Sunday, 25 August 2013

Makansutra August 2013 Makan Session - A Review of Ah Yat Seafood, The Grandstand

When my friend D sent me the menu for the Makansutra August 2013 Makan Session, I literally drooled on my keyboard.  You see, at heart, I am an old-fashioned Chinese gourmand.  This menu simply couldn't set a foot wrong: suckling pig, shark fin soup, abalone, venison, chilli crab and the customary mystery "dessert".  All for the measly price of S$50 nett, all corkage charges waived.  The only downside was that the venue, Ah Yat Seafood Restaurant, was located at The Grandstand, up in the wilds near Upper Bukit Timah Road.
Some things are too good to be true, and it can be a disappointing experience when the penny finally drops.

Before I get to discussing the food, I have to say this: the restaurant is HUGE!  Once you actually get there, which is an odyssey in itself, you walk past a loooong corridor with numerous private dining rooms to either side, then into a small dining room, before turning right into a medium-sized dining room, then a massive dining room.  

I was surprised that the room was so empty as it was 7.55 pm and dinner was supposed to have kicked off at 7.30 pm.  I was obviously looking a bit lost and confused, because a waitress came up to me and said "Makansutra dinner, this way" before taking me into another massive dining room that seated 250 people.  There's a lot of talk in Singapore about a housing shortage; all the government / developers really need to do is take over Ah Yat and develop it into a hundred or so flats.

Once I found my table and gave my aching feet a break, the food arrived.

Entrée:  Roast Whole Suckling Pig

Looks good, but unfortunately, that it all I can say for this poor little piggy.  The skin  is crisp, but the thick, solid layer of subcutaneous fat is frankly off-putting.  It also suggests that the pig was unceremoniously fattened in haste before its slaughter.  The skin and meat are also underseasoned, so it's a real chore to get through.  A very poor version compared to what you can get at Chui Huay Lim and Chao Shan Cuisine.

Soup: Braised Sharkfin with Four Treasures

They obviously aren't going to to give you the top-quality stuff in a fifty-buck menu, but the broth is quite pleasant and seafood-y in flavour.  I couldn't quite count up to four treasures, though.  D mutters something about MSG in the soup, but it isn't a very prominent influence so I don't mind.

First Main Course: Steamed Chicken with Cordyceps Flowers

This is a very Cantonese-influenced dish, chicken simply steamed with the very clean flavours of rice wine and oyster sauce.  But the butchering skills displayed in this dish are outrageously sloppy, with bone chips scattered randomly throughout the sauce.  Someone at the table tried to excuse this by asking whether I had ever tried chopping up a chicken with a Chinese cleaver.  Yes, and it's not easy, but I am not a pro!  There are many Chinese chefs who do this with consummate skill (the next time you go to a chicken rice stall, just watch the chopper-wielding uncle caress the white flesh off the bone), and the fact remains that this is one of the worst attempts at breaking down a whole bird that I have seen.  Good flavour but poor execution.

Second Main Course: Stewed Whole Fresh Abalone with Mushrooms and Vegetables

Good texture and flavour, but the abalones are the size of the my top thumb-joint.  Again, what should I have expected for my fifty bucks?  I probably should have counted myself lucky to get abalone at all.

Third Main Course: Deep-Fried Pork Chop with BBQ Sauce

Flavourless meat and a soggy crumb.  The rich, tempting-looking sauce, which was so forgettable I can't actually remember what it was, couldn't save it.  Simply wretched.

Fourth Main Course: Fried Venison with Black Pepper Sauce

Decent, but I can't put it any higher than that I am afraid.  You would find a very similar quality rendition in many restaurants, and you would also find versions of higher and lower quality in many restaurants.  OK.

Sixth Main Course: Chilli Crabs with Buns

We recently witnessed an appalling "made-for-media" spectacle at which Gordon Ramsay defeated the owner of Jumbo Seafood in a public cook-off and taste-off at the touristy Newton Food Centre.  I am not the biggest fan of Jumbo and I don't know anyone who honestly believes that Jumbo produces Singapore's best chilli crabs.  All I can say is thank God they didn't pit the Ah Yat chap against Ramsay.  The sauce is over-thickened with cornstarch to a gloopy mess (a good chilli crab sauce is thickened with egg, not cornstarch), and the crab pieces are overcooked across the board.  Yes, there is egg in there, but the very strong cornstarch influence tells me that the cooks had probably added way too much water to start off the sauce and couldn't reduce it in time or without even further overcooking the crab.  The normally slinky, moist brown meat at the edges of the carapace have been cooked into a hard, tasteless and joyless block.  The man tou buns, on the other hand, are beautifully fried so they are crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  Ideal for mopping up the awful sauce.

Mandatory Carb Course: Braised Rice Noodles "Tai-O" Style

Tai-O is a reference to a fishing village in Hong Kong famous for its salted fish, so Tai-O noodles are normally made simply with the noodle, some vegetables and salted fish.  It's OK, but really too oily for my liking.  D says it reminds him of the pre-prepared beehoon you can get from a hawker stall.  I can't really disagree with him.

Dessert: Red Bean Paste

In the right hands, this can be full of flavour, rich and sweet with the calming scent of infused dried mandarin peel and the comforting texture of simmered rice grains.  Ah Yat's rendition, unfortunately, is weak and bland in comparison to the version we make at home.  Disappointing.


This was another dud.  I don't know, perhaps I should lower my expectations at Makansutra events a few notches so that I'm completely over the moon with any positive experiences I do have?  Or maybe I should just drink more...

This meal was a frustrating mix of poor quality ingredients and poor execution.  Perhaps Ah Yat can do better, and again, I sympathise with any kitchen that has to churn out food for 170 diners.  But various hotels and restaurants do far better with wedding banquets with 350+ diners, so it is clearly not simply a matter of struggling with scale.  But who bears the blame for this frankly amateurish display?  Should the organisers have given Ah Yat a larger budget with which to play?  Or did Ah Yat simply overpromise and catastrophically under-deliver?  Either way, this was a huge lost opportunity for Ah Yat because they had the opportunity to play host to 170 foodies / alcoholics.  I guess it depends on how drunk each individual was at the time, but I would be surprised if Ah Yat won any new return customers on tonight's showing.

The gambler in me (I'm Chinese, it's in my genes) has already signed up for the next Makansutra Makan Session in September.  It will be held at Red Star, the restaurant jointly run by Chef Sin Leong and Chef Hooi Kok Wai, the last two remaining Heavenly Kings of Cantonese cuisine in Singapore.  The menu has already been released and is full of really old-school favourites.  I have already been to Dragon Phoenix, previously run by Hooi and where Hooi's son now toils to produce food that is the very definition of mediocrity.  Am I setting myself up for another fall?  Only time will tell.

200 Turf Club Road
#03-01/02 The Grandstand
Singapore 287994
Tel: +65 6883 2112

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