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Not quite Divine
10 Duxton Hill
Tel: 3100 0030
Monday to Saturday: Noon to 2.30pm and 6pm to 10pm
ARE we in the wrong restaurant, we wonder, as our server lays down some warm, fluffy bread and a swirl of truffle butter on our table, stylishly bedecked in thick linen and silverware as any self-respecting, fine-dining, French restaurant might be.
We enjoy the bread, but hang on, isn't Xin Divine supposed to be a Chinese restaurant?
If this were many years ago and we were in a hotel coffeehouse trying to make the waiter give us the complimentary bread basket that comes with western main courses even though we ordered Chinese fried hor fun, we would declare this a breakthrough in East-West dining. But we're less hard up about free bread now, and vaguely wary of hybrid cuisines that are borne more out of whim than a drive to make a strong culinary statement.
Xin Divine is a pretty, almost feminine dining space on Duxton Hill, with pastel hues and dramatic, white drapes across the ceiling, which make you feel like you've stumbled into a wedding reception without a hongbao in hand.
The restaurant is on the second floor, and there are two glass doors on the street that both say Xin Divine. Take the door on the right, because the left one leads to the bar. We don't realise it as we stab relentlessly at the doorbell until a very helpful lady, who turns out to be the owner, rescues us and takes us to the right door.
The owner is Jolin Lee, who previously ran the private fine-dining kitchen Divine Palate, and opened Xin Divine last November to combine the skills of her chefs who are schooled in Sichuan, Cantonese and French cooking.
Modern Chinese is becoming quite a thing these days as newer restaurants learn how to translate dishes like wonton noodles into 'egg noodles in clear broth with seafood ravioli' or fried rice into 'sautéed short grain Japanese rice with pancetta and XO sauce'.
The result is that Xin Divine is a pleasant but expensive experiment in hybrid cuisine. It works sometimes, in a gentle 'oh, that's rather interesting' than something that makes you sit up and take notice. It's a little bit like watching a western chef successfully fold a xiao long bao and being expected to clap.
At dinner, your choice is limited to two tasting menus: S$98 for seven courses and S$128 for eight. It's pricey for what you get, considering you can get a very good meal at a high-end Chinese restaurant for that money. There is an ala carte menu but it's small, and since you're here, you might as well go through the full performance. Lunch, however, offers good value set lunches for S$28.
The set dinners start with an amuse bouche of cold chawanmushi, dressed up with a bit of crab meat, ikura and a layer of clear jellied prawn consommé.
It's a refreshing start, followed by a mundane deep fried prawn in wasabi cream for the S$98 set, dressed up with a tart salad of brunoise-cut green apples.
In turn, the S$128 set gets a 'pasta' of very thin strips of dried beancurd skin tossed in a spicy Sichuan chilli dressing with added paprika for a smoky, Spanish accent to match the thinly-sliced, grilled octopus. Nice attempt at Chinese mediterranean, but there's little harmony here - an awkward juxtaposition of spicy, smoky, bitter that's quite harsh on the palate.
Hokkaido scallop (S$128 set) pan-seared and topped with deep-fried kailan strips made to look like seaweed is fun, and passes muster as a cuisine-neutral starter, partnered with potato puree and tiny florets of romesco.
The rest of the meal continues in this vein - cutesy re-arrangements of familiar tastes with varying levels of success.
SzeChuan Style Tortellini is a fanciful rendition of xiao long bao, where the skill of folding is bypassed with a bouncy, meat-stuffed dumpling hidden in a cloud of chilli oil air, and a chilli-vinegar sauce that you scoop up with bites of thick dumpling.
Chinese Wine (Nu Er Hong) Shark Bone Soup is less milky and thick than the original, luxed up with a chewy baby abalone and Chinese wine on the side. It's delicate rather than robust, and the wine lends a nice kick.
Porcini Mushroom Broth is served like a foamy espresso in a clear glass bowl - an intense consommé with a slightly bitter edge, dusted with mushroom dust and a porcini crisp.
Before we know it, the main courses are served - either deboned and sliced lamb rack topped with fiery Sichuan chilli paste, tongue-tingling but not much else; or creamy Chilean Sea Bass, deep-fried enoki mushrooms and melting-soft eggplant topped with soybean crumbs that you enjoy at face value without pondering its Sichuan origins.
The finale of crab fried rice is oily and clumsily fried- something you would cook at home and enjoy. But at a restaurant like this, your standards are a little higher.
But wait. While most of the previous mash-ups feel forced, dessert is where all the stars align and you almost see the point of Xin Divine.
First, a refreshing cucumber sorbet and pearls that burst with juice clear your palate. It's followed by an Osmanthus Sphere - an inspired ball of jelly that you burst to release the cheng tng ingredients trapped within. A little glass of fizzy, red date soda on the side finishes it off. It shows a flash of originality that with a few more tweaks, could be a signature dish.
Adjust your expectations and Xin Divine offers a meal that's perfectly acceptable. Go a little deeper and it feels more like a work-in-progress where you pay a premium for an idea rather than quality ingredients.
We spend most of the meal asking "why". Maybe they need a bit more time to come up with a better answer.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT 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