The announcement of the closing of Lei Garden’s Orchard Shopping Centre branch on Tuesday ends another chapter in the Singapore food scene.
It’s not quite the end of Lei Garden as the restaurant still has one more outlet in Chijmes. But it does mark a passing of sorts as the Orchard Road branch is closing after 25 years.
I do not have many memories of the outlet as I had dined there only four or five times and had always ordered just a soup, a vegetable and a plate of seafood horfun with egg gravy, dishes that my friends and I loved there.
Nonetheless, Lei Garden has played a significant part in Singapore’s restaurant history. Its first outlet, which opened in 1987 at the now-defunct Boulevard Hotel in Orchard Boulevard, was a first in many ways.
It was among the first restaurants from Hong Kong to open here, paving the way for restaurants such as Crystal Jade in Cairnhill Hotel and the now-defunct Tsui Hang Village in Hotel Asia, both of which opened a few years later. Before that, from the early to mid-1980s, the popular upmarket Chinese restaurants were run by hotels such as Min Jiang in Goodwood Park, Shang Palace in Shangri-La and Mei San in the then-Holiday Inn in Scotts Road, which is now the Royal Plaza on Scotts.
Outside the hotels, there were also locally owned restaurants, such as Charming Garden and Dragon City, both at the now-defunct Orchid Inn hotel in Dunearn Road and both now gone.
These served cuisines ranging from Cantonese to Hunan to Sichuan, with mostly traditional dishes on the menus.
But Lei Garden was different. It introduced what was contemporary Hong Kong cooking at the time to Singapore, featuring new dishes created by chefs from the then-British territory.
I remember my first taste of the mango sago dessert, called yangzi ganlu in Mandarin, when the restaurant in Boulevard Hotel first opened. No other restaurant here served the Hong Kong dessert before that, but it was so popular that it didn’t take long before other Chinese chefs here started adding it to their menus. Today, it is found in most Cantonese restaurants here.
Another dish that left a deep impression was braised honeyed pork ribs cooked with pineapple to balance the fat and sweetness.
What also made Lei Garden different was that it did not look like other Chinese restaurants, with their traditional decor and colours of red and brown. Instead, it mixed red with black, which was considered daring at the time. Black is a mourning colour for the Chinese and had never been seen in Chinese restaurants before then.
I remember a large piece of calligraphy featuring a poem by Li Bai on one wall and, instead of the usual ceiling lights, there were spot lighting and wall-embedded lighting.
In comparison, the Orchard Shopping Centre branch was more traditional and boasted Asian design and furnishings when it opened in 1989. But subsequent renovations gave it a more contemporary look.
In 1996, Lei Garden moved its Boulevard Hotel outlet to bigger premises at Chijmes, occupying two floors of an old building in the former convent school that had been turned into a restaurant enclave.
At the height of its popularity, there was also a third outlet in Orchard Plaza but that closed down in the mid-2000s.
Since then, other restaurant chains started by Hong Kongers, such as Crystal Jade and Imperial Treasure, have grown in prominence and reputation. Lei Garden, meanwhile, stopped expanding.
With no new openings or promotions to garner publicity, it has long lost its position as the hottest Chinese restaurant in town. The Chijmes outlet still draws a good crowd of regular customers, but I have not dined there in many years.
So while it was sad to hear of the closing of its Orchard branch, it was not surprising. Not many people even remembered it was there.
The good news is that Lei Garden is not totally gone from our shores. Those who wish to can still taste its many culinary delights at Chijmes. It may have been born in Hong Kong but it is certainly a much valued Singapore permanent resident.
Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke