The rains are here, the winds have changed and the temperatures are dropping - well, a little.
This is the time of year when the idea of a steamboat dinner is particularly appealing. And there is a new place to go to for it.
Hua Ting Steamboat at Claymore Connect, Orchard Hotel's newly renovated and rebranded shopping arcade, is an offshoot of the hotel's reputable Hua Ting Restaurant, known for its Cantonese cooking. I was naturally excited when it opened last month and have since dined there twice.
Judging from the experiences, the eatery gets some things right, but not everything.
What impresses are the soup bases. It not only has the biggest selection of soups I know, but also some of the most inventive, brewed from recipes by Hua Ting chefs. These include Tomato Soup With Century Egg & Coriander ($20), Chinese Herbal Soup With Black Bone Chicken ($28) and Sea Treasure Flambe ($36) packed with seafood. For spice lovers, there is Sichuan Style Seaweed Soup with Bean Sprouts ($22), the ubiquitous Sichuan mala hotpot.
HUA TING STEAMBOAT
442 Orchard Road, 01-08 (mezzanine level), Claymore Connect tel: 6739-6628
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm,
5.30 to 10.30pm daily
Food: 3.5 stars
Service: 3 stars
Ambience: 2.5 stars
Price: Budget from $70 a person. The average price goes down when there are more people because of the high prices of the stocks.
The restaurant also offers dishes such as Spicy Chicken Hotpot With Ginger & Spring Onions ($28) and Fried Sea Perch With Fermented Beans, Garlic & Chilli ($34) that come ready-cooked. After you've eaten half of it, stock can be added to turn it into a spicy steamboat.
I have tried only two soup bases - Shark's Bone Cartilage Soup With Fresh Bean Curd Sheets ($28) and Superior Fish Soup With Winter Melon & Conpoy ($34).
While the shark bone cartilage soup is good, I've had better at other restaurants. The fish soup with winter melon and conpoy (dried scallop) is far more fascinating.
I've heard of steamboats in China where the ingredients are cooked inside a whole winter melon and wondered how the melon can keep from breaking apart as it cooks.
What the Hua Ting chefs have done is brilliant. The raw melon has both ends cut off and the seeds scooped out. It is then served standing in a flat-bottomed metal pot filled with fish soup. Shredded conpoy, wolfberries and Tianjin cabbage are added to the soup inside the melon. When everything starts simmering, the soup gets sweeter and sweeter even without any other ingredients. The melon keeps its shape because it cooks from the inside and the outer layer is uncooked even at the end of the meal.
But of course, you do not go for a steamboat just to drink soup. Hua Ting Steamboat offers a good selection of raw ingredients you can add to the broth though, here, the chefs are not as creative. There are the usual meats and vegetables, such as drunken chicken ($5 for half portion), sliced pork neck (from $5) and spinach (from $3).
If you want something premium, there is sliced Japanese top grade wagyu beef (from $29) and US kurobuta pork belly (from $7), both of which, however, do not taste top grade.
The seafood is what I'd recommend. It is fresh, which is pretty much all you need for a steamboat. Just do not overcook it - and that is easier to achieve if you keep the stock simmering and not boiling.
The live prawns ($8 for 100g) are much sweeter than the dead ones you get at cheaper hotpot places, but you must not be squeamish about the fact that they are still moving right before you dunk them into the hot soup. The lala clams ($8 for 100g) are delicious too, though they come to the table cooked.
But what stand out are the various balls, which are freshly made. I have tried three - shrimp paste balls stuffed with minced pork and Chinese rice wine (from $8), minced pork meatball with water chestnut (from $7) and dace fish paste ball with preserved tangerine peel (from $7) - and all are excellent, with fresh, natural flavours and a crunchy texture that is delightful.
You should also try the fish paste noodles, which come with flavours such as pumpkin and spinach (both $12 an order). I try the black truffle fish paste noodles ($14) and though the truffle aroma escapes me, I like the springy texture of the thick strands piped into the stock.
I order everything in small portions and they are tiny. That allows you to order a wider variety of ingredients - my companion and I need almost 20 items to feel full - but it also means the bill can add up to quite a bit if you are not careful. Our meal for two cost more than $250. The second dinner for three was cheaper, at $210.
Another thing I don't like about Hua Ting Steamboat is that while the prices are those of a premium restaurant, the ambience is that of a mass-market eatery.
And, unfortunately, that is something that is not so easy to fix. The premises are tiny and the place feels cramped and uncomfortable. The cheap-looking synthetic leather seats do not help either.
Service, too, is erratic. On both visits, the food takes a long time to arrive. And plates are not changed at my second visit.
Overall, I would rate the food here a couple of notches above average. But for the price I'm paying, I expect a better dining experience.
Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here