SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Po is a new restaurant which has nothing to do with a kungfu fighting panda or a creepy crimson Teletubby. But like the panda whose adoptive father is a noodle-selling goose, and the fuzzy plush-covered alien, the story behind Po is an equally tall tale.
Essentially, it's about two Po's. Popiah - the restaurant's signature dish; and Popo - the fictitious, cheroot-smokin' grandma who cooks the popiah and leaves you a 4D number with your bill. Clever, sassy. But it's just another urban spin on the now-tired heritage tale, conjured up to make hawker food sound trendy and therefore, more expensive.
Heritage food has long passed its altruistic stage as a passionate pursuit to preserve old recipes. Now it's an open invitation to local chefs to take home-spun food memories and, well, mangle them good and proper in the name of creating modern Singaporean cuisine. But by and large, this isn't so much a show of creativity but an inability to cook the real thing. Wanna do modern Singaporean cuisine? Master the real thing first, then talk.
From a packaging perspective, Po has got it down pat. It sits in The Warehouse Hotel - its lobby splendidly restored into an amphitheatre of understated cool. The restaurant exudes casual, indoor patio-like charm with wicker chairs and potted plants. Service is intermittent, with a handful of servers who spend most of our meal either not being around or not allowed to do anything apart from pouring water. The bulk of the responsibility lies on a young man named Jack - a hardworking trouper who is obviously overwhelmed but manages to stay cool and cheerful in spite of it.
Po's menu is devised by consultant chef Willin Low of Wild Rocket fame, who has had the most success in the mod-Sin arena, which he pretty much created. Here, there is at least a stronger emphasis on keeping original flavours intact, although there are forays into fusion territory.
Regardless of what you order, the popiah is served first - priced at S$28 (classic); S$38 (with prawns); and S$58 (flower crab). That makes it at least S$7 for each of the four edible bolsters that you roll yourself, adding condiments such as julienned egg, bean sprouts, crumbled dried fish and peanuts. Since we vote Nonya rather than Hokkien, we're caught off guard by a filling where the bangkwang (turnip) and bamboo shoots have gone AWOL. We're left with a claypot of over-shredded cabbage, carrots and other non-turnip vegetables, not braised in a rich prawn and pork stock with a hint of taucheo (preserved soy beans) but simmered till quite dry with dried prawns for just a hint of brininess but none of the savoury richness we expect. The mixture still makes an acceptable roll with generous sprinkles of dried fish and peanuts, but how much you like it depends on which way you lean in the popiah equation.
From the small plates list we pick kurobuta char siew (S$19) - a smallish platter of sous-vide pork whose tenderness from low-temperature cooking is negated by a harsh glazing and charring process that mimics the crispy edges of conventionally cooked char siew but dries out the flesh. A few juicy slices we encounter show what it could have been.
The iberico pork satay (S$20) doesn't suffer the same fate. We wish there were more than three sticks of chunky meaty kebabs massaged with fragrant spices - tender and bouncy, you almost don't need the creamy peanut sauce with just the right consistency. But there's grated pineapple in the sauce and we can't resist that.
We are in the midst of singing praises about the Carabinero prawns and konbu mee (S$32) which is Hokkien char by any other name - it looks a mess but it's all satiny, slippery noodles dripping in stock-enriched gravy with a tinge of wok hei and a headiness from sambal belacan - when we see the hair. Yes, these things happen, it is just one strand, we've eaten other chefs' hair before (and someone's plaster once) and, well, chefs can't help having hair. We are about to let it slide . . . until we see the plastic.
In our other dish - sambal forest mushrooms (S$16) - where a little piece of blue plastic has burrowed its way into the promising medley of fungi sauteed in sambal belacan and topped with an onsen egg. Sorry guys, but someone in the kitchen really needs to enforce a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to foreign matter. Poor Jack - he couldn't be more apologetic.
Rather than have a fresh batch cooked for us, we head straight for dessert, which is a humdrum affair. Goreng pisang (S$12) gets its crunch from puffed rice and sweetness from a trickle of gula melaka syrup and so-so ice cream. It's ordinary but still better than the ice cream popiah (S$15) that sounds intriguing but turns out to be a nonsensical gimmick of three scoops of different flavoured ice cream showered with peanut powder on a piece of popiah skin. It does not look wrappable, and even if we did, how would we eat it?
"Are we supposed to wrap it with the skin?" we ask a muscular server who is not Jack. He looks at us as if we have just asked him to take his clothes off and sputters without conviction: "Yes, you wrap it". We don't believe him. We ask Jack, who pauses and says: "Well, you can if you want - some people do that".
Po is a nice-looking restaurant, with relatively nice food, in a very nice hotel. Apart from some slip-ups, you can see what it's trying to achieve. Tourists and the hip set will get it for sure, which is probably the whole point of it. But we ask that it go deeper - with the paper-wrapped chicken, Hokkien char (without the pretentious carabinero prawns), satay, rendang and all the good things Popo would really have cooked. Do that, and Po would have a grandmother's story worth telling.
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.