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Social is a gem
78 Airport Boulevard
#01-219-222 Jewel Changi Airport
Open daily: 10am to 10pm
JEWEL Changi Airport is not just a mega-sized shopping and lifestyle complex. It's a planet. If there were any extraterrestrial urban planners watch-hing us now, they would have a perfect case study of how to build a small universe and get it populated very quickly. Before it opened proper, everyone from Tampines to Woodlands was jostling for preview tickets online - now we're just elbowing one another to get into this mystical waterfall wonderland of burgers and horticulture.
And don't forget transit passengers - they with their suitcases used for packing souvenirs or as battering rams to get you out of their path. Imagine if they built something like this on Mars - they would attract everyone from Yishun to Ursa Minor.
Ordinarily, it would take more than a man-made waterfall to make us travel all the way to Changi Airport without getting on a plane. But FOMO is strong in us - not strong enough to join the Shake Shack queue, but enough to leap into the tidal wave of humanity surging through the mall, and let the momentum carry us to our shop of choice.
We get off at Shang Social, the Shangri-La Group's first foray into non-hotel dining which, at face value, sounds better on paper than in actual execution. A three-in-one concept comprising a bar, market and restaurant usually spreads a kitchen quite thin in the way any all-day dining outlet does - focusing on variety rather than quality.
The fast-casual market/bar requires a 45-minute wait if you're inclined to do so. But we recommend you skip that and head straight to the restaurant section proper, which is a far sight more sane.
It looks like your garden variety Chinese restaurant with its nondescript decor and pleasant but not the most efficient or knowledgeable staff. But never mind them because the food more than makes up for it.
Robust, varied flavours
The dining room's generic look (the bar is more hip) belies the good stuff that's going on in the kitchen, with its menu created by three master chefs from the Shangri-La Group's hotels specialising in Cantonese, Huaiyang and Sichuan cuisine.
This way, they cover all their bases: if the more esoteric Huaiyang and Sichuan dishes don't fly, there's always the ever-reliable Cantonese cooking to fall back on.
But in this case, the further you go beyond Cantonese, the more you will be rewarded with robust and varied flavours stretching from spicy to piquant and hearty.
Just forget about eating in the order you're used to, as in appetiser, dim sum, main dishes, noodles and so on. The kitchen tosses our food out in such a haphazard order that we get our noodles first and dim sum - we're there for dinner so just two items are still available - in between.
Nonetheless, the Chengdu Dan Dan Mian (S$12) gets us happily tangled up in a mass of long homemade noodles that are perfectly al dente (with barely any alkaline taste) and packing a potent punch with its pungent chilli oil and minced pork mixture, studded with crispy garlic crumbs and peanuts. A server comes to our rescue with a pair of scissors in the nick of time.
Jiang Nan Wok Braised Pork Belly (S$26) nudges you a step closer to a heart attack, but try resisting the satiny blobs of full-fat belly and meat that hold their shape yet yield without resistance on contact. The 24-hour cooking process results in a syrupy glaze that is caramelly with hints of hawthorn and tangerine peel.
If you think of glutinous rice balls as a deep-fried dessert filled with mung bean paste, here, it is reinterpreted as an appetiser, with the hollowed-out shells served with a savoury saute of minced pork, chilli and preserved vegetables for you to stuff and savour. We prefer chewing the balls as they are for their sweet, resilient texture, but they're still good with the savoury filling.
For fans of silky soft tau hway, you'll either be won over by or be averse to the savoury Eight Treasure Tofu Pudding (S$18). This is an elaborate display of hot, wobbly tofu custard, served in a wooden tub surrounded by an array of condiments - including dried Sakura ebi, fish floss, peanuts and a spicy minced meat mixture. If nothing comes between you and tau hway except clear syrup, expect culture shock. If not, the delicate textured curd and condiments are an umami treat.
Meanwhile, our dim sum appears midway through the meal. While usually averse to overcompensating large Chinese meat buns that lack Cantonese-style finesse, we go wild over the Signature Pan Fried Bun with Pork (a steal at S$5.80 for three large specimens) which combines pot sticker guotie and pork pao with great effect. The giant buns have a crisp fried bottom studded with sesame seeds and a bouncy, chewy-textured bun filled with a juicy, almost soupy and pillowy pork ball within.
The highlight of the meal is a fish "stew" like nothing we've had before. Grouper fillets are cooked in a tangy fish broth flavoured with Sichuan peppercorn, bean paste and pickled tomato-like peppers that give more zip than heat. House-made pickled ginger also perks up the flavour. It is expensive at S$78, but for the complexity of flavour, it is really worth ordering this off-menu special.
The chefs' winning streak so far screeches to an end with dessert. A kumquat mochi stuffed with strawberry and cream (S$8) is an off-putting gluey rice ball skin covering fake whipped cream and a strawberry nugget. The double-boiled pear in a refreshing sweet syrup with blobs of aloe vera and jelly (S$8) is just average.
But by then, we're already energised by the savoury treats and harbour no ill-will towards the sweets - almost to the point that we may contemplate another stress-filled journey to Jewel. But we'll see how "Social" we feel then!
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.