SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Excuse me, are you a Chinese food Nazi?
You know, the kind who keeps the tills at Imperial Treasure and Crystal Jade ringing loud and the queues long; for whom wasabi or foie gras don't belong in the Cantonese culinary pantheon; who believes that those who can, do - those who can't, cross over to the dark side of fusion.
If Jacky Yu had been hauled into the dock by an imperial Chinese cooking court, he would probably have been sentenced to years of hard labour making dim sum skin or stoking the fires for the real masters to show off their wok hei skills.
Instead, the Hong Kong advertising-guy-turned-chef has built up a strong following in his home city for his particular brand of mostly Chinese, partly Asian, vaguely European but overall thoughtful cooking that puts taste ahead of authenticity.
XI YAN SHAW
1 Scotts Road, #03-12 Shaw Centre
Open: Daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 3pm; 5.30pm to 10pm
The Singapore outpost of Xi Yan was opened in 2005 by Yu and his Singaporean partner Thomas Choong to indie success as a "private" dining outfit in Craig Road.
While still going strong, the partners have seen the potential in casual dining - and the steady crowds that have been filing into its new Shaw Centre premises since its soft opening a few weeks ago attest to its winning formula of wholesome cooking and real value for money.
While there's some token effort made to divide the comprehensive menu into something resembling starters and mains, the reality is that it doesn't matter which order you eat them in because a) the so-called starters can easily work as a main and vice versa and b) the food arrives in an equally arbitrary order.
That the restaurant is understaffed comes through loud and clear from the harried faces of the servers and the fact that Choong himself is on hand to take orders and serve as well.
Some popular dishes such as the Yunnan ham niang dou fu ($9.80) run out quite quickly too, so be warned.
But it's for good reason - the individual pieces are stuffed with a generous mixture of fish and pork paste, and lightly simmered in clear stock that takes time to make, not the kind that needs MSG to differentiate it from boiled water.
The plus point of Xi Yan Shaw is that the cooking is a lot more serious than the cafeteria-like space it occupies in the newly refurbished Shaw Centre suggests.
It's as if someone forgot to tell the chef that he's supposed to do fast, no-brainer noodles and simple fare, not a whole range of Xi Yan classics - albeit in smaller portions and with no attempt at attractive presentation.
Pretty much everything is served in basic white crockery and looks nothing like those mouth-watering photos in its colourful menu. But there is little to quibble about taste-wise.
Radish pizza ($7.80) for one, is an inspired take on fried carrot cake. Steamed savoury white radish cake is flattened to resemble triangular pizza slices and pan-fried till the edges are crisp, so you get to enjoy the crunch and just enough of the soft, fluffy interior before it gets too cloying.
It certainly shows up the fried chye poh radish cake cubes ($7.80) cut from the same carrot cake in its original and yes, stodgy form. Curiously, it is a good match with the vinegary-sweet Okinawa black sugar Zhenjiang spare ribs ($10.80) - which is fork tender if not particularly to our taste.
So if you end up ordering both but are not enamoured of either, eating a bite of each together mitigates the stodginess of the carrot cake and the acidity of the ribs.
Meanwhile, Xi Yan's signature salivating chicken ($9.80) will never win an award for the most appetisingly named dish, but it has won fans for its highly original recipe of shredded chicken tossed with century eggs in a piquant dressing made of Sichuan peppercorn that fights its way through the peanut-ginger-sesame-oil-chilli concoction to leave its long, tingling mark on your tongue.
The Shaw version tastes a little assembly-made - as if it were quickly pulled together with whatever was on hand, such as shredded chicken breast when we would have expected silky-textured thigh meat and other bits and pieces. But there is still enough resemblance to the real thing that you can enjoy it, especially at that price point.
What we would not think twice about returning for is the deceptively simple rice in superior fish soup ($9.80) which is a textural dream - toasty rice grains swimming in the milky goodness of intensely rich fish stock, crunchy deep-fried tiny whitebait, sesame seeds, yu tiao and seaweed that is literally good to the last drop.
Dessert is a case of wanting to try everything but not having enough people at the table to sample them all.
So we narrow our picks to the signature custard tang yuan ($4.80 for two pieces) - two stingy but addictive glutinous rice balls filled with a yin-yang mixture of salted egg yolk custard with ginger, osmanthus, crunchy sesame seeds and peanuts.
Again, the draw is the melange of sweet, salty, crunchy and smooth sensations you get in one bite that make this a winner, even if it's presented in a non-descript bowl unlike the stylish ceramics in the menu.
Incidentally, the ice creams here sound like rejects from a Haagen Dazs flavour audition: salted egg yolk, pumpkin, tofu and wolfberry. We settle for the wolfberry ($4.50) which turns out to be a very pleasant, haw flakes-like flavour, served with jelly studded with the same berries.
The crowds may still regard conventional Chinese eateries as the yardstick by which all such eateries should be judged, but now that Xi Yan has made its move from esoteric Craig Road to mainstream Orchard Road, we're betting that there's ample room for it to multiply and become a force of its own. One that proves that cooking out of the box can be an equally good recipe for success.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on Nov 3, 2014.
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