Char siew at its best at month-old Grand Mandarin restaurant

Grand Mandarin serves decent fish and chicken but its roasts are worth returning for

Honey Glazed Barbecued Pork Loin. -- PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE, GRAND MANDARIN
Honey Glazed Barbecued Pork Loin. -- PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE, GRAND MANDARIN
The Black Truffle Roasted Duck With Perigord Truffle boasts tender, juicy meat under aromatic, crispy skin. -- PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE, GRAND MANDARIN

Yet another Chinese restaurant which does not belong to any of the big groups such as Crystal Jade or Imperial Treasure has opened - the third in the past six months or so, after Tao Seafood Restaurant in Asia Square and Royal Pavilion in Park Regis Hotel.

Grand Mandarin, which opened in New Bridge Road about a month ago, is a welcome addition to the list. Occupying two floors of a small building near Outram MRT station in Bukit Pasoh Road, it targets both up- and mid-market diners.

You can easily spend hundreds of dollars if you order the shark's fin or abalone dishes, or even thousands if you order the pricey empurau fish.

The empurau, which you cannot miss as it is featured on tent cards on the tables and in a looping video on a row of TV screens on the wall, is a river fish from Sarawak which is prized for its sweetness. Its Chinese name is wang bu liao, which translates to "unforgettable".

Depending on its size, it can cost from $2,000 to more than $3,000 each.

I don't think any fish is worth that price, frankly. And the last few empurau I've tasted in other restaurants here do not even have that much-touted sweetness, which comes from the fish eating fruit which fall into the river.

The problem may be that a lot of the fish available now are farmed and lack the flavour of wild fish, and my untrained eye cannot differentiate the two.

The only time I tasted fruity sweetness in a fish was at Copthorne King's Tien Court a few years ago, and it wasn't even an empurau. It was a tenggara, a close cousin also from Sarawak rivers, but sold for much less.

So at Grand Mandarin, I opt for a steamed Pacific Grouper instead, at a more down-to-earth but still not cheap $16 per 100g. It is decent but not great. The fish is not overcooked and not as tough as some I've eaten, but the soya sauce it is served with lacks any outstanding characteristic.

The Baked Silver Cod With Spicy Lemongrass Infused ($40 a piece) I try on another visit is also lacklustre, as the lemongrass is too subtle to make an impression.

A stir-fried dish, XO Sauce Chicken With Mushroom And Pine Nut Served With Lettuce ($20), is also just passable. The dish, a variation of stir-fried diced pigeon, is meant to be eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves, but the endive used here is too bitter and distracts from the flavours of the chicken.

A simpler dish of Poached Spinach With Three Types Of Eggs ($14) turns out to be more impressive. The spinach is cooked till just soft enough, but the best part is the egg gravy, made with raw chicken egg, salted egg and century egg. It is very easy to overcook the raw egg, and the smooth streaks of egg in the gravy demonstrate the chef's skill. The Cantonese have a term for this: wat dan, which means "smooth egg".

What will get me to return to Grand Mandarin, however, are the roast meats.

A dish of Black Truffle Roasted Duck With Perigord Truffle ($24) stands out, with perfectly roasted duck boasting tender, juicy meat under aromatic, crispy skin. Pieces of black truffle in the sauce reassure the diner that the perfume comes from real truffles and not just chemicals - which, perhaps, explains why the aroma is not overpowering or has the pungency of truffle oil.

The restaurant also does very good Crispy Roast Pork Belly ($15), though it is no better than what is sold at many other restaurants. It is almost expected these days that the crackling is crispy and the meat juicy, with thin layers of fat to moisten it.

Where Grand Mandarin beats most restaurants is with its Honey Glazed Barbecued Pork Loin ($15). This is char siew at its best, with a dark honey glaze coating a piece of tender, slightly fatty pork. The meat is succulent and not overly soft, with its juices filling the mouth as you bite into it.

The glaze is sweet - in fact, too sweet at one lunch, but at a subsequent dinner, it is just right.

I have been on a hunt for good char siew since Oversea Restaurant closed. Happily, my hunt has ended at this restaurant at the tip of Chinatown.

Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke

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

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