TAO Seafood Asia
12 Marina View
Asia Square Tower 2 #02-10
Tel: 6844 9969
Open for lunch and dinner from Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10pm. Closed on Sundays and public holidays
FOR a city that is supposed to be predominantly Chinese, it's harder than you think to find independent Chinese restaurants in Singapore that don't fall under the umbrella of big guns such as Imperial Treasure or Crystal Jade. It's as if a home-grown chef would sooner open a modern European bistro or at most dabble in "mod-Sin" cuisine than get behind a wok and serve up comforting family-style Chinese recipes in trendy surroundings - or at least where the toilets don't strike terror in your bladder.
There are a couple that we can think of, such as Blue Lotus and Home, and now there's Tao Seafood Asia - which attempts to look like an upscale Cantonese-style eatery but actually hides a down-to-earth Singaporean warmth within.
You don't see it initially - literally - because it's hidden in the huge Asia Square Tower 2 food court dominated by salad bars, Mexican, Korean and ramen fast-food joints. In fact, with its large red signage and dressy surroundings, Tao stands out like an awkward guest who shows up at a beach party dressed in a three-piece suit.
It looks more towkay-ready than a quick lunch-hour spot for the Shenton Way crowd; nonetheless, the hospitable staff make you feel comfortable whether you're ordering a dish with rice or a full banquet meal.
A name such as Tao Seafood Asia sounds like some fancy restaurant group, but it's actually the maiden venture of general manager/owner Adrian Lee, who started it with his father, a retired Chinese restaurant chef. For sure, it's not as slick as the big guys, but what it lacks in polish, it makes up for with thoughtful service, from the way the staff anticipate your cutlery needs to little touches such as offering you a ziploc for your mobile phone to protect it from any food spills.
Granted, our expectations are initially very low, but we're soon won over by the robust cooking that's got a zi char feel to it - more rustic than refined, and boasting a fair amount of wok hei. It's Chinese food with a local touch and an anything-goes casualness to it.
While its house special is the $68 signature shark's fin or fish maw soup (which they push quite extensively), you can also find joy in homey fare such as crispy deep-fried fish skin given a quick toss in a salted egg yolk sauce ($10), pot-roasted chicken in rice wine ($20) or the signature stewed rice vermicelli ($24).
The fish skin makes for an addictive snack despite a general oiliness, probably because of the slick of salted egg yolk that coats each crunchy piece. It isn't too salty, which means you'll be hard put to stop crunching on the stuff. Dunk it in the Thai-inspired green chilli dip on the table for extra kick. If you're a rice freak, you're going to need copious amounts of it to go with the pot-roasted chicken - juicy chunks of thigh meat infused with rice wine and cooked in a claypot over an open fire until the chicken is caramelised in the pot itself with an intense gravy. The flavour is one-dimensional after a while and the sauce is a little too salty but that is solved once the gravy is mixed into some white rice.
Chilli and pepper crab are among its signature dishes, and the chilli version packs enough heat in a sweet, tomato-based gravy. For the sake of convenience, we order the shelled crab claw (a pricey $18 each) which isn't as meaty or superfresh as we would like, served with a deep-fried mantou for dipping.
Apart from a serviceable spinach in superior broth ($18) with tiny cubes of salted and century egg, what seals the deal for us is the house special stewed noodles - the main reason for any return visit.
Thin beehoon gets a sheen from soaking up the goodness of the lightly thickened gravy covered with prawns, squid and (somewhat dry) crabmeat, topped off with a strong whiff of wok hei. It is, of course, a sanitised version of the standard zi char version, but we all know how food tastes better when there are stray cats (or elusive rodents) around to endorse it.
If browsing through Asia Square Tower 2's culinary offerings makes you feel like a tourist in your own hometown, TAO Seafood Asia helps to restore the mental equilibrium. It's not gourmet cuisine - just unpretentious cooking that doesn't try to be anything else, which isn't a bad thing at all.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good