SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) This is a story about Full of Luck Club - a new restaurant that serves Chinese food, but feels it doesn't have to be all Chinese about it. Their logic, we reckon, goes like this: this is Singapore. Most of us have seen a siew mai naked and would not bat an eyelid if it were dressed in pink skin or straddled by a baby abalone. BUT, if you take that dim sum and serve it in a chop-socky, Kung Fu Panda-ish, fortune cookie-embellished environment, that same siew mai somehow attains a whole new street cred that will make us rush to swallow it hook, line and hipster.
Well, when your restaurant name is a twist on that Asians-in-America paean The Joy Luck Club, maybe it makes sense. It must be, going by the bustling lunch time crowd drawn either by its S$15 lunch set (essentially a normal-priced main dish and free flavoured tea) or its gleefully kitschy concept. Check out the cheerful decor, whimsical sketches on the walls and a giant lucky cat waving from the upper level of the two-storey eating house in Holland Village. Incidentally, it sits right next door to a Crystal Jade which, while technically owned by French people now, is still very Chinese about its Chinese food.
The key feature of Full of Luck Club - is its burger, no, Bao Bar. Taking up a good chunk of space on ground level, this is where kung paofried chicken, braised pork belly, prawn fritters and Portuguese pork chop (S$9.80 for any two) line up to be stuffed in round mantou buns and slathered with a sauce in varying shades of yellow, depending on the flavour it's trying to mimic.
FULL OF LUCK CLUB
243 Holland Avenue
Open daily: 11am to 11pm
So who doesn't like biting down on a soft pillow like the fluffy white mantou, especially when there's a layer of crunchy fried batter sandwiched in between to add more joy to your chew. Never mind that the pork chop within tastes like nothing much, and the prawn version less so, especially when the shrimp has been water-boarded by an obsessive-compulsive kitchen helper. We have only one thing to say about the respective curry and salted egg yolk sauces: they are too yellow.
Oh, there is also a Hokey Pokey ice cream dessert bao (S$6), but we are not in an Okie Dokie mood to order it.
That's because, for a restaurant run by stalwart Li Bai, we expect a little more consistency in the food which, bao burger aside, is mostly Chinese Chinese.
Hakka crispy pork belly (S$18), for one, lets off a whiff of fragrant spices and is almost crisp, but the arctic air-conditioning flash-dries the meaty slices into jerky in the time it takes to dismiss our other order - limp, sodden char siew bao - as an embarrassment to other hard-working, non-sweaty baos.
We're quite sure the Li Bai BBQ char siew (S$14) has been a bad influence on his bao brother. At first, we're happy when our plate of roast pork arrives piping hot. We've never had fresh out-of-the-oven char siew before. But wait. The texture's not right, and freshly roasted meat doesn't give out so much juice that it forms a little puddle. Hey kitchen, wrong oven. Did someone stick our plate in a microwave or something?
Now, we don't know how food can taste tired but the spicy stuffed yong tau foo (S$16) is clearly just going through the motions. Tofu, bittergourd and capsicum are stuffed with the same too-porky mixture and coated in standard issue oyster sauce-based gravy. If you dig out the stuffing, the pan-fried tofu and vegetables are tender and not too bad, but if that pork were a person, he's definitely not happy.
Our own depression sinks in when our eagerly anticipated, yum-sounding truffle pepper beef clay pot rice (S$16) made with US prime boneless short rib turns into a "how not to oversell your product" session. First, no truffle flavour. Second, no taste. Period. That delicious-looking brown gravy ladled over the beef promising mouthfuls of umami-rich rice and meat? Even our imagination can't add any taste to this combination of rice, baking soda-rubbed meat, coloured sauce and pepper.
To add insult to depression, we order the red bean pancake with icing sugar (S$10). We're being masochists - even normal Chinese restaurants can't get it right. We don't know what robot made this version - pasty, undercooked pancake stuffed with factory-made bean paste and a blanket of icing sugar in a vain cover-up attempt.
So. You likey Chinese chop suey cooking and fortune cooky spouting stuff like "To truly find yourself you should play hide and seek alone"? Welcome to the Club. But if you're hoping for authentic, or even decent, Chinese food here, best of luck to you.
This article was first published on June 27, 2016.
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