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Two restaurants in arty spots fail to excite palates
1 Empress Place, 01-03
Asian Civilisations Museum
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm
1 St Andrew's Road,
#05-02 National Gallery
Tel: 6384 5585
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm.
TWO Chinese restaurants. Two art museums. Two attempts at re-inventing the Chinese dining experience for a somewhat more polished, art-appreciating audience. Two sad shakes of the head.
The more promising of the two would be Empress, if it can decide whether it wants to be an authentic Chinese restaurant in a contemporary Western setting, or an awkward hybrid of not-quite-there classics fused with mod-bistro accents. The food tastes like it was cooked by a Chinese restaurant chef kidnapped and indoctrinated in Gordon Ramsay/Jamie Oliver ideology, hence a menu where char siew and siew mai co-exist with broccolini salad and sticky date pudding (albeit with longans and goji berries).
Given its vantage riverfront location and its imperious name, we would envisage Empress as a no-holds-barred paean to Oriental dynastic glamour, paired with exquisite cuisine that would justify the premium price necessary to provide such an experience. But the Prive group has opted for something more dialled down with easy-on-the-eye interiors that work in old world colonial touches and eye-catching light fixtures. Big arrangements of Phalaenopsis orchids offer some hint as to the kind of cuisine it serves, but with the (possibly deliberate) non-Chinese greeters at the entrance, the line between Chinese and international food is blurred somewhat.
A basket of delicate lotus root and yam chips puts us in a happy mood, so we almost don't mind that we're getting recommendations from a sweet young Caucasian server who - like other ethnically-appropriate servers we have encountered in other Chinese restaurants - doesn't know very much about the food she's serving.
Almost everything we sample hovers just below that sweet spot, as if straining to be delicious but somehow thwarted by an invisible hand. Bland tofu cubes coated in a light and crisp salted egg yolk crust (S$10) has us nibbling at the edges to avoid the tofu. Pan-fried turnip cake (S$12) is a passable but mushy equivalent of fried carrot cake with bean sprouts and XO sauce. The dim sum (S$9.80 for a combination of five different types) platter is pretty and presents decent har kau and siew mai, overly sticky spinach dumpling, forgettable mushroom dumpling and pumpkin-shaped glutinous dumpling filled with savoury minced pork.
The triple platter of char siew, pork belly and ribs (S$28) looks great but the meat is closer to hard and dry than bouncy and juicy. King prawn dumplings (S$10) in a perky chilli vinegar dressing have more pork than prawns in them so they may as well rename them as such.
The hot and sour soup isn't bad (S$12) for some comforting nostalgia, although the teapot soup (S$14) has an unnerving texture of thick fish maw broth that we can't figure out until later when we're told it's chicken stock blended with pumpkin. Not unpleasant, but weird.
Despite being too bland, too oily or too cloying, there's still some attempt at substance in the kitchen at Empress, so one suspects that indecision is the real issue here. There are a couple of interesting fusion dishes worth trying, namely the fried brown rice medley (S$20) of chewy rice, goji berries, pine nuts and asparagus that offers mouthfuls of fun. What keeps it from being totally healthy is the abundance of oil used that gives it wok hei but coats each grain with a greasy sheen. The molten salted egg yolk custard buns (S$5.80) are a neat twist to the dim sum staple - fluffy steamed sponge bursts to release a flood of sweet-salty egg yolk cream that finally hits our sweet spot. The chempedak creme brulee (S$13) isn't bad either.
A sweet ending though, isn't something we care to wait for at Yan in the National Gallery - which we've decided we liked a lot better before it opened to the public and became a veritable MRT station overnight. Make sure you factor in enough time just to get into the overworked lifts which take forever to come - if you can squeeze into one in the first place.
Yan is supposed to be a replica of the Park Palace restaurant in Grand Park City Hall hotel which is being redeveloped. It's moved lock, stock and barrel to its shiny new home on the rooftop level of the National Gallery but it's possible their recipe books may have fallen out of the moving truck. The food at Yan has all the hallmarks of a restaurant that has no trouble bringing in the crowds, with little interest in maintaining any kind of standard in food or service.
Or basic air quality for that matter. On the Friday night we are there, an inexplicable pong hits us in the face the moment we step inside - the closest description we can come up with is that of someone trying to dissolve a scented candle in a vat of vinegar.
Other diners seem oblivious and eventually, our nostrils become innured too. Besides, we're preoccupied with asking why the suckling pig has to be ordered in advance when other Chinese restaurants have no trouble serving them on cue. But no they don't have any spares, says the suited gent who takes our order. The restaurant must really be shorthanded, as the management is clearly depriving the poor guy of a much-needed, minimum three-day MC and an N95 mask.
The roast duck (S$20) that he highly recommends us between wheezes (even over the Peking Duck) is meaty but powdery; the char siew (S$18) and roast pork belly (S$14) really just a token effort to fulfil Chinese restaurant obligations.
The double-boiled soup of the day is forgettable, and the only sign of promise lies in the steamed thousand-layer beancurd (S$20) - deftly sliced and fanned out in a swirl of brown sauce and topped with a mound of sauteed diced pork, conpoy and gingko nuts. Braised vermicelli with fresh crabmeat and beansprouts in a savoury, seafood-infused thickened pumpkin gravy (S$12) lacks oomph but fares decently, with clean-tasting fresh crabmeat.
The suckling pig is supposed to be the star at Yan but if you're not prepared to shell out S$124 for half a pig, there isn't much else to look forward to in the menu. Although a page in the menu offers all-day dim sum, the "all-day" is only limited to lunch.
Maybe it was a bad evening for them, or it was the head chef's day off, or there were just too many people in the restaurant - but it's in the DNA of Chinese restaurants to thrive on pressure. Here's hoping they get back in the groove or find their recipe books, whichever comes first.
Empress: 6; Yan: 5
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good