Walking into Cheng Hoo Tian, a Teochew restaurant which opened in Keong Saik Road in January, is like taking a step back in time.
The single-unit shophouse is filled with antiques from owner Alwyn Tan's collection and includes heavy wooden furniture and floor-to-ceiling wood panels with intricately carved designs painted in gold. Insides cupboards, on shelves and even on the floor are jade and porcelain art objects. And on the walls are Chinese watercolour paintings.
Each of the four floors of the restaurant is designed differently. The ground-floor dining area is almost entirely filled by two round tables, including one that can be extended to seat a dozen people. The kitchen takes up the rest of the space behind.
The second floor is partitioned into private rooms by carved wooden panels, allowing diners private spaces where they can stay hidden from the view of other customers.
The third floor is also partitioned, but by a panel fitted with beautiful antique frosted glass. It looks like a set from the 2000 Wong Kar Wai film In The Mood For Love, and you can almost imagine lead actress Maggie Cheung appearing round the corner dressed in one of the gorgeous cheongsams from the movie.
The top floor, which is more like an attic, is where most of the expensive art objects are displayed. There is only a single table and Mr Tan says it is reserved for selected guests only. I guess he wouldn't want children running around there and knocking down any of the pieces.
The retro setting is perfect for the food, which is also very old-fashioned. The menu is small, with only about 20 dishes, including dessert. And all of them come in just one size. You find a number of Teochew classic dishes such as braised duck and oyster omelette, as well as less common ones such as chilled cold pork jelly and BBQ goose.
Even with some of the common dishes, the cooking style is a throwback to the past. The fresh oyster omelette ($15), for example, is filled with more starch than egg. And instead of being fried till burnt and crispy, which is how many restaurants do it these days, the starch appear as big blobs.
The idea of eating lumps of cooked starch may not sound appealing, but it actually tastes rather good with a dash of chilli sauce. Also, the oysters in the dish are plump and cooked just right.
Another dish prepared the good old way is the crispy liver roll and prawn roll ($20). The liver roll is packed solid with chopped liver, which is smooth and rich, while the prawn roll has a nice crunch. I like how the beancurd skin used to wrap both rolls are fried till crisp without drying out the stuffing. The rolls are not refined but I appreciate the feeling that everything is handmade.
The BBQ goose ($30), a house speciality, turns out quite unlike the Cantonese-style roast goose I am expecting. The meat is sliced thinly and sits in a bit of juice. It is tender and delicious, and if not for the burnt skin, quite similar to braised goose in texture.
The Teochew braised duck ($15), which would be more familiar to most diners, is good too. But because you can find many restaurant versions that are just as good, it doesn't stand out much. Still, I'm happy to order it again the next time I'm at Cheng Hoo Tian.
And I'll go back for the sea cucumber with fish maw thick soup ($8 a bowl) too. The stock is tasty, and there is a generous amount of sliced sea cucumber and fish maw. In fact, the soup is so delicious I leave the accompanying dark vinegar untouched.
There are some dishes that, while not bad, are pedestrian. An example is the stewed gold coin cabbage ($6 a person), comprising a stalk of baby cabbage, a mushroom and a beancurd skin roll covered in oyster sauce.
The braised mee pok with minced meat in abalone sauce ($15) also lacks character - mainly because of the indistinct flavour of the sauce.
The first time I ate at the restaurant, I had a much better stir-fried kway teow with minced chye poh but that is no longer on the menu.
The three desserts - yam paste, winter melon puree and pumpkin puree - are, however, unchanged. On both visits, I order the yam paste ($4) and winter melon puree ($4), and both are excellent. The yam is smooth and just sweet enough, and topped with ginkgo nuts and a small piece of pumpkin.
But it's the winter melon puree that I find more intriguing. It's served warm and sweetened just a little. There's a distinct taste of citrus peel as well, which is lovely. And lotus seeds provide something to chew on.
Older folks will find lots to jolt their food memories at Cheng Hoo Tian. The young ones may discover that some old-fashioned dishes are well worth preserving.
I'm certainly glad to encounter many of these dishes again. And I look forward to being acquainted with more on future visits.
SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 2, 2013
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CHENG HOO TIAN
41 Keong Saik Road, tel: 6382-2222
Open: 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 11pm daily
Price: Budget about $50 a person