Huda Restaurant SG
56 Temple Street
Tel: 8321 8083
Open for lunch and dinner
Tues to Sun: 11.30am to 2pm; 5.15pm to 10pm. Closed on Mon.
WHAT makes us want to step into a restaurant? The promise of good food. An intriguing concept. The inspiring storyline of a chef who's travelled to the ends of gourmet capitals and back. A glorious epicurean journey replete with bountiful produce and the prowess of culinary craftsmen. Failing which, a cute lobster plushie works too.
Said stuffed toy is the mascot of Huda, a Beijing import that specialises in what it calls small lobsters but are really crayfish or yabbies cooked every which way from deadly mala to a more amiable garlic-strewn version.
But the no-frills eatery in Temple Street is much more than the cheesy, human-sized crustacean that stands outside its front door. It's a vibrant microcosm of Chinese regional cooking that alternately alienates and delights a palate more used to the gentrified Hong Kong derivative than the unabashed flavours of the motherland.
Compared to its westernised cousins Amoy Street, Keong Saik or Hong Kong Street, there's a little more 'China' in the Chinatown stretch of Temple, Mosque and Pagoda streets. The cosmopolitan hand has very much changed the F&B landscape here, but eateries like Huda have put a new Oriental spin with its Haidilao-style hospitality - friendly, efficient service and food that is a bit of an acquired taste but still worth exploring.
If you associate lobsters with Boston blue pricing and scarcity, you might think Huda's been 3D printing them in a reduced format for its mala lobsters (S$48). The huge platter is overflowing with the little critters as if they're an invasive species trying to escape the flood of fury - an ominous-looking, tongue-tingling Szechuan pepper-enhanced, orange-hued gravy.
There is a trick to peeling the yabbies - which our server helpfully demonstrates in a skillful manner which we completely fail to replicate. Arm yourself with a supplied bib and plastic gloves but there is no way to apply any decorum to the violent crime scene that is about to follow. The yabbies - which seem to be a dining craze in China - are firm and sweet, and the gravy a complex, savoury brew of spices that has character but is less brutal than we expected. Clearly, the idea of sputtering Singaporeans is a scene they want to avoid at all cost.
Navigating the menu is like wielding a city map with no idea which direction you're heading. You may think you've ordered starters, mains and desserts but the only chronology the chefs follow is whatever they can push out as quickly as possible. We get our cold dishes after the hot, and somewhere in between, something we thought was dessert appears. Actually, we exaggerate. Everything came at the same time.
But once you acclimatise and get down to the actual eating, dining at Huda is an enjoyable discovery of Chinese cuisine that's hard to find elsewhere. Besides the mala 'lobsters', Sichuan style boiled fish (S$58) is an equally lethal-looking hot pot of oil completely covered with dried chillies. Use a slotted spoon to fish out your prize - silky-textured slices of 'black fish' that are perfectly seasoned with hardly any unpleasant oiliness. Also good is the preserved century egg ($10) - wedges of soft creamy black egg a good match with a topping of green chilli pesto.
Other cold dishes are non-events - a so-so blanched cold spinach with peanuts (S$10) and sesame sauce ice jelly (S$9) which are tasteless spears of gelatine that are too slippery and soft to pick up any of the sauce.
After the mala lobsters/crayfish, a porridge version (S$28) is a thick risotto in a creamy but bland tomato-seafood broth with just a few of the yabbies submerged in it. But then we are also distracted by 'dessert', which has been balancing treacherously on a supplied box of tissue due to lack of table space. Chewy glutinous rice cakes (S$8) have a satisfying if rough chew, and drizzled with brown sugar and a dusting of peanut powder which is rather pleasant. Another oddity - more because we don't know what to eat it with, is egg coated mantou slices (S$10). Looking just like Asian french toast with thickly sliced mantou dipped in egg and deep fried, giving each slice crispy fried eggy edges. Condensed milk is served with it, giving it a bit of a breakfast feel. Apparently, it's a mainstay in hotpot restaurants in China, but it does appear rather friendless in this menu.
The cooking at Huda is hearty and pleasant if not refined, but we're inclined to return to explore it simply because of the many intriguing dishes we just didn't have room - both in our stomachs and on our table - to try them all. Throw in the cheap tourist thrill of a souvenir photo beside the big lobster outside, and you've got a fun getaway that your tourism vouchers can't buy.
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.