Saturday, 16 June 2012

Makansutra June 2012 Makan Session: Dragon Phoenix, Novotel Clarke Quay

I was invited to attend this dinner by my friend D who is a member of the Makansutra makan group, essentially a bunch of hardcore local foodies who gather once a month to enjoy good food and wine. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Singapore food lore, Dragon Phoenix is the 49-year old institution founded and still run, at least in name, by Chef Hooi Kok Wai, one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Cantonese cuisine in Singapore.  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.  This has precipitated numerous emotional cross-border debates over the decades, most memorably in January this year when the papers of record on either side of the Causeway gave front-page prominence to the increasingly acrimonious exchanges.


Whatever the truth is, 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 organisers had arranged a set dinner menu for the night, 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.  The grumbles of discontent around the table got louder and louder, and I realised I was not alone in my disappointment.

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.  You see, I learned that these dinners are often the pretext (or provide the stomach lining) for a good old-fashioned piss-up and each table often ends up with close to a bottle of wine for each guest. 

You will note I said he was trying to make the profile more alike 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 rice 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.  By coincidence, I went to a "glow"-themed party this week and believe me, no one's costume glowed as brightly as this sauce.  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;  check out the ingredients on a non-premium ice-cream at Cold Storage or Fairprice and you will see what I mean.  The proportion of yam to ice-cream was also too high, meaning the last impression on your palate is a little savoury greasiness, never a good way to finish a meal (although given the dire ice-cream, this may have been a blessing in disguise).  A scattering of kiwi and strawberry dice around the plate was pointless.

A lot of people these days like to read negative food reviews, just as they like to see Gordon Ramsay put on his bully hat and start bollocking people.  I hate writing them, if only because I have had the experience of being on the other side of the table and know how unpleasant it can be when things go wrong.  I also excuse various oversights when I am dining in a large group situation, as it can be difficult to maintain quality control when over a hundred starving people are clamouring to be served all at once. 
But there was so much wrong and so little right with this dinner that it needs to be said: the emperor (or Heavenly King) really has no clothes.





DRAGON PHOENIX RESTAURANT

Novotel Clarke Quay

#06-01, 177A River Valley Road
Singapore 179031
Tel: +65 6339 3368
URL: http://dragonphoenix.com.sg


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