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The heat is on at Chengdu
74 Amoy Street
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10pm. Closed on Sun
GREASE is the word at Chengdu - a one-stop culinary tour of China's Sichuan province that is part illuminating and part delicious torture.
A certain masochism is required to enjoy the cuisine of a region where food is not cooked with oil but IN oil, and where a hot pepper-eating contest would be like challenging a group of children to an ice cream match. But as anyone who steps into this new eatery in Amoy Street soon realises, you need to check your dignity at the door and prepare for a full-blown sweatfest.
It's usually the case that anyone brave enough to bring a cuisine in its purest form to Singapore would be immediately cowed into submission by our oil and salt-fearing taste buds, or relegated to some seedy coffeeshop catering to homesick migrant workers. To bring a little piece of China - warts and oil - into the relatively gentrified dining nook of Amoy Street takes some gumption, and the pretty encouraging business that it was seeing on a Tuesday evening is a good sign that authenticity can prevail.
For sure, the chefs - transplanted from Chengdu and therefore the real McCoy - have made some concessions by offering you a choice of heat levels to suit your taste. But the menu is authentic enough to make this a refreshingly different dining experience.
It's not fancy, but you can see the efforts to give the restaurant a hipster spin with upside down red parasols on the ceiling and wall murals of bare trees against a stark background. That might have been inherited from the previous restaurant, though - a Korean joint that also left behind dining tables with hotpot "holes" now discreetly covered by wicker placemats.
You can tell Chengdu's not fanatical about tidiness either, from the balled-up paper napkin at our feet left by the previous diner at lunch time, and the washrooms that look like someone caught fire while eating and rushed to hose himself down at the sink. Avoid looking at the floor, hold your bladder and just go with the flow. The food is rough, robust and earthy rather than fine banquet-style cooking, but it's enjoyable, fun fare.
Start with a bowl of cold Chengdu-style skewers (S$12.80) where a cute little earthenware pot appears with cocktail sticks speared into assorted morsels such as pork belly, quail egg, shrimp, kelp and tender beef cubes. They're lolling about in a vibrant red sauce that invites you to dunk and swirl your little kebabs in it against your better judgment. Pop them into your mouth and wait for the mala effect to slowly make its way to your brain, which realises what is happening and tries to make a vain escape bid out of your ear before bouncing back again.
It's such tasty punishment that you can't stop yourself from asking for more. Before long, a huge bowl the size of a footbath appears - a veritable swimming pool of oil and broth in equal measures, its entire surface covered with Szechuan peppercorns and dried chillies. Using a metal sieve, you lift out slippery smooth chunks of Secret Recipe Spring Frog (S$31.80), which makes use of the entire body, not just the legs. If you swirl the broth to separate it from the oil for a brief second, you might be able to scoop up enough soup to discern its rounded, softly herbal flavour before the oil overwhelms it. Crunchy black fungus, soft loofah gourd and a crisp, celery-like vegetable rounds off this comparatively mild dish if you don't accidentally chew on the white peppercorns.
The Chengdu version of Peking duck manifests itself as a Roast Duck Roll (S$20.80), where popiah skins are folded into a fan shape surrounding a mound of sautéed diced roast duck, crunchy green beans and chillies in a sweetish hoisin sauce. Without anything to numb yourself with, this comes off as pretty ordinary, and the popiah skin too dry and leathery to do it any good.
We see platters on other tables piled high with dried chillies and meat chunks hidden within them, but we chicken out and order the spicy beef with bean curd (S$26.80) - which turns out to be mapo tofu on steroids. Whole pieces of silky tofu sit in an evil yet tantalising brew of chilli, peppercorn, garlic and the like, covered with slices of heavily baking soda-tenderised slices of beef. Eventually your tongue loses all sensation, and Chengdu dumplings (S$10.80) with its thick, rough dough layers wrapped around minced pork and tossed in chilli, sesame oil and vinegar fail to impress; neither do Dandan noodles (S$10.80) - pleasantly slippery and tossed with overly-seasoned sautéed minced meat.
Without any chilli to distract, desserts are abysmal. Its version of tang yuan (S$8.80) is a thickened syrup of fermented rice lees that's sweetly funky and not in a good way, studded with little sticky flour balls.
A floury flat bun (S$8.80) toasted on each side is filled with an insipid brown sugar syrup that oozes out as reluctantly as a driver coming out of the parking space you're waiting for. And both are equally distasteful.
The restaurant is in the midst of changing its menu, so there are a lot of dishes we couldn't try, including a giant fried sesame ball that looks promising. Whatever it is, the chefs are no doubt finding new ways to punish our palates. But hey, we can think of worse punishment so, chefs - bring it on.
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.