Restaurant Review: Johor Baru-style zi char at Da Shi Xi

This story was first published in The Straits Times on  Feb 16, 2014. 

Chef Eric Teo - a familiar face on television food programmes and spokesman for products such as bottled mushrooms - is back with a new eatery.

The former president of the Singapore Chefs Association and executive chef at five-star hotels such as Orchard Hotel and Mandarin Oriental Singapore has always eschewed fine-dining restaurants for humble eateries in his own ventures. His previous partnerships were a steamboat restaurant in Balestier Road and a home-style eatery in Bukit Batok.

His latest business is Da Shi Xi, a local branch of a chain of eateries from Johor Baru. Co-owned by Teo and his Malaysian partners, the nondescript eatery in Sims Way opened last month. You can see it from the main road but, to get to the restaurant, you have to drive into Geylang Lorong 3 and walk behind the multistorey carpark.

There is no air-conditioning and the place looks like a cross between a zi char stall and a restaurant.

The menu, too, seems to offer what many zi char stalls do, with dishes such as Curry Fish Head and Shrimp Paste Chicken. However, the dishes taste different from regular Singapore versions.

Da Shi Xi offers Johor Baru-style cooking, its four local chefs having learnt recipes from their counterparts in the Malaysian city, where the chain already has three branches.

The Fish Head Curry ($28), for example, has less coconut milk than Singapore versions, making the curry light enough to drink or ladle liberally over a bowl of steaming rice. But it is no less tasty.

Besides ladies' fingers and brinjal, the curry also has cabbage. Crispy pieces of deep-fried beancurd skin are scattered on top just before serving.

The fish head itself, which is steamed before being added to the curry sauce, is fresh and meaty - and good value for the price.

A dish of Braised Trotter With Pumpkin Sauce ($25) also turns out to be different from what I expected. The trotter is deep-fried before being braised, which makes it more aromatic. Ironically, it also feels less fatty in the mouth.

The pumpkin sauce, less sweet than most Singapore versions, helps to cut the fat further.

Even a simple dish of Aromatic Spicy Ikan Bilis ($8) is quite different from what I've eaten. The ikan bilis is fried till crispy then tossed in a sambal which has a distinct tartness from tamarind. It is so good we have a second helping.

I like the Hotplate Otah ($10) for its smoothness and spicy fragrance on my first surprise visit. But on the second visit, which was pre-arranged, the spices are less aromatic.

What stays good both times is the Claypot Crab Rice ($80 for two 800g crabs). The rice grains are fried with bacon before being boiled in stock. When most of the water has been soaked up by the rice, the crabs are added with pieces of fried dried sole. As the crabs cook, their juices flow into the rice, infusing the grains with their sweetness.

The result is a pot of tasty, fragrant rice best eaten on its own. The rice is, in fact, tastier than the crabs, which become rather bland after losing their juices.

Another dish, Deep Fried Pork Belly Hakka-Style ($12), is very popular in Malaysia but little-known in Singapore, even among Hakkas. The pieces of fatty pork are first marinated in fermented red beancurd (called nam yu in Cantonese) and other seasoning before being coated in flour and deep-fried till a golden brown.

Da Shi Xi's version is leaner than most, but it has an extra crispy coat of flour enveloping very tender meat. That gets it a thumbs up.

As do most of the other dishes here.

ahyoke@sph.com.sg

SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.