(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - If you ever have had to renovate your home on a budget, you will know the pain of having to decide to replace grotty bathroom tiles or peeling front door because you cannot afford both. And ending up with new doors because visitors are more likely to see your door than you in the shower.
There is no such dilemma at the newly renovated Hua Ting, where to say "no expense has been spared" is an understatement.
We do not know who the contractor is, but we can imagine him not only having no budget to keep to, but also keeping up with the restaurant's demands to add even more stuff. Jade display here, antique artefact there, French porcelain crockery everywhere. After almost four months and a few million dollars, the stalwart Chinese restaurant Hua Ting has been outfitted with the equivalent of an emperor's finest robes. And more.
Since its soft re-opening last week, it has been near-impossible to get a table at this restaurant, whose long-serving manager Irene knows everybody by name.
We could not get a table for lunch, but just barely managed to get one for dinner. It feels like a reunion meal, watching Irene welcome all the regulars returning to this favourite haunt that won fame under its former head chef Chan Kwok, whose finesse extended from a simple mango chicken tart to his signature double-boiled shark's bone cartilage soup.
Master chef Lap Fai has been at the helm for some years now, and to match the new space, he has elevated the look of the food, which is traditional at heart but modern in presentation. While we have always liked Hua Ting from before, it was always for the more familiar, traditional dishes and less so for anything they updated or created from scratch.
The menu has been totally revamped, but they are quick to assure that the old favourites are still very much in place.
Together with the new menu is its focus on Chinese tea, with menu-pairing options. Not your basic oolong or pu'er, but elaborately named creations such as a fragrant Lychee Red Tea or Spring of the Dawn.
We cannot for the life of us remember what goes into which tea, but the names are pretty and the brews light, pure and easy to drink.
Frankly, the teas do not really match the food, unless a dish is cooked with the same tea it is paired with. But the teas themselves are so pleasant, you just play along.
The teas feature mainly in the current tasting menu priced at $98. It is a good deal because it is a pretty wide showcase of new dishes, plus you get to try a whole range of teas. It is also just for the re-opening period, so it has a fairly short runway. It is value-for-money when you consider that some of the dishes such as the double-boiled chicken and whelk soup would cost $35 a portion on the a la carte menu.
It stutters here and there, but on the whole, it is pretty decent.
The trio of appetisers look better than they taste: a ho-hum ball of tea jelly stuffed with tasteless crab; a better slice of smoked pu'er duck and a pleasant poached prawn in a delicate oolong-infused broth.
We are more impressed with the soup, where the chef shows his mettle in coaxing intense flavour from this crystal-clear double-boiled chicken and whelk. Spiky sea cucumber adds the final luxe touch.
We are also not crazy about the beetroot-hued omelette (what is wrong with regular egg colour?) wrapped around braised seafood. But it does add some drama to the thin yet yielding skin that you cut open to release a torrent of diced prawns, scallops and mushrooms in a thickened gravy. Together with the brown sauce the whole dish is bathed in, the situation gets a little too sticky for our comfort. But we devour the braised baby abalone it comes with.
More points go instead to the braised kurobuta pork belly - a fancy name for kong bak. It is very well executed with its shiny, gelatinous texture and flavour infused throughout, with gravitas and umami from 10-year-old aged pu'er tea. Try hard to resist asking for rice to mop up the rich braising liquid beneath.
If you are checking out the a la carte menu, crispy squid tentacles ($15) are worth the jaw workout from the octopus-like spears hiding behind their shields of shatteringly crisp batter. Crispy rice and almond flakes add to the fun, while chilli padi cuts the monotony.
While similar in profile to the squid, the crispy pork rib ($12) holds its own as a single rib of super-soft meat that tastes almost like it has been steamed with bak kut teh herbs. You get the double happiness of crunchy crust giving way to fork-tender meat and a shower of crispy garlic and chilli. Round off your fill of fried snacks with fat stuffed spring rolls ($16) filled with a mix of minced Angus beef and just a bare hint of black truffle.
We order what we think is a baked drumstick with abalone, black fungus and herbs ($32), so we almost shoo away the server who brings us a whole chicken instead - okay, it is made of dough and looks like a big rooster that lost its feathers and got a tan, but we are assured that there really is only one chicken leg inside. It is a good-sized portion nonetheless - and so intensely herbal, you feel instantly nourished even if the flavour can be a little overpowering. Still, a lot of healthy herbs went into the making of this dish, so finish it in the name of good health.
Nothing spells comfort more than hot soup on rice and Hua Ting's version hits the spot with its wild-caught Dong Xing garoupa and rice in superior stock ($28). A stone bowl of rice with a layer of raw fish slices is presented at the table before the server pours piping-hot stock over it, instantly cooking the fish. Mouthfuls of this indulgent rice porridge get extra kick with crispy puffed rice.
If Hua Ting was your reliable standby for Chinese food with a slightly modern twist, you will be cheering the fact that you can enjoy it in expensive new surroundings at prices that have not gone up in tandem with the cost of its makeover. You can eat as reasonably or luxuriously as you want and, either way, you will still leave satisfied.
Where: Level 2 Orchard Hotel, 442 Orchard Road, tel: 6739-6666; open: 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6 to 10.30pm daily