SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Like the youngest child who has to step back while his older siblings get to parade in fresh new clothes for Chinese New Year, Shang Palace has been left relatively untouched even as the Shangri-La lobby outside underwent the hotel equivalent of Korean plastic surgery.
It is not that Shang Palace needs any sprucing up. It is already photo-ready with its deep red plush banquettes, delicate floral wall motifs and opulent feel. It feels so serious and grown up that you are almost compelled to sit up straight and tie any wayward child, if any, to his seat. Even if he is not yours.
Still, everyone likes new stuff so in lieu of furniture, Shang Palace got itself a fresh chef Mok Kit Keung, recently transplanted from its two Michelin-starred sister in Shangri-La Kowloon.
Shang Palace has never really been the place for a raucous family-style meal. On a weekday, the restaurant is filled with business folk and dignitary-types who look like they are here for an Apec forum rather than some bo lo buns and tete-a-tete. So, think Chinese food that is dressed up in all its finery too - a little fussy and elaborate, designed to impress rather than make you feel at home. The pricing is upscale too, with chef Mok's hit list of signature dishes priced mostly above S$40 for single-person servings.
At lunch, dimsum is a more value-for-money option, even if it is priced a couple of dollars higher than its counterparts in town. Apart from the usual suspects, there are upstarts such as pretty beetroot and asparagus dumplings (S$8) - very sticky-skinned crystal dumpling stuffed with shredded carrots and slivers of beetroot that give enough colour without its earthy flavour. Shaped like red-tinged fruit with an asparagus stem, they are cute to look at, but we prefer the Teochew-style steamed dumplings (S$7). Also sticky-skinned, the little packages are stuffed with a magic mixture of chives, vegetables, finely mixed meat and crunchy peanuts, so a lot of pleasant chewing is involved.
Thousand-layer radish puffs (S$9) with Parma ham is a misguided attempt to westernise this flaky, light pastry filled with shredded braised turnip. Parma or yunnan ham - it makes no difference in such a tiny quantity apart from vanity. The pastry itself starts out well enough with a fine flaky texture, but finishes off on a pasty note.
Where: Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, 22 Orange Grove Road
Open: noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10pm, daily
The real proof of the pudding is how chef Mok's line-up of special recommendations - and there are a good three pages of the menu devoted to them - fare. The much touted fried chicken stuffed with glutinous rice is supposed to be a signature dish, but it requires a one-day advance order, so if you are not an organised diner, too bad.
To kick off, we take comforting sips of double-boiled sea conch broth with chicken and honeydew (S$38) - a pricey single serving of lightly perfumed, clear and refined brew - trying to calculate how much each spoonful costs. But it is almost worth it for the delicate flavour, enhanced with honeydew, and a pleasant brininess from the clam.
Braised sea cucumber stuffed with shrimp paste and foie gras in abalone sauce (S$68) is a single bouncy sea creature stuffed with equally resilient fish paste, although the foie gras seems to require some imagination to discern, because we could not taste it. Maybe the thick, syrupy-textured abalone sauce drowned it out, but no matter as we were quite busy diving into the nest of deep fried shredded onions - an addictive snack that should be sold by the carton, if you ask us.
The cheapest dish of our meal($26) is also the most enjoyable - a thick, intense, milky brew of fish, vibrant fresh spinach and tender, panfried slices of fish bean curd that taste like a cross between fish paste and egg tofu. Goji berries add a little colour.
We are in two minds about our carbo dish - a weird but oddly pleasant soft and slippery Inaniwa noodles (very thin udon) - baked in a creamy sauce in a baby pumpkin, a slice of gooey grilled cheese draped over the top. It is as if the chef woke up with a craving for both instant noodles and a grilled cheese sandwich, and went to the kitchen to whip this up. It looks way more elegant in its edible pumpkin shell, but it is comfort food by any definition. This one is luxed up with a couple of abalone slices, hence the S$48 (per person) price tag.
Service is efficient if not polished, but we have to give it to them for their patience in tackling guests such as a lady who looks like she jets around the world lecturing on the socio-political landscapes of developing nations, but spends a good five minutes trying to order "chicken chow mein". And getting increasingly miffed that the staff have no concept of American takeout. By the time our bill comes, she is still insisting that they make her chow mein, right down to the way that she wants her chicken to be shredded.
We don't know the outcome of that, but what we do know is that Shang Palace will handle her with class and grace, just like its food. Chef Mok's cooking is technically sound, albeit a little too fussy for our tastes. But if you have a dignitary or two on your guest list, you have got the right place. Just tell them that Chinese people don't eat chicken chow mein.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.