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Solid homecoming by Jereme Leung at Yí
Yì By Jereme Leung
#03-02 Raffles Arcade
328 North Bridge Rd
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 2pm; 6.15pm to 10pm
ONCE upon a very long time ago, the universe was in chaos. The Avengers weren't around yet - just a Chinese god named Pangu with a big axe. With one mighty swipe, he hacks a giant cosmic egg into two, which splits into the earth and the sky. Yin and Yang. And there he creates the world, filled with enchanted forests swathed in ethereal white foliage and for good measure, a fine dining Chinese restaurant.
Asian mythology and a grand entrance are what greet you at Yí by Jereme Leung - the dramatic homecoming of the Singapore-born masterchef who made it big in China. We're too fascinated by the dreamy-leafy white cloud of a foyer to really listen to the hostess's tale about chaos and breaking eggs. It looks like the aftermath of a carefully choreographed pillow fight, or the Pearly Gates - complete with a small bar counter where the presiding angel mixes you a martini before sending you to heaven or hell.
But go through this tunnel of white and a greater prize awaits - a spacious, no expense-spared, elegant dining room that raises the game for the Chinese restaurant scene. There are no tiny tables to squash parties of two into. We're ushered to one big enough for four, which already puts us in a good mood. Lovely show plates - fine bone china in pastel colours and delicate floral patterns - are for you to eat off, not replaced with functional white crockery.
Another plus is that there is no upsell here - there is the ubiquitous list of price-per-100g live seafood on offer here, but it's discreetly tucked into the second half of the menu. What you should focus on is Chef Leung's creations, and there are pages and pages of them.
We admit to being cynical about the calibre of so-called celebrity chefs, especially those with a string of restaurants under their belts (nine around the world in Chef Leung's case). But the food here does live up to its name Yì (Chinese for art). In terms of aesthetics, creativity and execution, Chef Leung plays at a high level, made even more impressive by the fact that the man himself is not in the kitchen.
The menu is inspired by different regions in China, pulling off occasional modern twists with more flair than most Chinese chefs in town. We deliberately order Durian, Avocado and Crab Tartare (S$26) just to catch them out in a case of gimmicky fusion. Instead, we get a harmonious blend of creamy avocado and just enough durian puree to add a rich sweetness and flavour without dominating. Shredded crabmeat completes this refreshing take on the popular combo of shellfish and avocado.
Meanwhile, a salad of wafer thin slices of duck, ox tongue and tripe, artfully arranged with matching slices of cucumber, very fresh candied walnuts and roasted peanuts is too pretty to mess up. But you have to. So just go ahead and mix it all up with the hair-singeing spicy Szechuan dressing. Yes, it's going to hurt but the mixture of crunch, sweetness, heat, texture of duck and offal is worth it.
Soups here are like a transfusion of goodness through your veins. Eight-hour golden broth with scallops, prawns and a Hokkaido crab leg (S$26) is a milky, pumpkin-hued brew that lines your lips with collagen and oomph. The scallops are sadly mediocre,but the prawns and skinny crab leg are good enough. You can tell the chefs here like their soups rib-sticking hearty. If you're into spare parts, the Luffa Melon and Pig's Stomach in Peppercorn Broth (S$28) will put you in a happy place. Gently peppery, the thick pork broth, strips of very clean pig's stomach and tender-crisp, bright-green melon pieces come bubbling in a claypot that's comfort food at its best. Crunchy black fungus and goji berries round it out.
Kurobuta char siew with roasted pineapple (S$28) comes atop its own little hibachi and makes satisfying sizzling noises whenever the fat drips into the embers within. The meat is thick, fatty but juicy and bouncy. But the cubes of pineapple aren't so much roasted as just laid on the grill and tickled a little bit.
Service is a little restrained, almost reticent, as the staff are more fluent in Mandarin. But they're well-meaning, eager to please and unobtrusive. The restaurant might want to check on their acoustics though. While you enjoy your meal to the tune of lilting er hu music, the tranquility is occasionally punctured by faint, distant sounds of banging and occasional shouting. Either the chefs in the kitchen are a little over-enthusiastic or there's a bunch of Skrulls imprisoned in the basement protesting against their Kree captors.
It doesn't stop us from enjoying our Taiwanese beef noodles (almost a steal at S$14) - not a Jereme Leung creation but one of his chefs, which so impressed him that he put it on the menu. And it is very good. The broth is intense, with a clean sweetness from carrots and spices. The beef and tendon are perfectly gelatinous and meaty, with ramen-like noodles that are a little too soft for our taste. But you have to eat it with the spicy, oily pickled vegetables that come on the side. Together with the unctuous noodles, it's magic.
Dessert is a little hit and miss. Satay ice cream (S$8) arrives with dry ice shooting from its sides with more force than Captain Marvel's photon blasters. It's not really satay-flavoured though, think spicy, salted peanut caramel ice cream. It's not bad. What we can't wrap our heads around is the Hunan-style fermented rice kacang (S$12)- a wacky version of ice kacang with a mound of shaved ice surrounded by a "soup" of fermented rice grains, sticky rose-flavoured paste, red beans, coconut flesh, attap seeds. It's like some demented joint venture between ice kacang, cheng tng and a Hunan rice wine maker. No good comes out of this.
But apart from that, there's a lot of good to be said about this whimsical, fantasy adventure that is Yì. If this is Jereme Leung's version of the universe, we're happy to be in it.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times 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.