You are here
A taste of old-world Chinese cooking
#03-07/11 Shaw Centre
1 Scotts Road
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10pm
THE last thing you want to assume when you step into Circa 1912 is that you're eating Chinese food.
You are, but you don't so much as eat it as you are indoctrinated in a new - actually very old -- ideology of cuisine that challenges your definition of what Cantonese cooking is all about.
The evangelist behind it is food scholar-turned-restaurateur David Yip, who has made it his mission to educate diners on the finer points of old-world Chinese cooking traditions. And unless you're well-schooled in the minutiae of knife skills, ancient methods of swirling hot congee or sourcing aged tangerine peel, and have access to (and can read) centuries' old recipes, you just have to take his word for it that Circa 1912 adheres to the same painstaking kitchen artistry of chefs in Lingnan, China, which he is stubbornly trying to revive in his first dining venture in Singapore.
He's developed a narrative that holds the food together, without which the painstaking efforts of his chefs - who do everything from scratch including using the back of a kitchen knife to achieve what a lesser chef can with a blender - would be lost on one weaned on the Imperial Treasure model of Cantonese cooking.
For example, why would you give up a light, fluffy, bread improver-enhanced char siew pao for Circa 1912's denser, doughy version (S$5.80) with its passing whiff of yeast when you sniff it? You do because that vaguely funky smell is evidence of the 40-year-old mother yeast used in the dough, which is naturally raised and steamed till it just splits on top to form "petals" - all without any artificial boosters.
And why would you forsake Mui Kee's congee for Circa's century egg one (S$6), from which you scoop "tasteless" plain rice gruel, barely seasoned with cubes of jellied egg and tender strips of marinated cured pork? Because the texture of the congee is hard to beat with its velvety smoothness, and repeat spoonfuls reveal a delicate stock and a barely-there hint of ginger that makes this a highly refined version of a humble snack.
If you were to come in with no prior knowledge and order the deep-fried superior stock (S$28), you might baulk at biting into a crunchy crust and feeling a blob of wobbly room temperature, unseasoned gelatin sliding down your throat. Then it's explained that it's a tough technique to master which, if not done right, sees the gelatine dissipating in the frying pan. In this case, frozen superior stock gelatine is cut into diamond shapes so that when it's fried, you get a crunch in every corner followed by the gelatine which melts in your mouth when you bite into it.
While we fully appreciate the effort involved, deep-fried jelly is still not quite something we can wrap our palates around. We have less of an issue with the home-made Iberico char siew (S$24), a meaty charred treat with an intense crackling sugar crust that cries out for a side of egg noodles but sadly, none is offered. We're also won over by the meaty nam yue marinated roast pork belly (S$18) with its wafer thin crunch that's not a challenge to bite through.
Also good from the dim sum menu are the har gao (S$6) with its thin, translucent skin, and the simply named steamed bean curd (S$5.80), a juicy stuffed roll of bean curd skin.
"Golden coin chicken" (S$5) is a misnomer since it's not chicken but a homely looking canapé that looks like a sad clump of char-grilled something. But it's a skewer of deliciously candied pure fat, layered with liver and barbecued pork - it's like eating a rendition of bak kwa on a stick.
The signature sweet sour pork (S$38) ought to be renamed sour sweet as the sweetness from the sticky hawthorn and strawberry sauce kicks in only after the acidic hawthorn has asserted itself. The deep-fried pork belly nuggets shine for crunch and depth of flavour, marred somewhat by the porkiness of the meat and the chunks of artery-clogging pure fat. The pan-fried fish roll with asparagus (S$38) heavily recommended by our server comes without any story and so it's an underwhelming sauté of plain fish that's flavoured with Chinese ham and wrapped over a filling of bamboo shoots and mixed vegetables.
For dessert, the aged tangerine peel is what lifts a simple but well-executed red bean soup. And don't miss a pineapple tart-like pastry filled with red bean paste.
Like any ideology, there will be instant converts and fence-sitters who may find the food underwhelming and underseasoned, even as they privately yearn for a good old fashioned zhi char. Circa 1912 requires more visits and a recalibration of the tastebuds to appreciate how Chinese food must have tasted in an era before shortcuts, profitability, changing tastebuds and the invention of MSG. There is much to be lauded for its authenticity and uncompromising attitude where quality and integrity of the cooking process are concerned, but the secret of this sauce lies in its story, because the food cannot speak for itself just yet.
Evangelist Yip will have to find a way to make sure his message gets through, after which our palates will surely follow.
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.