SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House is a Chinese restaurant whose chefs are not trained to cook Chinese food. The head chef is certainly not Chinese, unless he had been adopted at birth and given a name like Xiao Bao.
So why are we entrusting our taste buds to one who looks more at home in a Barcelona tapas bar, while his stable of otherwise ethnically-appropriate assistants have worked mainly in restaurants that use the bain-marie rather than a double boiler?
The answer, friends, is flowing through the air of this modern eatery that shows flashes of kitschy Orientalism in the form of lotus-patterned cushions and the twang of Chinese ballads sung over the sound system.
In concept, it leans towards the modern Chinese cuisine that owner Ricky Ng formulated for his flagship Blue Lotus in Sentosa, but with a stronger emphasis on the "modern", with the trendy Josper grill replacing the almighty wok.
Deliberately hiring chefs with a Western cooking background seems like a good formula to woo the cosmopolitan crowd around Tanjong Pagar Centre, where Blue Lotus exudes a smart-casual ambience with an alfresco section for people-watching and an air-conditioned dining area for the heat-averse.
What keeps it from descending into chop suey/fortune cookie cheesiness is that it offers serious food that's more about taste than gimmick.
While we're not personally crazy about pork trotters in vinegar - the nutritional must-have of new mums in confinement - we can appreciate this version (S$12) that's deboned and fashioned into neat, easy-to-eat chunks with the sweet-tangy sauce reduced to a dip on the side.
Frying the meat is a wasted effort, because having to eat dry meat layered with fat doesn't seem worth the cholesterol risk.
On the other hand, deconstructing Blue Lotus's signature chilli crab with pomelo for the time-strapped lunch crowd is a great idea - shelled crab meat is packed into hefty ping-pong ball shapes (S$22), lightly dusted with flour and flash fried for a light crunch. A somewhat-stingy bowl of addictive chilli crab gravy with pomelo sacs is served on the side for easy dipping. They should offer fried mantou with sauce as an option, in our opinion.
BLUE LOTUS CHINESE GRILL HOUSE
5 Wallich Street
#01-13 Tanjong Pagar Centre
Tel: 6910 0880
Open from Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 10.30pm
Lunch sets are good value, and the many people packed into the dining room must agree. For the price of a main course (S$18 to S$26), you get a starter and dessert thrown in, and they're not cheap fillers grudgingly thrown in either.
Chawanmushi-lovers should opt for the wobbly steamed egg white and shiitake mushrooms, which gets a dash of Chinese wine - the drinkable stuff, not the supermarket-variety hua tiao chew - at the last minute for a tantalising whiff of alcohol that makes you forget how healthy it actually is.
Our main course is a riff on braised beef shank noodles (S$22). The beef and tendon have been stewed to release the collagen into a rich, brown, silky gravy that coats home-made la mian, which looks a little like spaghettini but has the texture of chewy Korean instant noodles (and we mean that in a good way).
We don't understand why they show you an a la carte section only to tell you it's only for dinner. It's like showing a kid an ice-cream cone in the afternoon and then saying he can't have it till after dinner. We can understand why he would throw a tantrum because that's exactly what we do next.
Our server has a brief huddle with chef "Xiao Bao", who agrees to prepare the funky-sounding fermented tofu barley risotto (S$28), which we pick because it sounds like a fusion disaster waiting to happen.
But we're wrong. The fermented tofu adds a soft pink hue and savoury umami to the chewy barley that is oddly delicious, especially when mixed with the large dollop of pickled chilli sauce on the side. Crispy dried beancurd strips on top are like vegetarian keropok. Topping it all is a perfectly cooked fillet of barramundi, all jiggly and bursting with juices.
It's much better flavour and value than the Boston lobster (S$68) broiled in the Josper grill and gratinated with a topping of tamarind butter. Expensive doesn't necessarily mean good, since the flesh is about as limp as one feels after a bad day at the stock market. The butter is a distraction more than an attraction.
To comfort yourself from that bad choice, indulge in durian creme brulee (S$14), which is the next best thing to eating the actual fruit, or grilled bananas with Thai milk tea ice cream (S$14), the latter's striking orange colour proof that the original tea is used.
Like with any recipe, adding Western sensibility to authentic Chinese cooking is a delicate balancing act. But with Blue Lotus' strong background in Chinese food, we're pretty sure it knows where its true identity lies, regardless of who's cooking in the kitchen.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.