From The Straits Times Archives: Contemporary twist on Chinese cuisine at Forest

Crispy fish skin in the traditional Szechuan-style mapo tofu and fresh Sri Lanka crab meat with steamed fragrant rice, available from fine-dining Chinese restaurant Forest.
Crispy fish skin in the traditional Szechuan-style mapo tofu and fresh Sri Lanka crab meat with steamed fragrant rice, available from fine-dining Chinese restaurant Forest. PHOTO: ST FILE

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on March 11, 2012. 

Fans of local chef Sam Leong would be glad that he’s back helming a restaurant kitchen. The well-known chef, who appears regularly on television food programmes, is the frontman of Resorts World Sentosa’s month-old Forest, a fine-dining Chinese restaurant in the equally new Equarius Hotel. 

His menu is an extension of the modern Chinese creations he promoted while he was director of kitchens of the Tung Lok restaurants over the past decade, until he left in 2010. 

The food is plated and served individually, unlike the communal style of traditional Chinese service. The restaurant, too, boasts an open kitchen that looks more Western – save for the occasional roar from the stove that accompanies wok frying.

In fact, there is little in the design of the restaurant that is Chinese. It has a forest theme with pillars resembling stylised tree trunks, and a ceiling that looks like a forest canopy. Also, the lights are programmed to change from sunny brightness to dusk in 20-minute cycles.

But while the ambience is chic and contemporary, the light beige tones and small, square, wooden tables convey a casualness that does not sit well with a fine-dining menu. Plus, the lighting is too bright, with the frequent change in intensity a distraction. 

Slowing the transition from dawn to sunset, and dimming the lights further to create evening shadows, might be better.

Right now, you feel like you are in an all-day eatery – and in a way you are, because the hotel serves breakfast there too and the fine-dining menu is available only at dinner. 

The cooking does show promise, however. 

While some dishes, such as pan-seared wagyu beef, sea urchin and foie gras with sauteed mushrooms, leave me indifferent, there are also impressive fresh ideas.

Chef Leong’s special recipe of milky chicken broth with morel mushroom and wild bamboo pith ($28) is one. The well-brewed chicken broth is served in a coconut, which gives it a light aroma. I love the plating, too, with the coconut placed dramatically on a dark green leaf.

The wok-fried crispy duck pressed confit and yam served with mushroom sauce ($34) is another winner. It takes the traditional Chinese dish of braised duck and yam one step further – by pressing the tender duck meat and yam into an oblong piece and coating it with batter before deep-frying to form a crisp coat.

When you bite into it, your teeth crackles through the thin coat to sink into the juicy duck meat and skin, as well as soft floury yam. The result is a beautiful layering of textures and flavours that makes the dish a modern classic.

The traditional Szechuan-style mapo tofu and fresh Sri Lanka crab meat with steamed fragrant rice ($38) is a one-dish meal that is quite appealing. 

Served on top of the rice is not only the spicy Sichuan tofu dish and crab meat, but also strips of salted vegetable and pieces of deep-fried fish skin. The tofu is not as spicy as I would have liked it, having been toned down for general consumption. Still, it is tasty and the crispy fish skin goes well with it.

My only complaint is that $38 is rather too much to pay, as are the prices for most of the other dishes. Servings are rather small and you will probably need four to five dishes to fill up on, which will easily add up to $150 a person.

It’s all very well to have a brand-name chef, but to demand such prices means that Resorts World needs to also deliver the right ambience and service, both of which are rather at odds with a fine-dining aim at the moment.
But Leong says the restaurant is seeking feedback, so tweaks may be coming. Hopefully, they will come fast. It would be a shame if the chef’s good work gets lost in a poorly managed forest.

LifeStyle paid for its meal at the eatery reviewed here.