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Fresh flavours on The Sampan
63 Boat Quay
Tel: 6732 1698
Open all day Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 12am. Sat: 5.30pm to 12am. Closed on Sun.
RESTAURANTS are like travel agents - they all want to take you somewhere. Let chef so-and-so transport you to his little village in Burgundy/ Provence/ Tuscany. Get away from the city and enjoy tranquil botanical surroundings. Go back in time as we tantalise your tastebuds with recipes dating back to our colonial past. Let us transport you to Japan with our rendition of an edomae sushi restaurant.
At the rate they go, these restaurants must think Singaporeans really hate being where they are.
The Sampan is fresh off the boat from Bali, sort of, when you count that it's helmed by the former general manager of the original Ku De Ta, who is perhaps trying to replicate a similar kind of beach-inspired insouciance - on the banks of the concrete-flanked waters of the Singapore River. It will be tough though, given the kind of competition The Sampan has to fend off on this long stretch of Boat Quay, which features every conceivable food concept from cat cafe to the Michelin-starred Braci.
Against this backdrop, The Sampan sits somewhere between tacky and classy - a cross between a bistro and a salad/grain-bowl joint - with its menu of self-described Pan-Asian flavours, a.k.a. Asian food with a strong Aussie influence. The menu looks like it could have been reproduced from a Sydney cafe or Down Under food magazine (although a local chef is in the kitchen), with its penchant for Szechuan pepper and five spice in its fried chicken wings, san choi bao on lettuce cups, coconut milk dressings and tangy Thai-style green mango salad that is unlikely to sway any Bangkok native.
Looks-wise, The Sampan is simply-dressed but welcoming, with a bar taking up half the space on the ground floor - which explains why the food leans towards thirst-inducing salty, acidic flavours.
Lunch is an absolute steal at S$22 for three courses, with very decent portions except for the pork and chicken san choi bao, which is just one crisp lettuce cup filled with a saucy, savoury stir-fry of minced meat, water chestnuts and lap cheong for a sweet, fatty variation. It is heavily seasoned, but otherwise pretty good. So too, the Szechuan chicken spare ribs, which are really tasty chicken wings in a deep-fried batter over-seasoned with a salt-pepper-five-spice rub.
The coconut chicken salad is almost bland in comparison, which is maybe why we like it as we can taste the creamy-sweet coconut milk dressing that coats tender-poached chicken slices, with crunch from peanuts and blanched long beans, and tiny cubes of sharp green mango to perk things up. A cold soba bowl is filled with organic buckwheat noodles tossed in a gingery dressing and decorated with slippery flakes of rare cooked salmon and edamame for extra fibre. Classic, boring bowl food.
For more heavy-going action, there's the crispy chilli beef with green mango salad (S$18 from the à la carte menu), which features a cloying sweet-sour dressing that clings to a mound of shredded carrot and green mango. You are fighting with the sweetness of the dressing and the sharpness of the mango in every bite, while the overly salty beef strips combine to make you really thirsty - oh, wait. Maybe that's the point.
Warm apple fritters are comforting cigar rolls of chewy fried pastry wrapped over sticks of stewed cinnamon-spice apple, dusted with brown sugar and a dip of crème Anglais on the side. There's no missing the unmistakable hint of soybean in the tofu mousse paired with chocolate mousse, passion fruit sauce and soft cookie bits, but it's otherwise an easy-going, palatable end to the meal.
Since it's called The Sampan and not Luxury Cruiser, the food is easy-going with no aspirations to be anything but. You wonder if it's special enough to reel diners in, but the wallet-friendly prices will certainly help. This sampan may not transport you anywhere, but a cruise to nowhere can be fun too.
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.