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Wok this way: Restaurants put a new spin on chinese cuisine
WHY DOES CHINESE food have to be so - Chinese? That seems to be the thought going through the minds of chefs and restaurants these days, going by the way some Chinese restaurants are heading towards modern plating while adapting French techniques in the kitchen as well.
In Singapore, you're likely to step into a contemporary bistro and be served a plate of wok hei-infused noodles as much as a hamburger – but chalk that up to a growing confidence of chefs who, already proficient in their native cuisine, are also exposed to Western culture and techniques.
As a result, it's given rise to restaurateurs who are keen to explore the diverse flavours of Chinese food and its place in modern cuisine.
"Chinese cuisine is one that many Singaporeans are familiar with," says Norman Hartono, creative director of Ebb and Flow Group, which runs Dragon Chamber. "And it's time to move beyond its strict barriers."
Going for a modern take is a strategic move, says Ricky Ng, owner and managing director of Blue Lotus Concepts, which owns a string of restaurants showcasing new-age Chinese and local fare. "Chinese food is rarely the first choice for younger diners."
They're not out to replace classic Chinese restaurants or zi char eateries, but rather offer a different dining experience. Adds Mr Ng, "Our dining concepts shine light on Chinese cuisine by using western techniques, giving us a broader appeal."
Don't be mistaking this "upgrade" to be fusion, however. The roots must come from a Chinese or Asian dish, and staying true to its flavour profile is critical.
"To pull it off, you'll need good cooking methods and quality ingredients as well," says Steve Aw, assistant vice president of Tung Lok Group. Lokkee has already proven to be a success but the group is now banking on their famed roasted duck, presented in Asian and Western-style dishes, to draw in a new crowd at Duckland.
There is another underlying factor. "It's not easy employing staff in the F&B industry, particularly for Chinese cuisine. Having a kitchen that uses both styles, albeit predominantly Western, allows us to employ staff from either cooking backgrounds," explains Mr Ng.
Check out what these three new restaurants have to offer:
Don't let its daytime menu of croissants and lunch bowls mislead you. Come dinner time, 51 Soho takes diners to Sichuan with its charcoal-grilled skewers and western classics accentuated with the spices the province is known for.
"Chinese elements with a modern touch has always been part of our company's direction," says Megan Lim, assistant director of The Foreign Project Group, which is also behind mod-Asian concepts Birds of a Feather and Halcyon & Crane. It's also a nod to its location in Telok Ayer, "which was historically a focal point of the migrant Chinese community, and now is a vibrant urban centre."
Modelled after old Chinese drinking places, its signature cocktails are based on traditional rice wine or bamboo wine which "bring together a Western cocktail idea and the long-forgotten Chinese liquors which are now experiencing a revival".
The food also shares the same approach, with dishes such as Spice Canard, which features Chinese braised duck with a Mediterranean twist. The meat skewers, too, are inspired by the ancient Chinese pastime of dining around a huge fire stove with skewers of meat and vegetables grilling over it. "We've updated the presentation a bit, with the skewers being grilled by chefs in the kitchen but we want to bring in this bit of Chinese culture, this spirit and ambience for 51 Soho," says Ms Lim.
#01-01, 51 Telok Ayer Street. Tel: 9755 1058
Traditional Cantonese, Huaiyang and Sichuan dishes are given a twist in the hands of not one, but three of Shangri-La Group's top Chinese chefs at Shang Social. Mok Kit Keung of one Michelin-starred Shang Palace is joined by Huaiyang cuisine global ambassador Joe Hou from Jiangnan Wok, Shangri-La Hotel, Nanjing and Rick Du of Summer Palace, Shangri-La Hotel, Shengyang, to create an extensive menu of close to 100 dishes.
Signatures, such as Braised Black Marbled Pork and Shang Palace's Deep-fried Whole Boneless Chicken with fried glutinous rice, can be enjoyed at two of its three spaces; the formal DINING and communal-style MRKT.
"The menu is designed to capture the authenticity in flavours with an innovative and contemporary twist in presentation, within the unique settings of Shang Social," says a spokesman.
There's plenty of room for innovation in Chinese cuisine given its diverse flavours, ingredients and techniques across the various regions, adds the spokesman of the creative inspiration at Shang Social. "Diners today no longer view Chinese food as exclusively a large-group dining experience, so restaurants in Singapore and across the world continue to modernise. We wish to play a role in the cuisine's continued evolution."
In that vein, there is also a separate menu of modern Chinese tapas to complement Asian-inspired cocktails, including a Da Hong Pao-infused Pearl of Shang at the third space, BAR.
#01-219-222, Jewel Changi Airport, 78 Airport Boulevard. Tel: 6346 0260
THE DRAGON CHAMBER
At every turn, The Dragon Chamber brims with individuality. That is, if you can find it. Creative director of Ebb and Flow, Norman Hartono continues its secret society theme with the restaurant's deceptive exterior of an unassuming kopitiam. Once you've passed the test, or, in this case, a fridge door, you'd be greeted by a seductive world decked out in vibrant oeuvres from local and regional artists. Its menu continues to draw influences from China, Southeast Asia and the West. Most obvious is the Firecracker Chicken and Yu Tiao, an homage to the American favourite of chicken and waffles with la zhi ji. Adventurous diners will gravitate towards the unexpected offerings of pig's tail and crocodile penis. The latter makes an appearance in a nourishing herbal soup that's cheekily named the D*** Soup. Mr Hartono explains the reasoning behind the Dragon Chamber's modern approach to Chinese food: "Dwelling in the past can result in stagnation. There would be a huge gap between current tastes and tastes in the period the dish was created."
While the bar menu predominantly sticks to the classics, their house-labelled ales will be well-matched with their spicier dishes. Remember to end your meal with a boozy cheng tng.
2 Circular Road. Tel: 6805 8181