SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Familiarity breeds content with two eateries that buck the cafe and modern cooking trends to prove that if the food ain't broke, don't mess with it.
Jing Hua Xiao Chi and Joyden Canton Kitchen are not so much newbies but oldies emerging from their comfort zones to bring tried-and-true homestyle cuisine into hipster or aspiring hipster haunts.
In the case of Jing Hua Xiao Chi, the Chinatown stalwart has taken its signature dumplings to upscale digs at Palais Renaissance - in the belief that the PS Cafe and sushi-loving crowd will also take a shine to the xiao long bao and guo tie that the family-owned eatery has been dispensing since 1989.
The snazzy red-and-black decor, comfortable booths and gentrified surroundings make it a no-brainer choice for those unfamiliar with its hole-in-the-wall Neil Road flagship and Bugis Village branch.
JING HUA XIAO CHI
#B1-04/05 Palais Renaissance
390 Orchard Road
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 3.30pm; 5.30pm to 10pm. Open all day on weekends and public holidays: 11.30am to 10pm
If you're averse to Din Tai Fung's pervasiveness or the big two's - Imperial Treasure and Crystal Jade - dominance of the Chinese food scene - Jing Hua has a charming, unpolished appeal to it with friendly staff and a menu that's quaintly oblivious to the concept of variety.
We're not sure what the range is like at its other outlets but Jing Hua Xiao Chi (literally "small eats") is basically a three-hit wonder. There is the xiao long bao (S$5 for four) - diminutive, tender-skinned steamed dumplings filled with just enough hot broth and juicy minced pork filling to squirt into your mouth without any risk of spillage.
Then there is the open-ended guo tie (S$6.50 for six) or pan-fried dumplings that can barely hold their stuffing of bouncy minced pork, shrimp and chives. With a skin that's suitably sticky-crisp and chewy, it's amazing what the chefs at Jing Hua can do with flour and water and an all-purpose filling of minced pork, shrimp and chives.
The Chinese pizza (S$10.80), too, has a winning crust with the chewiness of pizza and the flakiness of curry puff pastry. The large deep-fried disc is cut into wedges to reveal - yes - that minced pork-shrimp-chives combo.
Bringing back memories
Everything else is ho-hum and variations of the same flavour profile - stodgy, bouncy, and a little heavy-going for those of us who haven't toiled the land in a while. The Zha Jiang noodle (S$6.80) packs too little oomph with its humdrum minced pork sauce over floury noodles. The hot and sour noodles (S$7.50) fare a little better with the preserved vegetables lending a nudge in flavour, if not a kick.
And if you haven't had real fried red bean pancake for a long time, Jing Hua's version (S$10.50) is decent enough to bring back memories, even if the pancake is a trifle too dense.
JOYDEN CANTON KITCHEN
4 Hillview Rise, #02-21
HillV2 Shopping Centre
Open daily: 11.30am to 9.30pm
Meanwhile, Joyden takes a calculated risk by opening in the Hillview neighbourhood of Upper Bukit Timah, where residents have to go to Rail Mall to feel vaguely hip. Now they can hang out at the curated lifestyle mall that is HillV2 - populated with the likes of Dean & Deluca and a well-stocked Cold Storage supermarket. A captive neighbourhood of hangout-deprived condominium and landed property residents means a steady crowd packs into the tight carpark and Joyden - a bright, cheerful eatery with an easy weekend vibe.
Along with that vibe is a comprehensive menu of homey fare from its signature soya sauce chicken to Hakka braised pork belly with preserved vegetables. The former is right on the money (S$32 for whole chicken/S$18 for half) with tender poached breast meat that's a testament of the skill involved in cooking the bird in this lightly sweet, fragrant if somewhat thin soy sauce.
Joyden is your typical Chinese restaurant that upsells expectations with a menu packed to the brim with lustful photos of glistening poached chicken and ingredient-stuffed soups. As always, we're suckered into ordering more than we should, namely the exquisitely described Chicken with Fresh Huai Shan and Wolfberry in Old Coconut Soup (S$12.80) posing shamelessly in its photo packed full of ingredients. The reality is a couple of wolfberries floating in a coconut shell filled with clear - albeit lightly sweet and pleasant - weak broth with bits of meat at the bottom.
An unexpected winner, though, is the deep-fried crackling crisp eggplant (S$8.50) that yields meltingly soft flesh within, showered with pork floss. Also decent is the Hakka braised pork belly (S$16.80) with sweet rather than salty preserved vegetables. The Hakka salt-baked chicken (S$17) literally pales in comparison with its soya sauce counterpart - anaemic-looking flesh that makes it clear this is no spring fowl. Same with the squares of steamed garoupa fillet on tofu with black bean sauce (S$16.80) - which must have photo-shopped its selfie to make it look more appetising than the bland fish on bland tofu covered with one-note black bean sauce. Bear in mind too that the reasonable sounding prices actually yield smaller portions.
Even if Jing Hua and Joyden don't hit any dining highs, their presence on the scene is a welcome one. The food is acceptable, the surroundings are pleasant and they offer a groundedness you don't see often enough. It's food that we've always known, and it's nice to be reminded about it sometimes.
Rating for both eateries: 6.5
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on Dec 15, 2014.
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