Singapore restaurateurs, I feel, are generally a conservative lot, especially when it comes to design and concept.
Perhaps the competitive restaurant scene makes it too risky to experiment but most try to play it safe by not departing too far from tradition.
That is why Le Restaurant, the newest fine-dining Chinese restaurant opened by the Paradise Group, is so refreshing.
The restaurant, which takes up 10,000 sq ft in the recently renovated Suntec City, looks more like a funky Western restaurant than a Chinese one. It reminds me of the glamorous upmarket restaurants in Hong Kong's Central district and five-star hotels which Singapore sorely lacks - till now.
At the entrance is a spacious, dimly lit bar where you can enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail and Chinese tapas, with chill-out music creating a clubby, relaxing mood.
Cocktails come with an interesting Asian twist, such as an ice kacang-inspired Le Special ($22). It has ice shavings infused with coconut and gula melaka with a splash of Bacardi oak heart rum. Or a Red Concubine ($22), which has passionfruit and pomegranate juice spiked with cinnamon and Bacardi.
My favourite is an odd, hot cocktail called Silky Road In Summer ($22), which is a delicious ginger milk tea with rum that is wonderfully comforting. I can drink this before, during and after dinner. The candied ginger strips settle the stomach while the alcohol gives it an edge that the usual ginger tea lacks.
The tapas menu here is a mix of traditional Chinese snacks such as stir-fried carrot cake with XO sauce ($9) and fusion creations, such as mantou burger with braised USDA prime beef ($16) and crispy mantou with cream cheese and Parma ham ($12). The mantou bun for both items is soft and surprisingly light, better than any burger bun I've eaten.
The same menu is repeated in the restaurant menu as small-plate starters. Dishes such as Alaskan crab with tomato relish shooter ($10 each) and tempura prawns with nonya curry dip (main picture, $18) work well as appetisers.
But make sure you leave room for the main dishes from the restaurant menu. The dining room, hidden behind the bar, is built like a theatre with the open kitchen as a stage. A huge Buddha statue, made of colourless resin and bathed in fluid light, sits in the middle facing the kitchen, as if directing the diner's gaze towards the action visible behind a pane of glass.
Unlike traditional Chinese kitchens, the one here is surprisingly quiet, with specially made stoves and woks that make much less noise than normal ones.
Despite the Western setting, the menu here is mainly traditional Cantonese, with only a few original dishes to give the restaurant a unique identity.
Among these is a dish called Dirty Duck ($38 for half a duck), which is the restaurant's signature dish. It is a cross between crispy duck and Peking duck, with the deep-fried duck shredded and wrapped in a scallion crepe with a sweet sauce and Italian basil. A story has been concocted to explain the name - the blackened appearance of the bird and how it looks a bit messy after the meat is shredded - but I think it wears a bit thin, especially if you have heard it more than once.
The meat is a bit dry compared to Peking duck but the basil adds an interesting note to the flavours. For me, the best part of the dish is the homemade crepe, which is thin, soft and has a distinct fragrance of scallion.
Another new dish, Cream Of Bak Kut Teh ($12 a person), scores points for creativity by turning the local pork rib broth into a Western cream soup thickened by a roux of flour and butter.
The surprise is that despite the way it looks, it tastes exactly like a good herbal bak kut teh. But instead of meaty pork ribs, the pork here is reduced to a spoonful of tiny diced pieces. To compensate, however, the soup comes with a paper-thin piece of crispy Parma ham that is delicious.
While such dishes may create talking points, I'm glad that the rest of the menu comprises good, solid Chinese cooking that stays true to traditional recipes. The contrast of a modern Western setting backed by old-fashioned cooking is, for me, the right formula to attract the well-heeled executive the restaurant targets. Gimmicks may be fun for a while but at the end of the day, most of us want the comfort of familiar flavours.
For these, I would recommend the excellent marble goby ($10 per 100g) braised with Chinese wine, the smooth meat of the fish soaked with the intoxicating alcohol. Or try the stewed USDA prime beef with Chinese five spices ($48 for small), with the chunks of meat simmered till melt-in-the-mouth tenderness.
To complete the concept of the kitchen as a performance space, the restaurant has a closing ceremony every night. After the last order has been served, usually at 9.45 to 10pm, the lights in the dining room are turned up. A specially programmed music plays, followed by a short announcement thanking diners.
Then all the chefs and kitchen staff leave the stoves and line up in a row behind the glass panel separating the kitchen from the dining room. To applause from the remaining diners, they take a bow as blinds roll down slowly to cover up the kitchen.
The intention, according to the restaurant, is to acknowledge the chefs on a daily basis. A nice gesture or is it overly dramatic? You decide.
SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre, 02-314, tel: 6338-8775
Open: Restaurant - 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 10.30pm daily. Bar - 3 to 11pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 3pm to midnight (Fridays and Saturdays)
Price: Budget from $80 a person
Silky Road In Summer ($22)
This unusual hot cocktail is heart-warming with its familiar ginger milk tea flavours spiked with rum.