Szechwan Fan Dian
Level 35, Mandarin Orchard Singapore
333 Orchard Road
Tel: 6831 6262
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 10pm
MAYBE it's just us, but does something sound vaguely out of synch in the following? Chen Kenmin, a Chinese chef from Sichuan province, moves to Japan in the 1960s and opens a successful restaurant. He passes the business on to his eldest son - who has both a Japanese name and Iron Chef status. This son - Chen Kenichi - grows his father's Sichuan restaurant into a successful chain called Shisen Hanten, which he runs with his own son Kentaro. And now, the latter has been tasked by a local hotel to import Sichuan cooking from Tokyo, to serve to Singaporeans - who are mostly Chinese, rarely have Japanese names, and even more rarely make a beeline to Tokyo because it's, you know, so well known for its fantastic Chinese food.
That bit of head-scratching aside, this newest Nippon import couldn't have picked a nicer place to settle down in, as the former Pine Court at Mandarin Orchard Singapore has been turned into an elegant, chandeliered showpiece that's opulent without being in your face. With a 35th floor city view and efficient, mature staff who are attuned to your every need, the hardware has certainly been seen to. They should have saved a bit more scrutiny for the menu though, which sits on a shaky fence between familiar Cantonese favourites and a curated selection of Sichuan specialities as determined by consultant chef Chen Kentaro.
In the same way that you can't take the Chinese out of the Singaporean sushi chef, it's hard to get the Japanese influence out of Szechwan Fan Dian's cuisine even if chef Kentaro is ethnically Chinese. Not when you've spent your entire career cooking for a Japanese palate which tastes things a little differently - like their preference for non-spicy, starch-thickened curry, their un-Italian approach to pasta or their penchant for pickled ume plums and super-sweet confectionery. Which is why Szechwan Fan Dian's cuisine has a not-quite-there quality about it, with even its so-called signature dishes somehow just missing the sweet spot where authenticity and flavour conjoin. In fact, we would have happily forgone authenticity for just plain tasty food but the chefs somehow didn't get the memo on that.
Maybe they were just taking their cue from the Cantonese side of the kitchen, which pushes out pedestrian dim sum and may have had a hand in the cold appetiser trio ($15) of century egg, cold shredded chicken in spicy peanut sauce and artificial-tasting jellyfish in a cloying sweet sour dressing.
The appetiser is also part of the $58 set lunch, which is a convenient, but bad choice. Apart from the middling appetiser, you get an almost inedible starchy corn soup (the ala carte hot and sour soup is almost as bad), skinny strips of stirfried beef hidden under a mountain of julienned green pepper and bamboo shoot or juicy fried pork chunks in a harsh, overly acidic black vinegar-sweet sauce, before ending off with the house special mapo dofu with Hokkaido rice.
The spicy dofu has heat but underwhelming flavour - that's assuming you were brave enough to dig beyond the thick layer of oil between you and the soft silken tofu. The Hokkaido rice it comes with reminds you of typical Japanese meals that end with gohan (rice), except there are no pickles here.
On a second visit to the restaurant - in case the set lunch was an anomaly - we're still left cold - literally, thanks to the icy dry chicken breast doused in chilli oil dressing ($26) that could have potential if they'd used thigh meat instead. Another house special - pork stir-fried with garlic leaves ($26) and special Sichuan sauce - turns out to be an average saute of pork belly with leeks and a peppery black bean sauce. We order the mapo dofu ($24) again but with less oil, which makes it a little more palatable if still pretty average.
Ironically, one dish we would return for would be the chef's special spicy noodle soup ($12 for a paltry portion), with its delicious chewy ramen-like noodles in a suitably tingly chilli-enhanced broth. It's far superior to the stodgy dry dan dan version. Order the noodle soup and the delicate almond pudding and you will have a pleasant light lunch that won't make you feel ripped off.
If that's not enough, then you take your chances with the rest of the menu. Maybe chef Kentaro needs to come to Singapore more often to oversee the cooking because right now, for all their efforts, something is lost in the translation.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good