SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) How do you like your local food? Straight up at a sweltering hawker centre? Semi-diluted in a hotel coffee house? Mangled into a mod-Sin creation? Or a dependable version that stays true to the original recipe most of the time?
After almost six months of trying to convince diners to buy into her concept of mod-Sin cuisine in the form of bak chor mee pasta and a mutant Hainanese chicken rice that was familiar only in the sense that actual chicken and rice were used, Shen Tan has moved on to other things.
Taking her place is Mark Richards, who originally made his mark at Keystone restaurant and now wears the group executive chef hat at Caerus Holdings which includes eateries such as Nuvo and Proccaci under its umbrella.
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The first thing he has done is revamp the menu completely, so there are no traces of the earlier one. It's good in the sense that the food has a clearer identity and a stronger culinary foundation. It also means that Ujong has come full circle from the days when it was Empire Cafe - a place where you could take foreign visitors for a decent replica of hawker fare in comfortable surroundings.
If chef Richards is able to maintain the standards he's introduced since Oct 1 and sorts out some of the weaker spots, we'll be coming back with our overseas guests real soon.
The menu is more than comprehensive, offering a mind-boggling variety that deserves closer scrutiny. Not only are the hawker classics there, chef Richards has thrown in Chinese and Peranakan fare for good measure, making this a veritable zi char outfit at restaurant prices.
The food works when he doesn't do anything to the original recipe. Satay (S$18 for one dozen), for example, turns out to be one of the menu's strengths - choice tender cuts of beef, pork and chicken with all the details right, from the marinade to the grated pineapple on top of the peanut sauce. The ketupat is your generic supermarket variety, aka a dry waste of calories.
The popiah's (S$10) potential is cut short by a mismatch of dry skin and insufficient filling, so you're getting a mouthful of skin followed by sharp chilli paste and a filling that could use a little more moisture.
We're also not sold on the lobster kueh pie tee (S$18) which seems more about rationalising the higher price than jacking up the enjoyment level. There's some nice lobster flavour but there's more merit in doing an excellent original than a so-so luxe alternative.
The char kway teow (S$16) is perfectly enjoyable with its piping hot, well-tossed noodles with the requisite moisture and sweetness, served in a tourist-friendly baby wok. Chicken rice (S$18), as expected, isn't quite the real McCoy but if you aren't nitpicking, it's serviceable.
It's pretty clear that some effort has gone into the food, which makes it easier to forgive some of the oversights. For example, if the chef isn't so stingy with the fish paste in the Hakka yong tau foo (S$18), the braised stuffed pieces of tofu, fried eggplant and bitter gourd would be more appreciated.
But we enjoy the comforting goodness of Cantonese fish porridge (S$15) - served in a rustic claypot and made with proper stock and firm fresh fish. And the chicken curry (S$18) is a winner for its potent Indian spices that packs more punch than the milder Nonya variety.
However, at S$18 for just two chunks of chicken and lots of potatoes, we expect to be able to trace the heritage of this blue-blood fowl, instead of gnawing the bones of the over-exercised and under-fed street bird that might have been caught trying to walk across the Causeway.
The beef rendang (S$20), in turn, is comparatively bigger in portion, if not by much, properly spiced but on the dry side.
Desserts are, sadly, disappointing. One doubts a single Teochew person was involved in the making of the orh nee (S$12) - an alien yam-paste-meets-brown-kaya concoction topped with a couple of gingko nuts and sweet potato. The panna cotta's (S$12) heavy, blancmange-like texture doesn't cut it either, which makes the pandan jelly and other accompaniments irrelevant.
With such a mega-sized menu, it's not possible to get every dish just right. But your chances of getting the right combination are higher than before at least. The cooking is mature, doesn't try to be clever and in the case of local food, it's really not a crime to cook by the book.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on October 27, 2014.
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