Walking into Empress - the month-old restaurant at the revamped Asian Civilisations Museum in Empress Place - one can be forgiven for not realising it is a Chinese eatery.
The first person greeting diners at the door is a Caucasian woman. The dining room looks like it could be a Western cafe or a South-east Asian restaurant, with its wicker- backed chairs and potted palms.
The colonial architecture too, with French windows that look out on an alfresco bar area beside the Singapore River, lends the restaurant a cosmopolitan feel.
But Empress serves true-blue Chinese fare - mainly Cantonese - with familiar items such as roast meats and stir-fry dishes.
The international feel is deliberate though, as the owners want to appeal to the CBD crowd across the river as well as foreign visitors to the museum. The piped-in music ranges from Shanghai to American jazz.
Where: 1 Empress Place, Asian Civilisations Museum 01-03, tel: 6238-8733
Open: 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 11pm daily
Food: 3 stars
Service: 3.5 stars
Ambience: 4 stars
Price: Budget from $80 a person
While I would not put much faith in food recommendations from the Caucasian staff, there are Chinese servers too and they do a pretty good job of explaining the dishes.
One of their staff recommends the Triple Roast Platter (from $28 for small) and it turns out to be one of the highlights of the dinner for me.
The Roast Pork is too lean, but is saved by crispy crackling. The Sweet & Sticky Pork Ribs are delicious, with tender meat that comes off the bones easily.
The best of the trio is the Char Siew, a nicely charred piece of pork belly with just the right balance of fat and meat. Smothered in honey, Malaysia-style, it is tender and juicy, with excellent flavour from the fat.
The appetiser Crispy Cod "Bi Feng Tang" Style (from $12) is also executed expertly, with the fish fried in such hot oil that it puffs up and is not at all oily. Tossed with caramelised shallots and chilli, it can do with a bit more spice where I'm concerned, but the cosmopolitan crowd the restaurant targets may prefer it the way it is.
I have no complaints with the King Prawn Dumpling In Supreme Broth ($14 a person). The dumpling is plump, with a sweet and crunchy prawn wrapped in smooth flour skin. And the broth lives up to its name with its full-bodied flavour.
Where the restaurant falters is in its wok-fried dishes. None that I have tried impress, with most missing the smoky flavour or "wok breath" that comes from frying in a red-hot wok. Some even lack the basic flavours that make up the dish.
The "Three Cups Sauce" Claypot Chicken (from $24) is one of them. The three cups refer to a small cup each of soya sauce, rice wine and sesame oil in the original recipe. But in this version, I detect neither the wine nor the sesame oil. Instead, the dish tastes more like a sweetish soya sauce chicken flavoured with fresh basil.
The Lobster "Mapo" Tofu (from $28) is another failure. It lacks the fragrant zing of Sichuan pepper and chilli oil that characterises this popular Sichuan classic dish. Instead, you get an anaemic version that provides no kick to the palate.
The worst dish, however, is the Singapore-style Noodles (from $22), which has absolutely no flavour. It tastes so flat it was almost like the chef forgot to add any seasoning. The most you can detect is a hint of curry powder.
Thankfully, the desserts turn out much better.
Cempedak Creme Brulee ($13 a person) captures the distinctive fragrance of the tropical fruit without the diner having to deal with the slightly slimey, chewy texture of the cempedak itself.
And I love the Jasmine Tea- Poached Pear ($12 a person), which sits in a refreshing chilled "cheng teng" comprising dried longan, red dates and black sago pearls. The pear is infused with the aroma of jasmine tea, which I find more appealing than the Western practice of soaking a pear in red wine. This is lighter and the tea blends into the sweetness of the pear without overcoming it.
Empress is not a place for a family dinner, but the charming ambience and pretty plating make it good for business get-togethers or a small gathering of friends.
As for the food, it can be hit or miss. Hopefully, the chefs can make some major changes to some of the recipes and make them more hits than misses.
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- Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.