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IF visions of crowding around a butane stove-powered (charcoal being a thing of the past) steamboat in a dingy coffeeshop or even open space have always put you off this favourite Singaporean family dining pastime, there's no excuse now. Coca Steamboat no longer has the advantage of being one of the first air-conditioned steamboat operators. With established eateries such as Crystal Jade and Imperial Treasure launching their own hotpot restaurants, other places have followed suit, leading to a sudden wave of such high-end eateries. Comfortable surroundings and luxe ingredients have been drawing a more sophisticated crowd to the likes of Tang Restaurant Bar and Supper Club, which specialises in Sichuan-style steamboat. It is run by 32-year-old Zoe Zhang, who first came up with the idea for her business after moving to Singapore in 2007 and realising there weren't many of such options.
"I wanted to develop something for expats and people who don't enjoy steamboats because they think it's always smelly and noisy," she says. That's partly why at Tang, customers don't have to cook their own ingredients if they don't want to. Instead, one of the servers will stand at the table and do it for them.
Even popular Cantonese restaurant Hua Ting has jumped on the bandwagon - with Hua Ting Steamboat. Opened in October last year, the restaurant specialises in offering an extensive list of premium seafood, including South African Whole Abalone, Boston Lobster and Geoduck.
The steamboat dining scene is definitely competitive, says Orchard Hotel's communications director Amy Ang. The eatery is named after the hotel's flagship Chinese restaurant, Hua Ting.
"But we aim to take it to a new level with Hua Ting Steamboat", she says, "especially since steamboat is a staple of Singapore's dining culture, bringing people together on both casual and special occasions."
By Rachel Loi and Tan Teck Heng
Fu Lin Men Dou Lao Steamboat
16 North Canal Road Tel: 6532-2777
Opens: 11am-2.30pm, 6pm-10pm daily
FU Lin Men Dou Lao Steamboat is not quite your regular steamboat joint. Sure, they serve the ubiquitous tongue-tingling mala soup base, but managing director Simon Lim is adamant that his restaurant go beyond that.
His pride and joy is instead the Signature Golden Imperial Broth (S$10), a thick and nourishing soup that is so tasty, you may want to forgo the steamboat ingredients and just drink it on its own.
The soup, created by Chinese celebrity chef Nian Shujian, is a Manchu and Han Imperial Feast classic favoured by the royals during the Qing dynasty. It is brewed for over 12 hours with fresh red carrot puree, chicken bone marrow, pork shin and and dry-aged cured ham, and presented with gold flakes on top of the soup.
This soup is one of five broths available at the restaurant. Each is created and named after feng shui elements. The Golden Imperial Broth represents gold; wood is represented by a wild mushroom broth; water by a milky tofu broth; fire by the mala broth; and earth by a tomato broth.
Each diner gets his own individual hotpot, which is not only more hygienic, it also allows him to choose his desired broth.
The dou lao cuisine is widely acknowledged as the "royals" of hotpots in modern China because it focuses on improving one's health and vitality through food. Dou lao is also a play of words, meaning scooping everything together. "With each individual scoop, you get wealth, fortune and treasure into your bowl," says Mr Lim.
The focus here is on seafood, and includes oysters, lobsters and geoduck clam.
Chef Nian comes up with the ingredients to add to the broth. Fish and squid balls are a must for Singaporean diners, so the chef has included them on the menu, but with a twist.
For example, his beef meat ball comes stuffed with cheese, while a squid meat ball has a chocolate centre. "Beef and cheese, squid and chocolate make the ideal combinations," he explains. A platter of six different flavoured balls costs S$7.
His other creation, freshly cultured sea prawns with marbled beef, S$18, is also a winner. The prawns are firm and crunchy, and juicy partly from the fat in the marbled beef.
Another beef dish that's worth ordering is the beer marinated marbled beef, S$28, that is exclusive to the restaurant. Here slices of beef are soaked in Tiger beer, before being cooked in broth. "No extra dip is needed," says Mr Lim. The taste of the beer in the beef is distinct.
The restaurant is set up by Mr Lim and Chinese orthopaedic specialist and senior researcher, Professor Zhang Ming. The story goes about how during his visits to Singapore, Prof Zhang struggled to find a healthy soup close to his liking. Thus, he decided to build a gimmick-free dou lao hotpot brand based on traditional broths in Singapore. The two men met through mutual friends.
Mr Lim was inspired by the fine-dining scene in China when he opened Fu Lin Men. Chinese restaurants tend not to have an open dining area, and have many private rooms instead.
Here at Fu Lin Men, there are seven private rooms, one of which can seat 30 diners. "It's great for corporate dinners, where you can dine, and then talk business after," he quips. It also helps that much attention has been paid to the decor of the restaurant. The chandeliers, wallpaper and Chinoiserie decor make it look more attractive than those steamboat joints along Beach Road. This is one place you wouldn't mind bringing business associates to. Already, we hear the restaurant has been popular with bankers and embassy folk.
Mr Lim also wants to promote working, eating and drinking in the same location, "hence we stock up on red and white wines, spirits and also Chinese wine".
He is also quick to point out that the hotpots here tend to give off less steam. "You won't end up smelling like the steamboat after you leave," he says.
By Tay Suan Chiang
Tang Restaurant Bar and Supper Club
25 Keong Saik Road Tel: 6222-7708
Opens: 12pm-2.30pm (lunch), 6pm-11pm (dinner), 5pm-2am (bar & supper club)
ARMED with a degree in finance and a master's in International Marketing, Zoe Zhang could have easily scored herself a cushy job in the corporate world. Instead, she decided to use her knowledge to start her own business - Tang Restaurant Bar and Supper Club.
Says the 32-year-old: "I like steamboat so much that I eat it almost every day. When I came to Singapore in 2007, I couldn't find a steamboat restaurant that I enjoyed in terms of location, ambience, service and food quality, so I got the idea to open one myself."
She first opened Tang at 41 Keong Saik Road early last year, and occupied all three storeys of a shophouse. After struggling with operations for about six months, Ms Zhang gave up and moved out - now she runs it on just the first floor of a shophouse down the road.
The restaurant serves three different types of Sichuan-style soup bases - a House Special Soup (S$19) made with old hen, pork and fish bones, a House Tomato Soup (S$18) for those who prefer a bit of acidity, and an Authentic Sichuan Spicy Soup (S$21) made with over 40 different herbs and spices.
The ingredients cover a range of high-end meats such as Japanese Miyazaki A5 Ribeye (S$49/100g) and Spanish Iberico pork (S$14/100g), live seafood, and homemade meat and fish balls (S$10-14 for eight pieces).
The house special, however, is what they call "Translucent Sliced Fish" (S$22 for 12 slices) where head chef Zou Bin - who has worked in hotpot restaurants in China for 14 years - shows off his skill at slicing the flesh of raw snakehead fish into delicate slivers.
To make sure the meat and seafood don't get overcooked, either Ms Zhang, her Japanese business partner Ai Terakado, or the server Xiaoli will be the ones doing the cooking.
Says Ms Zhang: "I have been away from China for many years, and while my lifestyle has changed a lot, my stomach is still Chinese. I still crave authentic Chinese food, and I know there are many others like me. I want to give them that experience."
By Rachel Loi
Hua Ting Steamboat
442 Orchard Road, 01-08 (mezzanine level), Claymore Connect Tel: 6739-6628
Opens: 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-10.30pm daily
CHINESE chefs seem to be a different breed from their Western counterparts - we don't see them as temperamental artists, but more like gongfu masters - disciplined, albeit a little bland.
Hua Ting Steamboat's head chef, the Malaysian-born Desmond Wooi, has his own quiet flair. The restaurant spotlights two of chef Wooi's unique concoctions. The Sea Treasure Flambe (S$36) is a theatrical affair - crabs and shellfish are stir-fried, then doused with flaming Chinese wine before prawn stock is added.
His second creation is a better fit for his mild-mannered mien. The Superior Fish Soup with Winter Melon and Conpoy (S$34) is more subtle - Chef Wooi says the stock is simmered in a raw, hollowed-out wintermelon only on ordering, so the sweetness of the squash doesn't muddy the clean Cantonese-styled blend of garoupa and dried sole stock.
There are also twists on the usual suspects such as shark's bone cartilage soup, Sichuan seaweed, and even bak kut teh done Klang-style (S$20-28). For the chef, offering a total of eight soup bases is no mean feat, considering that they are brewed every morning, with some simmering for six hours.
Adding to prep time is the chef's insistence on making the add-ons fresh daily, and from scratch. The extensive menu boasts premium items such as the black truffle fish paste noodles (S$14). But chef Wooi also recommends humbler choices such as the crispy beancurd sheet (S$3/S$6), which also comes stuffed with salted egg yolk (S$6/S$12). He opts for balance and restraint, so the quality of the produce can shine through. The various shrimp and pork balls (S$7-S$16) are all only lightly seasoned to accentuate their freshness.
For those who prefer spicier fare, Hua Ting Steamboat also offers casserole hotpots (xiang guo). Diners start off with meats such as kurobuta pork belly or sea perch, tossed in spicy gravy, and they can order add-ons as they please.
Chef Wooi explains that the hotpots are targeted at the lunch crowd. Steamboats are popular in the evenings, he explains, but harried office workers might prefer a self-contained hotpot set lunch - which is why they are priced competitively at S$26 per diner (minimum of two).
By Tan Teck Heng