Friday, 17 May 2013

Tien Court at the Copthorne King's Singapore - Masters of the Wok

Tien Court, the flagship Cantonese fine dining restaurant at the Copthorne King's Hotel, is one of Singapore's old restaurant warhorses.  It is quite remarkable that its masterchef, Taipei-born Ho Tien Tsai, has been cooking at Tien Court for almost 23 years, well before the Millennium & Copthorne Group took over management of the old King's Hotel.  When you look at the number of senior Chinese chefs in Singapore who have been sacked or jailed in recent years for taking bribes from seafood suppliers (including at the Marriott, Hilton, Si Chuan Dou Hua, the Regent, Goodwood Park, Shangri-La and the Grand Hyatt), Ho's staying power seems all the more remarkable.


I first visited Tien Court in 2004, well before I made this sunny and occasionally smog-filled island my home.  I have kept going back; in a country where we are spoilt for choice when it comes to good Chinese food, Tien Court has always been a reliable fall-back, the kind of place you can take overseas visitors to show how good Chinese cooking in Singapore can be without breaking the bank.  On numerous visits, I have always been impressed by Ho's mastery of sauces and his ability to fine-tune the seasoning of a "simple" stir-fry so that it transcended its parts.

But this is not a restaurant where you can order willy-nilly from the menu and have faith that things will be peachy.  They won't be.  In particular, an order for roast duck in whatever incarnation, whether Cantonese roast duck, Peking/Beijing Duck, etc., will likely leave you disappointed.  Believe me, I tried twice and was frustrated both times.  Lacklustre marinade, un-rendered fat beneath the skin (a dealbreaker for me when it comes to roasted/grilled duck dishes), even the texture of the meat suggested that the duck hadn't been properly defrosted prior to cooking.

I can only set out a list of dishes which I have enjoyed in the past and know to be good, and which I have ordered on multiple occasions without looking like a chump in front of my guests.  On a recent visit, the food was excellent, service less so.

Soup: Double-Boiled Shark Cartilage, Abalone and Sea Cucumber Soup


Never start a meal here without one of Ho's double-boiled soups.  Yes, yes, they offer shark's fin soup in many renditions, but the unctuous, almost chewy, collagenous texture of the shark cartilage soup makes this my pick from the menu.  This is a perfect example of the Chinese obsession with texture in food: the dense, silky cartilage (imagine a thickly gelatinous bone, rather like beef sinew but less chewy), the sweet, crunchy abalone and the gently yielding sea cucumber.  A dab of red rice vinegar helps slice through the richness.


The Szechuan hot and sour soup is also delicious, chockful of vegetables and mushrooms.

Dim Sum: (top to bottom) Abalone Siew Mai, Har Gow, Fried Carrot Cake


I like the luxification of the ubiquitous siew mai (minced pork dumpling) with the addition of a nubbin of abalone on the top.  It's not the finest siew mai I've had, but it's not bad.  The har gow is clumsy - the pastry is too thick and the prawns have seen better days.  The carrot cake, on the other hand, is very good, with a beautiful sear / char and a nice savoury bite from chopped dried shrimp bits in the batter.

Seafood Main Dish: Deep-Fried Prawns in Wasabi Mayonnaise


This is now a Singapore restaurant classic, normally served with dice of rockmelon and honeydew (as it is here, except we asked for a variation).  The sweetness of the prawns and the spicy wasabi work well together, and the greens give a nice textural counterpoint, although it must be said they weren't the freshest-looking leaves I've ever had.

Poultry Main Dish: Chicken Sauteed with Dried Chillies


The deliciously smoky, caramelly sauce coats the chicken pieces.  Thigh meat was mostly used, so the chicken a more prominent flavour and lovely moist texture.

Vegetable Main Dish: Eggplant stir-fried with Chilli Bean Paste and Minced Pork


Very nice; the eggplant had been cooked until soft and tender, while the sauce added a very nice chilli bite without overwhelming.  This is Sichuan-inspired comfort food at its best.

Afterthought: House-made Bean Curd with Xiao Bai Cai, Enoki Mushrooms and Oyster Sauce


Why was this dish an afterthought, when it should properly have been an early course well before the full-flavoured protein-based courses arrived?  Simple, a service snafu.  We placed the order with one of the managers (this is an off-menu item, by the way).  After the main courses arrived, we asked the waitress why the beancurd hadn'ty yet arrived?  Her response was "you didn't order it with me".  My response was "No, we didn't, but we ordered it through your manager 50 minutes ago so is it coming soon?" She returned to the kitchen, came back to the table and triumphantly pronounced "No, there is no order for beancurd at your table" before walking off, a smug, self-satisfied look on her face.

Did I mention how much I love service at Chinese restaurants?

So we got the manager back and repeated our order.  By the time I mopped up the luscious sauce on the eggplant, it still hadn't arrived.  So I called the manager back again and asked to cancel the order.  "Errr, sorry sir. We cannot cancel the order as the chefs are already making it.  It will be with you in five minutes".  The chefs must have been grinding the beans by hand after I placed the order to produce a delay like that.  But the dish itself was gorgeous, with the genuine soybean flavour shining through, as well as the unmistakable, lightly mushy texture of homemade beancurd.  The mushrooms and veg add crunch and colour, while the oyster-based sauce ties everything together just perfectly. 

Dessert: Orh Nee Yam Paste with Sweet Yam and Gingko Nuts



This is soooo old school, with a layer of fragrant garlic oil sitting atop what is essentially sweetened mashed yam.  Stir it all together to form a paste.  Dice of water chestnut add a fresh sweetness to what can be an otherwise quite heavy dessert, and the balance of sweet and savoury (from the garlic oil) is excellent.

I should add that with regard to the savoury courses, a lot of other tables were ordering what looked like crab and beehoon fried with XO sauce.  It looked wonderful, with very generous portions of crab and the dark promise of fried dried scallop and chilli in the XO sauce, so guess what I'm going to be trying on my next visit?

A view of the interior
Like I noted above, Tien Court is far from perfect.  Service can be perfunctory at times, and the wine list is a short, unexciting selection of overpriced claret and predictable New World names.  And don't even get me started on the roast duck.

But there is plenty else here that is excellent, and certainly more than enough to keep me satisfied.  It has been around for decades and still cooks to a very high standard.  In a country where restaurant openings and closures are more common than mosquitoes, Tien Court's longevity is testimony to its consistency and quality.

TIEN COURT
Copthorne King's Hotel
403 Havelock Road
Singapore 169632
BYO Policy: 1-for-1; otherwise $20++ per bottle.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Tel: +65 6318 3193 / 198
Email: tiencourt@milleniumhotels.com 
Advance bookings recommended

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