip: Call (Tel: 63419159) well in advance, or go really early if you are a walk-in.
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When we arrived close to 6pm, there was a crowd of people queuing outside already, particularly for the walk-ins. We recommend coming for an early dinner (or weekday lunch) if you don’t want to battle crowds for food. It wasn’t dead empty when we arrived, but it wasn’t too crowded either. While it was a battle trying to get a reservation, service was efficient, restaurant staff were regularly clearing plates off the table so you could go back for seconds, thirds, fourths... we lost count.
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There were about 35 different hot dishes to choose from, varying from Malaysian to classic Thai favourites, as well as several Indonesian ones. They’ve managed to slot one of Singapore's national dishes, chili crabs in the mix and its sweet, thick gravy will go down nicely for crustacean lovers. Credit to the kitchen, the hot dishes were always piping hot, and topped up quickly when depleted, which means you’ll never go without that dish you’ve been eyeing since you walked in.
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A good Malay restaurant is judged by the quality of their beef rendang. at 1 Market's version is lighter and less oily as compared to those at hawker nasi padang stalls, but doesn't compromise on taste. The meat is tender and bursting with flavour.
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The ayam penyet (fried chicken) was bypassed by many diners in favor of the rendang, but we liked how the spices came together in this dish. Their version was not deep fried like a traditional Malaysian ayam penyet, but done instead with a spice paste and curry leaves.
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One of many live stations, this one featuring succulent and aromatic slices of roast lamb. We had to go back for seconds (and thirds) as the portions being handed were fairly small, or maybe we were just greedy.
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We only meant to add a dollop of the sauces to our roast lamb but then proceeded to pair them with everything. One of the best part of the buffet was the plethora of dips and sauces available – from the usual sambal belachan (shrimp chilli paste) and Thai chilli sauce to and Indonesian belado and quirky tangy blends of chilli mixes that they should probably bottle to sell.
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at 1 Market has a humble (but very popular) selection of fresh seafood: cockles, clams, prawns and snow crab. We observed the shellfish depleting very quickly, but luckily it was regularly topped up with fresher selections.
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All this meat and seafood doesn't mean there aren't any greens. The obligatory vegetables amidst everything was a simple but home-style chap chye (mixed vegetables stew).
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Not all counters are created equal, and the Chinese buffet counter was possibly the least popular among all. The mapo tofu dish was largely untouched throughout our meal. We decided to give it a taste but found it to be unimpressive.
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The most popular counter however was the grilled seafood and satay. We observed a number of diners standing and waiting for fresh skewers of meat to be dished out (on average every eight minutes) and spotted a couple of buffet veterans who would wait and grab 10-15 fresh skewers at once. No surprise though, the grilled seafood is probably one of the tastiest things served here.
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The grilled squid was well cooked and charred just right, although the demand-supply curve hit this counter hard, when we went back for seconds we found the flesh to be undercooked.
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The chicken and beef satay came with a creamy, perfectly balanced peanut sauce full of nutty goodness. Again, as more diners kept depleting the supply, the replenished skewers of meat got tougher and harder to chew.
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at 1 Market's Japanese selection was underwhelming. The sashimi was very thinly sliced and served lukewarm (big thumbs down), it didn't taste as fresh as we'd hoped and wasn't that much better than supermarket-bought sushi - definitely not anything to make a hoopla over.
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The salads at the Japanese counter were not bad though. Crunchy greens and mayo-dressed prawns made for a refreshing in-between bite.
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The shrimp sushi photographed much better than it tasted.
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One of the more fun elements of at 1 Market is the DIY rojak counter. Diners can mix their own preferred ingredients, add more belacan etc... in a large wooden bowl.
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Another one of the live stations (we hear they change these every couple of days) were dishing up a sweet-sour assam laksa (tamarind fish soup). The flavor and spice level was spot on, although the puny powl could do with more condiments and ingredients.
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According to our Shopping Channel Editor’s mother, Mdm Fatimah (who was our resident makcik expert that evening) the Malay dishes at 1 Market are cooked in traditional Malaysian style, as opposed to the way Singaporeans are used to.
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One of the things we really liked about the buffet is that it opens a new dining experience for Muslim diners, which is severely lacking in Singapore. Food items usually reserved for non-Muslim diners, such as Hokkien Mee (cooked with pork lard), is dished up Halal style, something Mdm Fatimah welcomes.
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The Thai dishes were a far cry from authentic Thai fare. The green curry tasted more like a lemak (coconut) chilli padi dish.
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The tom yum tasted flat even though it was not short of ingredients. When we spoke to Chef Wan during the opening, he did mention he wanted to bring in cooks and chef from the various countries but he had trouble with their work permits. Looks like the problem hasn’t been rectified.
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What stood out for us at the Thai counter was the glass noodle salad. This was a perfect blend of spicy, sweet and sour. We couldn't stop at just one helping.
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The same spicy dressing was used in a cold chicken salad. Same taste, different texture. Both went down well with our dining party.
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Another winner was the Malay fish curry - fish head curry meets Indian sambhar (lentil curry) with generous chunks of sting ray swimming in it. No need for rice, the curry was mild enough to be slurped like soup.
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A local favourite, stingray made an appearance again as a grilled dish marinated with a dry spice rub that was mild and pleasant enough that you could still taste the fish.
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We went loco over the kueh pie tees (shredded vegetables in pastry cups), and so did everyone else. These were snapped up as soon as the chef put them down on the serving plate. While we have had better, we recognise this isn't exactly a cozy home setting.
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What's a buffet without desserts? 1 Market has everything from fresh fruits to goreng pisang (fried banana fritters) to Asian kueh-kuehs (bite-sized sweet treats).
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They have a DIY chendol and ice kacang bar (ed's note: does this mean I go crazy with gula melaka?), as well as a waffle station. The ice and the ice cream will be served to you when you ask for it, though. Once again, the Malay kueh-kuehs were the highlight of the buffet spread – the rest while stomach-able, were just mediocre.
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Verdict:1 Market is a great place to try all the region’s foods and signature dishes at one go. Think of it as a more affordable version of Straits Kitchen at Grand Hyatt (they offer a similar Halal buffet spread, although more luxe and at a steeper price). 1 Market is also perfect for tourists, or those who have visitors from abroad; you don’t have to trawl the island for different delicacies, just go hard under one roof for a few hours and you’re done. Points for the DIY rojak stations and ice kacang stations which were definitely a highlight. While we feel the food could be better, we're sure time will see Chef Wan perfecting his 1 Market. (Lunch Mon-Fri $28 per adult, $15 per child aged 6-12; Sat, Sun, eve of public holidays and public holidays $34.80 per adult, $20.80 per child | Dinner Mon-Fri $40.80 per adult, $19.60 per child; Sat, Sun, eve of public holidays and public holidays $46.50 per adult, $23.16 per child)