SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Wagyu may be all the rage, or grass-fed lamb, and who has not been lusting after Dingley Dell pork chops? But in all the fuss over prime meats, little is said about the humble chicken - the most diplomatic meat that cuts across all races and religions so long as it is bred and slaughtered appropriately.
Blame it on the horror stories of battery-farmed birds, or chicken's reputation as cheap, tasteless meat. But of late, forward-thinking farms in Malaysia have upped the stakes with credible and affordable alternatives to exorbitantly-priced imported organic poultry.
NTUC FairPrice supermarkets, for example, stock Sakura chicken, a breed reared in Johor using high tech husbandry methods and humane practices. The birds are fed a special diet containing lactobacillus to boost their immunity naturally.
Then there is the Anxin chicken, or Naked Neck, which is preferred by Western cuisine chefs. Bred without hormones or antibiotics, fine dining chefs say that the chicken is similar in taste and texture to the French poulet bresse.
But whatever the pedigree of the chicken, it is the most maligned simply because it is tough (literally) to find restaurants that serve moist, juicy and succulent meat. But here are some restaurants that do, and have turned cooking chicken into an art form.
Steamed Chicken with Ham and Kailan
Dragon Phoenix Restaurant
Where: 177A River Valley Road, 06-00 Novotel Clarke Quay
This classic dish in the Chinese formal dining canon is also a test of the chef's expertise in the complicated method of preparing cured Chinese ham.
Chefs in the know use a very specific part of the ham, which is rinsed and soaked in brine to draw out the excess salt. Drained and blanched with spring onion, Chinese wine, and ginger to get rid of any odours, it is then cured with sugar and honey for at least a day.
The chicken, meanwhile, is steamed, sliced and layered evenly with the ham. Even the gravy is tedious to prepare. Only superior chicken consommé is used, thickened with starch for a clear gravy. The exacting results required at every stage of preparation call for confident, disciplined skills.
Dragon Phoenix Restaurant is one of the rare few that does this dish well. Advanced order is required.
Cantonese Chicken Rice
Sin Kee Famous Cantonese Chicken Rice
Where: Block 40 Holland Drive
The line between Hainanese and Cantonese chicken rice is often blurred. Many stalls and restaurants tout their chicken as Hainanese to cash in on its reputation. But what they are doing is actually the Cantonese method, except that diners do not realise it.
The differences are relatively minor, differing only in the step where the chicken is cooked and removed from the heat. The Hainanese soak the bird in room-temperature water to stop further cooking. The Cantonese on the other hand prefer the so-called "shocking" method, plunging the chicken instead into icy water. The result is meat that is "crunchier" and skin that is smoother; most seductive of all is the film of gel that develops just beneath the skin.
At Sin Kee, the sign clearly states it sells only "Cantonese Chicken Rice". The stall has a pedigree, having built it up from its beginnings in the Margaret Drive Food Centre many years ago.
The founder's son, Benson, today operates the stall from its new location inside a kopitiam. He serves the exact version made famous by his late father: smooth-skinned, succulent chicken chopped into chunks. And served with rice and chilli dip very much in the old tradition.
Crispy Fried Chicken
Arnold's Fried Chicken
Where: 810 Geylang Road, City Plaza, 02-99/101
If fast food fried chicken does not cut it for you anymore, look no further than Arnold's, tucked away on the 2nd floor of City Plaza. For 30 years, it's built up a steady pool of fans dying for a bite of crispy, succulent poultry just like in the good old days.
Ignore the kitschy interiors and dive into the spring chicken or chicken pieces which are served piping hot. So well-seasoned with well-fried skin, it may not contain more than 11 secret herbs and spices, but it's tasty enough to sustain two other branches in Hougang and Yishun.
If you see a long queue, which happens often, do not despair. The operation here is so efficient that it puts other international food chains to shame. Do not forget their side dishes, which make you yearn for the KFC of your youth.
Where: 99 Pasir Panjang Road
If you are in a retro mood and seeking old fashioned paper-wrapped chicken, look no further than Manhill Restaurant.
This caught-in-a-time-warp restaurant has specialised in claypot dishes since 1963. But it is the paper-wrapped chicken that steals the heart of many a diner. Well made paper-wrapped chicken is hard to find, in which chicken is marinated and wrapped in grease-proof paper before deep-frying. Thanks to the paper's protection, the meat retains the fragrance of the marinade fragrance and is juicy to the bite.
Order the claypot pig's liver - it is one of the best versions in town. The other claypot dishes are hit-and-miss.
Spicy Crispy Chicken Nuggets
Birds Of A Feather
Where: 115 Amoy Street, 01-01
Do not under estimate this less-than-one-year-old hipster joint Birds Of A Feather when it comes to food.
Under chef Eugene See's steady hands, It delivers a searing repertoire of delicious and tongue-numbing Sichuan-inspired dishes.
On the menu is crispy spicy chicken nuggets, which resembles the Sichuan favourite, La Ziji. The chicken bits are marinated and deep-fried until the skin turns crispy and served on a bed of deep-fried red chillies. Be prepared to get hot when you pair this dish with an equally potent Chinese wine-inspired cocktail from the bar.