SINGAPORE - Crouching tiger, hidden dragon: This is an apt description for the chef of Song Garden, a Cantonese restaurant which opened more than two months ago in the new Mercure hotel in Middle Road, but which remains very much under the radar.
Chef Wong Shea Nung is not a known name among Singapore diners, but the restaurant's service staff tell me that he used to work at Hong Kong's famous Fook Lam Moon restaurant.
That would explain his mastery of traditional Cantonese cooking techniques. Fook Lam Moon is known for its simple but exquisitely cooked dishes, for which it charges, um, the moon.
Song Garden, thankfully, has more reasonable prices, so you do not need to be a tycoon to dine there. But it handles classic Cantonese dishes very well.
For example, the steamed Coral Trout ($16 for 100g) I order for dinner is cooked just right, resulting in smooth, tender meat. The soya sauce blend poured over it is well balanced too - neither too salty nor too sweet.
02-01 Mercure Singapore Bugis, 122 Middle Road, tel: 6521-9299, open: 11.30am to 2.30pm (weekdays), 11am to 3pm (weekends and public holidays), 6 to 10pm daily
Food: 3.5 stars
Service: 3 stars
Ambience: 3 stars
Price: Budget from $60 a person, more if you order live seafood
A simple Wok-fried Beef With Ginger And Chinese Rice Wine ($30) also turns out nicely. There is just a hint of tenderiser, but not so much as to overwhelm the flavour of the meat or to turn its texture spongy. Instead, you find a pleasant fragrance of rice wine enveloping tender slices of fatty beef. The dish also boasts plenty of crunch from beansprouts and spring onions tossed into the stir-fry.
A dish that I am surprised to see on the menu is Crisp Fried Spare Rib With Fermented Beancurd ($22), a Malaysian Hakka dish. But it is done very well here, with the meat juicy and imbued with the characteristic aroma of red fermented beancurd (ignore the typo in the menu that says "fragmented beancurd").
It is when the chef attempts to innovate that things sometimes get a bit shaky.
The wait staff enthusiastically recommend the Lamb Rack Stuffed With Fish Diced In Feather Light Batter ($22 a piece), pointing out that the Chinese characters for fish and lamb, when put together, form the word for "fresh" - suggesting a new idea from the chef. But it is an odd combination as the lamb is too strong for the fish, which becomes redundant in the dish. I would be happier with a straightforward panfried lamb rack.
Another odd pairing is the Deepfried Durian Ice Cream With Mango Puree ($12.80), a dessert that sees the pungent durian clashing terribly with the tart mango.
Some new ideas do work well, however.
The Crisp-fried Prawns With Laksa Sauce ($28) is one of them. The large prawns are crunchy and the thick laksa sauce has enough spice to excite, but not burn. The dish comes with toasted macadamia nuts that provide a nice break for the palate.
The laksa sauce is a refreshing alternative to the wasabi mayonnaise or salted egg yolk sauce usually paired with prawns. The options (also $28 a serving) are on the menu though, for those who haven't had enough of them.
Another good idea is Baby Kai Lan Stir-fried With Black Garlic ($22), which is off the menu. The price is a bit high for a vegetable dish, but I enjoy the young kai lan, with crisp stalks that can be bitten through easily. They are not as bitter as regular kai lan and come in a beautiful jade green colour.
Dim sum chef Leung Chi Man, also from Hong Kong, appears to be a culinary master too. I try the Steamed Dumpling With Bamboo Shoot ($5.20 for three pieces) at a separate lunch and it has perfect skin - translucent and slightly stretchy, without sticking to the teeth when you bite through it. I'm all the more impressed because this kind of skin is one of the hardest to get right. It's often either too thick or too soft.
Song Garden occupies a long, narrow space on the hotel's second floor, with windows looking out onto Middle Road.
Its palette of muted grey, beige and red makes it look contemporary and elegant in an unostentatious way. It is ideal for small family meals or catch-ups with friends.
For business meetings or large gatherings, try to book one of the seven private rooms, which come in various sizes. The biggest has a table that can seat 25 people, with a lazy susan operated by remote control.
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- The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.