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Style beats substance at Madame Fan
The NCO Club
32 Beach Road
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm. Closed on Mon.
AT night, South Beach has a futuristic, Blade Runner feel to it. Maybe it's the way you feel hemmed in by the tall towers in black and steel, with hardly any light except for the giant LED screen overhead relentlessly showing The Lion King musical excerpts, or an annoying family popping out of windows with their thumbs up because they so love their air-conditioner.
The dazzling water fountain in the JW Marriott hotel driveway adds extra light and drama to this gleaming tribute to technostyle and artifice - like a living commercial about how beautiful people live, work, play, wine and dine.
Actually, we just feel this way because we are terribly lost.
Tall building here, scores of designer restaurants there, some mini-gallery of sorts in the middle - it's a veritable movie set we have to manoeuvre until we finally locate the NCO Club and Madame Fan, where the analogy really comes to life.
From the mind of London restaurateur Alan Yau, who must have contemplated writing Fantastical Restaurants and How to Build Them, comes a Chinese eatery that's part old-world, part over-the-top. It looks like someone rummaged through some high-end second-hand store and came back with a huge haul of stuff, and magicked it into a wonderfully eclectic furniture arrangement.
After you make your grand entrance up a glowing transparent lift past the foyer with a large Madame Fan emblem behind an imposing wooden desk, you're led past quiet alcoves - charming reading nooks filled with inviting armchairs you're not invited to try.
Instead, you're seated in the main dining hall, dimly lit and thickly carpeted with blood red velvet banquettes and dining chairs. A solitary guy potters behind a set of music equipment, as if he's waiting for a show to begin which never does. Spanish and jazz tracks play over the in-house system - the theme from Narcos is the only highlight. Servers are dressed in white jackets and bow ties, as if waiting for their cue to perform, but serve you some noodles while they wait.
It's a rich setting for some drama that doesn't seem to come. Not in the food for sure, which can hold a tune but can't reach the high notes. Salt and pepper squid (S$16) is a ho-hum prelude - close-to-rubbery nuggets coated in a powdery half-crunchy batter paired with equal amounts of sliced chilli, onions and scallions. So is the doughy-skinned Sichuan vegetable dumpling (S$6) stuffed with a thickened turnip stew and slathered with dried chilli oil.
While the menu is classic Chinese, we like some of the home-spun nods to the Chinese food you find in London, notably the Sri Lankan Mud Crab and Sweetcorn (S$16) and Hot and Sour (S$16) soups. Only for lunch, the former is a luxe version of the thickened corn soup, a rib-sticking reminder of comfort food on a cold London night, even though the crab itself lends a whiff of fishiness to the steaming hot broth. Kudos, by the way, to a kitchen that finally serves food piping hot as it should be.
Hot and sour soup also brings back memories, with its balance of heat and acidity and all the fun bits and pieces of black fungus, shredded tofu, ginger and baby shrimp.
For dinner, however, Tiong Bahru Soup, stall No 118, (S$22) is a must-order. Thick, steaming hot chicken broth that has been brewed for 48 hours is collagen-sticky rich and excellent, with pieces of yong tau foo either homemade or made-to-order by the famous stall in Tiong Bahru's wet market.
Shrimp wrapped in beancurd skin and panfried, stuffed beancurd and thin tender radish sticks float in this golden milky stock, with chicken rice chilli sauce on the side for dipping.
Crispy Aromatic Duck (S$38) is a disappointing take on Peking Duck. Half a duck, fragrant with cinnamon, has had every drop of moisture tortured out of it in the roasting process, leaving behind just oily, crispy skin. It's overly salted and so is the hoisin sauce that you smear on steamed pancakes. Once rolled with cucumber and leeks, it's somewhat better, but not much.
Poultry doesn't seem to be its strength, as the Poached Free Range Chicken with ginger spring onion sauce (S$38) is a pale shadow of the smooth, glistening and slippery textured real McCoy. Free range fowl is too lean for a dish like this so you get sad, athletic meat that is about as fun to eat as a diet lunch. Instead of a vibrant green onion ginger pesto to top it with, you get a pale, gluey ginger sauce with some green onion blended into it.
At lunchtime, the beef Ipoh hor fun (S$22) ticks the right boxes with slippery springy noodles that hug the wok and refuse to let go of the heat so the dish is still steaming hot right to the end. Wok hei, lard chunks, tender beef slices - it's all good to the last slurp.
We wish we could say the same about the Cantonese lobster noodles (S$17 per 100gm of lobster) where a tad alkaline-y noodles are simmered in a broth that's enriched more by the seasoning condiments than seafood stock.
It's not bad but for S$119 for the anorexic lobster with big fat claws but shrivelled thumbnail-sized flesh within, we're feeling extremely shortchanged. Did the critter just move into a new shell and not get a chance to alert the fisherman in mid-catch to give him more time to bulk up? And did the chef have to fry the lobster so aggressively that what precious little meat you can find are like wads of stringy rubber?
For dessert, Madame Fan turns Western with the likes of chocolate fondant dominating the sweets.
Lunch offers better variety with very good deep fried sesame glutinous balls and salted egg yolk custard buns. At dinner you get a too-thick mango pudding (S$10) with sweet ripe mango chunks and a useless layer of almond tofu on top, and a fairly decent hot almond cream with egg white (S$6). Service is inconsistent, but Sarah, our server of the evening is spot-on efficient and not at all intrusive. Hard to find in this industry.
While she seems to know her role, we're not so sure about the rest of the restaurant. Alan Yau has created a great stage, but it needs a good culinary show to go with it. Sarah tells us they're likely to tweak the menu in July. We'll stay tuned 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.