Restaurants & Bars 3

Singapore - A Dinner at Dragon Phoenix (Makansutra June Makan Session)

Julian Teoh | Jun 16, 2012 06:40 AM

Dragon Phoenix is the 49-year old institution founded and still run, at least in name, by Chef Hooi Kok Wai, one of Singapore's “Four Heavenly Kings” of Cantonese cuisine. Amongst their various contributions, by far their most famous (and hotly disputed) is their claim to have invented yee sang, the raw fish salad so popular in Singapore and Malaysia at Chinese New Year celebrations.

Whatever the truth, I really, really love my yee sang, and was very excited to visit (one of) the (alleged) source(s) of the dish that had given me so much joy over the years (delete the bracketed sections of the foregoing sentence if you are Singaporean). My palate is also rather old-school, so I was glad to have the chance to try some good old-fashioned Cantonese cuisine devoid of the plating pretensions and wanky fusion foul-ups that pollute so many “modern” Cantonese menus in Singapore.

The set menu for the night was as follows:

First Course: Golden Coin Meat

Overcooked. The pork, cut in a circular shape, was overcooked to the point of being tasteless, except for its slightly sweet pink glaze. The steamed buns were also overcooked, the toughness made worse by the fact that the buns were shaped so thin. A slice of fruit pickled in alcohol also made it into the sandwich, overwhelming whatever little taste the pork may have had.

Second Course: Double-Boiled Consommé with Bird’s Nest

The soup was inoffensive, pleasant, but nothing more. The perfectly shaped “bird’s nest” dumpling showcased some serious technique, with a mix of shredded white fungus, bird’s nest and egg white encasing a quail egg yolk. But here’s my question – where was the flavour? And why would you go to such lengths to present a dumpling that obscured any evidence of the advertised main ingredient, especially one as prized as bird’s nest? A few people at my table were questioning whether the dumpling actually contained any bird’s nest, such was its consistency.

Third Course: “Beggar’s Chicken” Baked in Clay infused with Chinese Wine

I quite liked this dish, especially the chestnut and onion stuffing. Some at the table had a grouse (geddit?) with the quality of the chicken, as it was not a kampong chicken (which are firmer and less meaty but infinitely tastier) and had the texture of frozen chicken. The wine was a little assertive but after the two previous shockers, I was prepared to finally put one on the scoreboard for Dragon Phoenix. That said, it did not come near the quality of the traditional herbal “beggar chickens” that I have tasted.

Fourth Course: Steamed Soon Hock with Sweet Fermented Rice, Wolfberries and Prime Soy Sauce

I nibbled at the fish, then the fish with a little of the fermented rice, and the penny dropped. Hooi (or his son, who I later learned managed the kitchen on the night and was trying to “modernise” his father’s dishes) was modifying these dishes to make their flavour profile more akin to wine. I choose these words carefully – he was incorporating some aspects of wine into his food – the lightly sour taste of fermentation, the sweetness of grain alcohol. But this certainly does NOT make the food any more suitable to pair with wine, especially when you are cooking with Chinese wine. To wit, I like a dry riesling with Cantonese steamed fish, but the sweetness of the wine and wolfberries would have killed it. I mean, the fish was good quality, so just leave it alone! In summary, a good dish, but the accoutrements were completely unnecessary.

Fifth Course: Stewed Pork Ribs

When one of my companions saw the colour on this dish, he blanched, took a tentative mouthful and left the remainder of his serving untouched. The sauce was wrong on so many levels, oversweetened, over-artificially coloured, a pathetic throw-back to 1960s “Chinese” takeaway in the West; check out any Chinese takeaway in Sydney these days and it’ll beat the pants of this dish any day of the week. Parts of the pork were nicely succulent and fall-apart, but nearer the exterior of each meat block, the meat was tough and dried-out.

Sixth Course: Classic Vegetarian Delight

Canned button mushrooms, check. Canned bamboo shoots, check. Cornstarch-y sauce? Check. Did I like it? Not really.

Seventh Course: Pan-Fried Egg Noodles with Prawn and Egg Omelette

D joked that the noodles could be the best course of the night. I was sorry to disagree (to be fair, the fish and chicken were pretty decent). The prawns were nicely-cooked, but the noodles were just boring, and the sauce was too bland.

Eighth Course: Ice Cream in Yam Basket

Hooi also claims to have created the yam basket, a stir-fried vegetarian combination (sometimes with some meat thrown in) encased in a basket of yam. The yam was decent, but the ice-cream was a poor-quality store-bought version which, due to the yam’s heat, melted into a revolting syrup. The brunoise of kiwi and strawberry scattered around the plate was pointless.

A lot of Singaporeans, including well-known food bloggers such as Dr Leslie Tay, recommend Dragon Phoenix as a "must try" destination. I suspect these judgments are based on memories and nostalgia without any critical examination of the quality of the food as it stands today. Such judgments also do a disservice to many other "old-school" restaurants on this wonderful little island which are still dishing out the goods day in, day out, and who deserve far more credit and publicity than Dragon Phoenix.

I hate to say it, but the Emperor (or Heavenly King, in this case) really has no clothes.

More photos, etc. at http://julianteoh.blogspot.com/2012/0...

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