Shashlik Restaurant, which closed down in December last year, is back. And although it has new owners, two of the partners, Mr Derrick and Mr Alan Tan, are sons of one of the original owners, Mr Tan Niap Hin.
Another new owner is Mr Say Yeow, who got to know the Tan brothers through a mutual friend.
The restaurant reopened early this month and the question, no doubt, what many people want to ask is: How different is the restaurant?
Before it closed, the appeal of Shashlik lay mostly in nostalgia.
The 30-year-old Russo- Hainanese restaurant came with a heartwarming story of how nine waiters, cooks and bartenders from another restaurant, Troika, put their life savings together to open it. They had all just lost their jobs when Troika, which also served Russian dishes by Hainanese chefs, suddenly closed down.
The owners stuck together through the years, but old age and the deaths of some of them finally made it impossible to continue.
545 Orchard Road, Far East Shopping Centre, 06-19
Open: Noon to 2.15pm,6 to 9.15pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday
Food: 3 stars
Service: 3 stars
Ambience: 2.5 stars
Price: Budget about $70 a person, without drinks
With its new beginning, much has stayed the same at Shashlik. But there are changes too.
Minor renovations were done during the three-month break. There is a fresh coat of paint and the musty old carpet is gone. The chairs are new too, as are the tablecloths that are a few shades brighter than the original yellow ones.
Also, an unused toilet in a corner that was boarded up and turned into a store room is now part of the dining room.
Other than that, the feel and look of the restaurant remains much the same. The servers are younger but one, known affectionately as Uncle Foo, has been with the restaurant since day one and still whips up the signature Russian coffee and flames the Cherry Jubilee dessert table-side.
The wooden trolleys are new, but modelled after the old ones, and no longer creak as the servers roll them out to serve dishes such as borsch and shashlik, as well as to prepare the flambed desserts.
I have been to the restaurant every decade since the 1980s, the last time being late last year, after hearing about the restaurant's impending closure.
Back for dinner last weekend, it was just as packed. The menu was almost the same, except for some dishes, such as chicken liver in caper sauce, which were removed because few diners ordered them.
What is laudable is that the prices are the same. And even better, some dishes come in bigger servings now. For example, Egg Millionaire ($16), which had just four pieces for a $15 serving when I was there last year, now comes with six pieces. It is an original dish from the restaurant that has chopped hard-boiled egg mixed with bacon and ham bits as well as some butter before being stuffed into eggshells, sprinkled with grated cheese and gratinated.
Apparently, the millionaire monicker is inspired by "egg" sounding like "eight", a prosperous number to the Chinese. The name usually attracts diners to order the dish, but I had found the egg dry previously and it's still dry. Perhaps adding a bit of bechamel sauce to the mix would help. But as it is, it's not among my favourites.
What I like among the appetisers is Escargots A La Bourguignonne ($16 for half a dozen). The snails are standard issue, but the housemade parsley garlic butter they are baked with is delicious - well-seasoned and aromatic with garlic and herbs.
As for the Shashlik Of Beef ($32), I find the version now more tender and flavourful than before.
Unlike many restaurants that serve shashlik as grilled beef cubes on a skewer, here it comes as a piece of tenderloin sizzling on a hot plate.
I'm usually not fond of tenderloin, but the meat here is juicy and infused with the marinade it has been sitting in for 24 hours.
If you are dining on a weekend, you should also try the Oxtail Stew ($32). This used to be available only in the Wednesday set lunch menu, but is now also available all day on Saturdays and Sundays.
I have not eaten this before, but am now a fan. The meaty chunks are simmered till fork tender and the gravy, reduced to a thick consistency after hours of cooking, tastes robust without being salty. It comes with boiled potatoes and carrots.
The dessert I always order at Shashlik is Cherry Jubilee ($20 for two persons), which is still the best I've eaten. It is prepared table-side, with the cherries sauteed in butter and then flambed in brandy before being plated with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The buttery richness in the dessert is balanced nicely by the acidity in the cherries and the ice cream's sweetness. The alcohol lends a subtle but lovely aroma.
Make sure you get your smartphone ready on camera mode. The server tries to get the flames as high as possible with the flambe, so it's always a good photo or video opportunity.
I like how the new owners of Shashlik have kept the character of the restaurant largely intact, but also made subtle changes to improve the food. It is not fine- dining - and at these prices you don't expect it to be - but I'm impressed enough to want to go back.
The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
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