Four Seasons, Sum Yi Tai: Two different takes on traditional Chinese food

Roasted duck from Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant.
Roasted duck from Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant.

SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) One thinks that you don't mess with tradition, the other thinks tradition is always better served on a plate of retro glam with cocktails.

In one corner is Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant - the 1990 Bayswater original being the doyenne of roast duck in London's alternative Chinatown that dispenses surly service and queue-inducing roast duck in equal measures.

Opening outside of London in cities such as Shanghai, Bangkok and now Singapore means that the restaurants are bigger, newer and nicer to eat in, even as it invites plenty of "my duck is better than your duck" comparisons.

In the other corner is Sum Yi Tai or "Third Wife" - a groovy take on 1980s Hong Kong with its soundtrack of Cantonese ballads and a stylised bar concept.

By day it's a bustling office worker's "canteen" with simple comfort staples such as roast pork or duck with rice and noodles, soups and claypot rice.

By night it's a Chinese tapas bar with the usual hipster trappings. At the still-in-progress Capitol Piazza, Four Seasons struggles with both pro-London biases and lacklustre walk-in traffic to fill its huge banquet-like space on the second floor.

  • Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant

  • Capitol Piazza 
    13 Stamford Road #02-27/28/29 
    Tel: 6702 1838 
    Open daily from 11am to 10.30pm

Perhaps in a nod to the old Capitol theatre, the restaurant's decor is 1980s redux, but more from a "I don't know any other way" mindset than a carefully crafted aesthetic.

Even the menu's fake leather cover is quaintly, if unintentionally, archaic.

But Four Seasons is right to assume that people are not coming in to see its etchings.

They want to know if the duck is as good as it is in Bayswater, and its owners have come out to say that the Holland and Thai birds they use in Singapore are actually superior to the British waddlers.

Well, what if we said that the real attraction of Four Seasons duck was never really the duck but the sauce?

The sweet, savoury, slightly herbal black sauce which looks like an afterthought but when ladled over copious amounts of white rice distracts you from the fact that the duck itself is not something to rave over, even in Bayswater?

The duck itself is actually decent. Sure the skin may not have been crisp to start with and so has nothing to lose between the chopping board and your table.

It's fatty but there's a fair portion of meaty chunks to be had that is still tasty and relatively juicy. We've had worse so this is really not too bad.

But if your tendency is to eat the duck without rice, you will lose out. We remember the sauce having a bit more body but even in this slightly diluted form it still does things to your rice that other gravies may find hard to match.

So our advice when eating here is simple: stick to the basics. Have the duck but order either a half portion ($36) or whole ($68) because the small portions yield the least attractive bits.

Skip the combination platters for this reason.

The char siew and roast pork are middling; the other dishes on the menu are really more for variety than quality; but don't miss the soya sauce chicken ($18-$52) which is better than the duck, and comes with the same sauce.

It's easier to get quality chicken here and as a result, the breast is tender and the leg slinky with a lovely thin layer of gelatine between the skin and meat. A typical Hong Kong minced green onion and ginger dip gives it a lift.

The red bean pancake ($10) is a pleasant surprise - the crisp-chewy pancake dough compensates for the commercial red bean paste.

Interior of Sum Yi Tai, Cantonese tapas bar at 25 Boon Tat Street. 

  • Sum Yi Tai

  • 25 Boon Tat Street 
    Tel: 6221 3665 
    Open for lunch and dinner 
    Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5pm to 1am. Sat: 5pm to 1am. Closed on Sun.

But if you like your classic comforts dressed up Suzie Wong-style (with a cast of fake roast ducks hanging in the back for kitschy effect), you won't go far wrong in the third wife's house, as you get fuss-free meals that enjoy a minimum cooking standard.

That well explains how busy it is at lunch time as the working CBD crowd pops in for a quickie meal.

The food is steady and dependable even if it doesn't hit any high points. The cooking shows care whether it's the honey glazed char siew ($12) or roast duck ($15) which are meaty but are either too sweet or not crisp-skinned enough to nudge the applause-meter up a notch.

What really gets us going is the daily soup - thick, nourishing bone broth served from a teapot that you sip it from dainty cups - the best thing on the menu.

We're less enchanted by the claypot dishes: minced pork and salted fish steamed into a wide flat disc covering a claypot filled with rice ($25) plays it safe by toning down the earthy pungence of the salted fish, while the sauteed vermicelli is too one dimensional and doesn't have the benefit of a strong prawn stock to match the generous topping of giant coral-filled crustaceans ($32).

The Signature XO Carrot Cake from Sum Yi Tai, Cantonese tapas bar at 25 Boon Tat Street. 

Not being a fan of soft-textured carrot cake, the house special ($12) is fragrant with XO sauce and well matched with crunchy bean sprouts but the almost-mushy texture doesn't quite float our boat.

Ending off with a refreshing lemongrass jelly dessert ($6), though, perks up our palates again and lets us appreciate the concept for what it is - simple, fuss-free food that's dependable but not gourmet.

The fact that the food is conceptualised by Blue Lotus in Sentosa also brings with it involuntary comparisons, and Sum Yi Tai lags behind its original.

Whether you like your Chinese food old-fashioned or NEW old-fashioned, these two entrants to the food and beverage scene offer comforting familiarity which could aim higher but is reassuringly down-to-earth.

Four Seasons: 6.5
Sum Yi Tai: 6.5


10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average

This article was first published on April 27, 2015.
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