Friday, 24 August 2012

A Review of Mooi Chin Place - Classic Hainanese Cooking

At the grand old age of 77, Mooi Chin must be one of Singapore’s oldest continuously operating restaurants.  At the core of its longevity is its menu of “Hainanese” staples, including their famous pork chops and mutton soup.  Despite the name, these dishes do not owe much to Hainan.  Rather, it was developed by “cook-boys”, mostly of Hainanese descent,  who worked in the kitchens of the English colonials and hospitality establishments in late 19th / early 20th century Singapore and Malaysia.  As the cooks moved on to open their own eating establishments, a distinctive cuisine was born, a fusion of their employers’ preferences  and the tastes of their homeland.


Mooi Chin was a legend in its time, serving the great and the good of young Singapore.  In the 1960s, due to its previous location at Funan Centre across the road from the Supreme Court, it was a favourite of lawyers and judges looking to refuel their forensic minds.  Other local favourites such as sambal fish were added to the menu over the course of the years.

But as times change, so do tastes.  While it remains in the hands of the founding Wong family, Mooi Chin is now living a double-life as the all-day dining restaurant at Bugis’ Landmark Village Hotel, a slightly run-down local 3-star establishment.  This is unfortunate, in a couple of ways.  A quick flick through the very long menu takes you to the “Chef’s Recommendations” – Hawaiian Pizza, Spaghetti Bolognaise, Fish & Chips, Tiramisu.  Secondly, the hotel houses a KTV lounge, meaning pained squeals reminiscent of the sounds at a pig slaughterhouse periodically waft across the foyer, never an ideal accompaniment to your dinner.

On the plus side, the hotel location means you get air-conditioning, tablecloths, a carpeted floor and quite comfortable seats.  It is not very often that you get to enjoy traditional old school food in such an environment.

When we arrived just after 7, the place was packed with large family groups.  Within 20 minutes, the place was deserted and we had it to ourselves.  I was wondering whether it was the bloodied axe in my hand or my body odour that scared everyone away, but soon after, we could hear strains of Celine Dion as re-imagined by drunken Chinese businessmen and their paid hostesses.  Right.

On to the food.  A couple of members of our dining party (lawyers, incidentally) were not feeling too good so we had to mix up the robust traditional dishes with more delicate fare.

Hainanese Pork Chop ($12++)
The pork was nice and tender and the crumb coating was crispy.  The sauce also had a strong hint of cinnamon.  However, I doubt it was something I could not have prepared myself.

Steamed Tofu, HK-Style ($12++)
Good balance of flavour, with the fried shallots adding a nutty sweetness to the soy-based sauce.  From the texture and the look of it, the silken tofu was bought in.  Again, pleasant enough but nothing you could not do at home. 

"Kailan" ($12++)
The kailan was simply stir-fried with garlic and probably a little oyster sauce.  Very fresh, with a nice "snap"  to the bite.

At this point, I was wondering where it was all going.  Like I said, it was all OK but there was nothing particularly exciting or superlative.  Then the sambal pomfret arrived - I had very, very high hopes for this dish, and it certainly looked the part.

Sambal Pomfret ($35++)
Good, but I cannot put it any higher than that.  The fish was fresh and well-cooked, firm but never at risk of drying out.  The sambal, on the other hand, fell short of my expectations.  It was lightly sour, with elevated notes of chili heat.  It was a soprano compared to the rumbling, emotive bass of the sambal at Old Lai Huat, and unfortunately not a bravura performance.  While Lai Huat's rendition is addictive, crack cocaine to a chilli fiend, Mooi Chin's is simply good (but also less oily).  Lai Huat's version is also fried so that the fins and smaller bones become crunchy little edibles, so Mooi Chin's is also more one-dimensional in texture.

I also had a bowl of orh nee, the rich Teochew yam paste ($4++), which was not of any particular interest.  The portion was also rather too large, meaning it got tedious about a quarter of the way in.  A mango pudding ($3,50++) tasted of packet custard with the vaguest suggestions of the fruit.

When Mooi Chin was recommended to me, it was in the context of a discussion about Lai Huat, another old school Singaporean eatery (although a mere 49-year old stripling compared to Mooi Chin).  Comparisons were therefore inevitable and I'm of the view that you get more at Lai Huat, both in terms of quality and quantity, for less.  Undoubtedly, that is a side effect of Mooi Chin being a hotel restaurant and catering to guests on three-star expense accounts.  Like I said, Mooi Chin’s food is not bad, but it costs a fair bit for what you get.  The tofu and vegetable dishes each cost $12 for a small plate – Lai Huat would give you the same for $6.  And the pomfret at Lai Huat was definitely superior, at least in the sambal stakes if not necessarily in fish quality.

The service here is hit-and-miss, with a couple of mainland Chinese waitresses being completely unable to converse in anything other than Mandarin.  On the other hand, Mooi Chin does have quality stemware (even down to Champagne flutes, shiraz glasses, etc., but inventory is limited so please drop them a line in advance and let them know how many and what types of glasses you need for your table) and is corkage free 7 days a week.

Towards the end of the night, a European tourist walked in and ordered a Hawaiian pizza.  I wondered if he was aware that he was dining at a living slice of Singapore's culinary history.  But as times change, tastes change.  While it is clearly no longer at the peak of its powers, it is a decent place for traditional Hainanese cooking in comfortable surrounds, and has certainly survived the passing decades far better than the younger Dragon Phoenix.

MOOI CHIN PLACE
390 Victoria Street
#03-12A Landmark Village Hotel
Singapore 188061
BYO Policy: BYO welcome, no corkage fee, but please ring ahead to check availability of good wine glasses.  For a more comprehensive list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO and their corkage policies, please click here.
Tel: +65 6392 1600
Email: enquiry@mooichin.com


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