Zi Char Review

Review of eatery Zhen Zhou Dao: Going beyond porridge

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 1, 2013

It seems scarcely believable but there are people who do not dig a bowl of porridge.

The rice gruel is comfort food for me, especially on rainy days, but some kids get dragged into porridge eatery Zhen Zhou Dao with, as co-owner Grace Lim puts it, "black faces".

The faces have, it seems, been less thunderous after it started offering zi char dishes about three months ago, in addition to a long list of porridge variations.

It is a smart move because the dishes use pretty much the same ingredients that go into the porridge - sliced fish and pig liver among them.

With the zi char menu, new options open up. Diners can order fried rice or horfun (rice noodles) and still have the eatery's signature porridge.

Aside from these staples, there is also a large selection of classic zi char fare on the menu, with rice or porridge to go with them.

A zi char dinner in air-conditioned surroundings makes for a nice change. The food is unfussy and despite ordering five dishes, I do not leave the place on the verge of a food coma. There is something clean and wholesome about the food.

The best dish in the meal comes first. Prawn Rolls ($10) are wrapped, steamed and deep fried in-house and the care shows. Instead of having a tightly packed filling with a homogenous texture, Zhen Zhou Dao's version is a little more loose, with big chunks of water chestnut and pork that is not ground too fine.

The slices are crisp and greaseless and barely need the saucer of thick sweet soy sauce that accompanies them.

Another excellent dish is a very simple one. Poached Superior Beef ($15) is just that - slices of beef poached and laid on a pile of beansprouts tossed with a soy sauce dressing.

The dressing is a tad salty when I take a sip but mixed with rice, it is perfect. A couple of slices of beef are sinewy but otherwise, the taste of beef comes through without any adornment.

I wish more zi char places would come up with interesting vegetable dishes because honestly, how much sambal kangkong can a person eat?

Here, we are recommended Mixed Vegetables In Fermented Beancurd ($10) and honestly, I could just order that (and maybe the beef) and make a meal of them.

Kailan, xiao bai cai, carrot, beancurd skin layers and vermicelli are cooked with fermented beancurd, an umami-rich, slightly funky condiment that takes a little getting used to.

What I like is that the cooks don't hold back on it. They just let it rip and the dish is full of crunch and flavour. Any gravy should be ladled onto rice.

A dish of Ginger Onion Pork Liver ($10) makes use of the thinly sliced pieces that also appear in the porridge dishes. I have grave doubts about it because I like pig liver a lot thicker, with the insides pink.

However, I have to say that the slivers turn out to be good. What kind of mojo results in their not getting overcooked, I wonder?

Bean Paste Fish Fillet ($10) sounds good on paper and indeed, the slices of fish are generous and thick. However, the dish is let down by a rather generic bean paste sauce that is needlessly gloopy. Fix that and the dish will have a fighting chance. Add some crispy cubes of lard on top and I will order it again.

Ms Lim's father, well-known comedian, actor, leader of gourmet tours and gourmand Moses Lim, is known to serve diners when he is at the restaurant. He also gamely poses for photographs with fans.

The star power is all well and good, but here, there is also good food to match.




228 Tanjong Katong Road, tel: 6345-5163, Open: Noon to 9.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

Rating: ***1/2

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