SINGAPORE - I admit to having little knowledge of Nanjing cooking. My exposure to it is limited mainly to promotions run by five-star hotels such as Shangri-La, which bring in chefs from their properties in China.
Some restaurants do include a few Nanjing dishes, such as salted duck, on their menus. And there is the forgettable Nanjing Restaurant, which opened in Jalan Sultan last year, offering pedestrian Nanjing dishes, but also chilli crab.
So for me, the three-week-old Nanjing Impressions is my first experience dining at a proper restaurant specialising in cuisine from the capital of China's Jiangsu province. And after two unannounced visits, I am, well, impressed.
The restaurant in Plaza Singapura is the first overseas outpost of a Chinese chain of 40 outlets that started in Nanjing in 1994.
I've not been to the original restaurant, but like most well-known food places that have set up branches here, you can expect the dishes not to taste exactly alike.
04-46 Plaza Singapura, 68 Orchard Road, tel: 6352-7877, open: 11am to 10pm daily
Food: 3.5/5 stars
Service: 3.5/5 stars
Ambience: 4/5 stars
Price: Budget about $40a person, without drinks
Ingredients are different, for example. And so are the chefs.
So I'm not surprised when friends who have eaten at the Nanjing outlet tell me that the Jining Signature Salted Duck (from $16.80) here lacks the flavour or juiciness of the one there. Even without that comparison, I find the dish decent, but not memorable. However, this is such a representative Nanjing dish that most people would order it anyway.
Another dish that would taste very different is the Steamed Patin Fish In Chicken Broth ($48.80). The river fish used in the Chinese restaurants is not available here, so the fatty patin fish from Malaysian farms is the substitute. It is a nice dish all the same, as the chicken broth provides a subtle layer of flavours, while allowing the fish itself to shine.
What is outstanding is the restaurant's version of Poached Lion's Head Meatball ($13.80). Unlike the more common version found here, which is braised with soya and oyster sauces, the tennis ball-sized pork ball is poached in a clear stock with xiao bai cai (baby bok choy).
This makes it lighter, but what is more impressive is how airy the meat ball is. It disintegrates easily in the mouth, releasing delicious flavours of fresh pork laced with a considerable amount of fat.
Another dish not to be missed is the Sesame-scented Beancurd Julienne ($11.80).
This is a dish that requires expert knifework and the chefs at Nanjing Impressions are true masters. The beancurd is cut by hand into even noodle-like strands and served chilled in a mild savoury-sour sauce. The texture is slightly firm, so the mouthfeel resembles that of noodles too. But the taste is light and clean - quite unlike wheat noodles - with the sauce providing the main flavour.
Then there is Baked Pork Shoulder ($28.80) that looks like a German pork knuckle, but with lighter, crispier crackling. I like that the meat is not overly soft or tough, but has just the right amount of bite. It does not feel oily either.
I do not have a sweet tooth, but the Honey Glazed Stuffed Lotus Root ($12.80) here is rather appealing. Perhaps it is because the lotus root, which is stuffed with glutinous rice, does not have the cloying sweetness of other versions I have eaten. Instead, the thick syrup coating the root has a slight taste of caramel.
But another sweet dish, Seared Crabs In Ginger And Brown Sauce ($16.80 each), has a flavour profile that is just too weird for me. The steamed crab is further cooked with fresh ginger and aged brown sugar, and becomes so sweet that you do not taste the crustacean. So it's not for me.
The Jiangnan Seafood Bucket ($18.80), comprising fish, prawns, crab and clams, is also not to my liking - mainly because the milky broth tastes too fishy. But if you do not have the same aversion to fishiness that I do, go ahead and try it. It is listed on the menu as a signature dish.
What also impresses me about the restaurant is its decor. The 300-seat restaurant is decked out like a Chinese house from the turn of the 20th century, with aged wooden pillars and rafters. Senior citizens dressed in clothes from the same late Qing period help to direct diners to their tables and recorded pieces of what sound like pingtan (traditional Chinese singing) waft from the sound system.
The effect is like being on the set of a period Chinese play such as The Teahouse, which was performed at the Esplanade two years ago.
The restaurant is full both times I am there and gets very lively. But there are two private rooms, which can seat 10 each, for those who want to stay away from the noise. There are also four booth tables that seat four each and these give you a bit of quiet too.
I am happy to sit in the main hall to be in the thick of things, however. The buzz adds to the ambience and that is so important in the making of a successful restaurant.
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• The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
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