June 21, 2009
Return to the classics
A number of new Chinese restaurants are bringing back time-honoured dishes from the past
By Huang Lijie
After flirting with wasabi prawns, foie gras with Peking duck and other contemporary takes on Chinese food, some restaurants are going back to basics.
No fewer than six eateries such as Tung Lok Classics in Amber Road, which serves traditional Chinese fare, have opened in the last few months. More are joining the fray, including Duo Le, a restaurant chain from China's Shaanxi province opening soon in Orchard Central.
Even established names such as Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant in Keppel Road are offering promotional menus featuring time-honoured Chinese dishes.
Contemporary Chinese cuisine with its East-meets-West cooking and refined presentation might have been the flavour of the month in the past but its novelty has worn off a decade on.
Mr Dennis Wee, 56, chairman of real estate company Dennis Wee Group and a foodie, says he misses 'good old, honest Chinese food' which has been overshadowed in the dining scene here for a while.
Indeed, chef Jereme Leung, 39, founder of the food and beverage consultancy Jereme Leung Creative Concepts, feels that Singaporeans are ready to re-embrace traditional Chinese food.
The consultant chef behind Empress Jade on Mount Faber, which specialises in Singapore's Chinese heritage cuisine, says: 'Many contemporary Chinese restaurants have mushroomed in Singapore since the late 1990s and now is the time when people look back and seek to understand the roots of Chinese cuisine as part of their culture.'
Hence, he included dishes such as paper-wrapped salt-baked chicken and old-fashioned Whampoa fried noodles with prawns and scrambled eggs - popular here from the 1960s to the 1980s - in the menu.
Diner Ken Jung, 58, an engineer, likes the traditional offerings at Empress Jade.
He says: 'The food at Empress Jade brings back old memories and familiar tastes, unlike a meal at a modern Chinese restaurant where guests don't know what to expect.'
Former actor Moses Lim, 60, who runs a gourmet club, says: 'Food trends, like fashion, go in cycles. Modern Chinese food was the 'in' thing, but with promotions such as the Nostalgic Beijing Dishes offer at Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant, traditional Chinese food is attracting people's attention again.'
According to Mr Benson Loi, 52, general manager of PFS, the food services arm of the Prima Group which owns the restaurant, the ongoing month-long promotion, which features Beijing delicacies such as cold jelly pork with vegetarian goose, has received over 70 bookings since it started. The offer has also drawn more than 40 tables of walk-in customers.
Response was equally enthusiastic for a two-month classic Sichuan food promotion at modern Chinese restaurant Peach Garden's Thomson Plaza outlet in April and last month, which included tasty treats such as camphor smoked duck and Sichuan hot and sour soup.
Its assistant director for sales and marketing, Mr T.C. Ho, 41, says the restaurant received between 10 and 15 bookings a day for the promotion and adds that there are plans to bring it back on an annual basis.
Truly, this growing appetite for unpretentious and authentic Chinese cuisine was what prompted Ms Ju Wen Jing, 28, and her husband to set up Lao Jiang Shanxi Liang Pi in Lorong 13 Geylang.
She says the northern Chinese food it sells, such as liang pi, a cold noodle dish, and mantou, steamed buns, are popular not just among its customers from China but also among Singaporeans.
That Li Bai Cantonese Restaurant at the Sheraton Towers hotel, which specialises in traditional Cantonese cooking, recently won the World Gourmet Summit's regional Asian Restaurant of the Year award further places classical Chinese food back in the spotlight.
To widen the appeal of these old-fashioned dishes, however, some restaurateurs have taken liberties to update the food without compromising the integrity of its taste.
At Tung Lok Classics, which offers various regional Chinese cuisines, its Shanghainese fish puff - fish meat whipped with egg white, deep-fried then braised in stock - is served in smaller bite-size pieces instead of the usual unwieldy chunks. At the restaurant, it is also paired with noodles instead of being served on its own.
Mr Andrew Tjioe, 51, executive chairman of the group of Tung Lok Restaurants, a forerunner of modern Chinese eateries here, says: 'Singaporeans are well-travelled. Many have been to China, they know what traditional Chinese food tastes like and they expect the same authentic taste to be served in restaurants here.
'Modern Chinese cuisine is definitely here to stay, but for Singapore to be a leading food paradise, we must also have Chinese heritage cuisine.'
WHERE TO GO
If you are looking for classic Chinese food, here are some new restaurants serving up traditional Chinese fare.
Where: 109 Mount Faber Road, The Jewel Box, open: 11.30am to 11pm daily, tel: 6377-9689
What: This restaurant specialises in Singapore's Chinese heritage cuisine, which includes dishes such as paper- wrapped salt-baked chicken ($24) and spinach and pork liver soup with egg white ($8)
Where: 80 Marine Parade Road, Parkway Parade, B1-84D, open: 11am to 11pm daily, tel: 6346-6617
What: As its name suggests, this eatery focuses on Teochew cuisine and highlights include savoury crystal bun filled with chives and shrimp ($2.90), and braised duck with beancurd ($16).
Where: Three outlets, including 154 West Coast Road, West Coast Plaza, B1-48, open: 11.30am to 10pm daily, tel: 6777-9950
What: Comfort local Chinese dishes from the past such as claypot soups (right) and steamed minced pork with salted fish and water chestnut ($8) are on its menu.
TANG DIAN WANG
Where: Four outlets, including 101 Thomson Road, United Square, 02-02, open: 11am to 10pm daily, tel: 6253-6708
What: This Shanghainese restaurant offers classic treats such as Shanghai-style braised giant meatball ($12.80) and lotus wrapped rice ($13.80).
PRIMA TOWER REVOLVING RESTAURANT
Where: 201 Keppel Road, open: 11am to 2.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), 10.30am to 2.30pm (Sundays), 6.30 to 10.30pm daily, tel: 6272-8822
What: Its Nostalgic Beijing Dishes promotion this month features dishes such as cold jelly pork with vegetarian goose ($25).
TUNG LOK CLASSICS
Where: 21 Amber Road, Chinese Swimming Club, 02-01, open: 11.30am to 3pm (Mondays to Saturdays), 10am to 3pm (Sundays), 6 to 10.30pm daily, tel: 6345-0111
What: Specialises in various Chinese cuisines ranging from Hunan and Shanghainese to Sichuan and Cantonese. Must-tries include sweetened red dates stuffed with glutinous rice ($5) and Shanghai- style braised mian xian with fish puff ($7).