Friday, 20 September 2013

Makansutra Makan Session September 2013 - A Review of Red Star Restaurant, Chin Swee Road

At the last Makansutra dinner in August, Tony Lim, one of the Makansutra Makan Session organisers, promised a special treat: a trip down memory lane with classic dishes served at one of Singapore's classic Cantonese restaurants.  Red Star, which welcomed its first guests back in 1974, was founded by the quartet of chefs known as the "Four Heavenly Kings", commonly credited with revolutionising Cantonese cuisine in Singapore.  Today, Red Star is still nominally run by the two surviving Heavenly Kings, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai, both well into their 80s but still in amazing physical shape.  

Despite Tony's lavish praise, I had my reservations.  After all, Hooi also nominally runs the abysmal Dragon Phoenix at Novotel Clarke Quay, where I had a ridiculously disappointing meal.  Hooi's son now runs the show there, proof if one ever needed it that cooking talent does not run in the genes.  But with Tony saying that Leong and Hooi would supervise preparation of this meal personally, I was a little too curious to be cautious, and signed up on the night.

Red Star is a cavernous restaurant, the quintessential old-school Chinese restaurant with ceilings as high as the third storey and a stage up the front for the wedding banquet speeches.  Tonight, I am only one of some 200 guests, the largest ever crowd for a Makan Session.

Four-Dish Appetiser (Clockwise from Top Left): Crabmeat with Salted Egg Yolk in a Chicken Liver Mousseline, Wrapped in Caul Fat and Fried; Golden Coin Chicken; Drunken Chicken; Minced Venison with Rice Crust


We start off on what is a mostly a dud note.  I can't taste the crabmeat in the egg doppelganger, neither can the other nine people on my table.  The Golden Coin Chicken, which is in reality grilled candied pork loin and grilled candied pork fat, is very decent and beats the pants off the version served at Dragon Phoenix.  The puffed rice dish is very interesting.  Apparently an invention of the Manchus, it is made by scraping the stuck rice off the bottom of a rice pot, and putting the rice in hot oil so it puffs up like a rice cake.  Quite good but it doesn't quite make up for 300 years of corrupt Manchu rule in China.  The drunken chicken, on the other hand, is literally the worst thing I've had all year, reeking of cheap and fiery booze, and too much of it.  When we asked Tony about it, he said "Of course lah!  If no alcohol how can the chicken get drunk!" That may well be true, but on the drunkenness meter, this chicken was lying in the gutter with its todger sticking out and with an empty bottle of whiskey in its claws.  Well and truly disgusting.

Soup: Double Chicken Soup With Ginseng and Snow Fungus


After one abominable dish comes redemption.  The soup is redolent with the flavour and fragrance of ginseng.  The chicken is cooked such that its flesh peels off with the mere of chopsticks, but is still moist and tasty.  I take two bowls of this elixir and quietly forgive Hooi and Leong for the sin of the drunken chicken.  Outstanding.

First Seafood Course: Old Style Triple Layer Steamed Garoupa


This is a bit of an odd one.  Garoupa, perfectly steamed as a Cantonese would demand, but topped with a chopped melange of various ingredients including diced mushrooms, dried cuttlefish and tangerine peel.  The flavour is pleasant but is not something that I am used to.  It's a very interesting dish from a historical perspective, given it seems almost an inviolable commandment these days that Cantonese restaurants cannot add anything to their steamed fish beyond some coriander, hot oil and very good soy sauce.  That said, the garoupa manages to hold its own against the flavoursome toppings.  Good.

Second Seafood Course: Pan-Fried Jumbo Prawns in BBQ Sauce


Nice juicy prawns, but the sauce is a bit too much on the sweet side and not particularly exciting.  Pleasant, but nothing to write home about.  I am noticing that across the dishes, there is a bit more sweetness than I expect from contemporary Cantonese cuisine.

First Meat Course: Three-Legged Duck


This dish would probably lend itself to all sorts of ribald jokes about what the duck's third leg could possibly be.  In reality, it is a dish of three slow-cooked legs, each from a different animal.  So you have a stewed pork shank, braised duck leg and chicken feet.  Along with these are the by-now ubiquitous shiitake mushrooms.  This is a masterclass in Chinese texture eating - the sticky unctuousness of stewed pork shank, the yielding gaminess of duck, the comfortingly gelatinous chicken feet.  More modern palates might find it all a bit too sticky and fatty, but I'm happy as a pig in mud working my way through the lot.  Amazing.

Second Meat Course: Stewed Pig Belly with Yam, Steamed Buns


Good.  The belly pork is cooked until the fat is meltingly soft and the meat is tender.  My mother used to make this dish for us when I was a mere stripling and unfortunately for Red Star, it was and still is the best version of pork belly and taro that I've ever had.  At home, our sauce was richer, sweeter and more savoury because of the use of tau cheong (fermented soybean paste).  This version is cooked to perfection, but the sauce is far blander than what I am used to and like, so it loses points on that front.  The bun is also difficult to manipulate because the sauce is actually quite loose and runny, causing the bun to soften and break up.

Vegetable Course: Treasures in Jade Bowl


The "Jade Bowl" is some sort of melon, stuffed with peas, carrots, chicken and gingko nuts (a lot of gingko nuts), and swimming in a mild seafood stock (I sense some anchovies and maybe dried scallops).  For its dramatic presentation, the flavours are quite subtle.  I like it, but after some really flavour-packed courses, the Jade Bowl has not chosen the ideal moment to make its appearance.

Rice Course: Celebration Braised Rice


I am told that in Chinese tradition, this dish, rice topped with a tasty braise of prawns and vegetables, is presented by a new bride to her parents when she visits home on the 3rd day after her wedding, to symbolise her fertility.  I'm not sure about the veracity of this account, but I know a few hawkers in Ipoh who specialise in this dish and have quite a decent following.  And I must admit, it gnaws at me somewhat to think of dishes like this that originally have such significance and meaning, being reduced to a three-ringgit quickie supper for an overworked salaryman.  The dish itself is alright, more comforting and warming than anything else.

Dessert: Traditional Green Bean and Barley Dessert Cooked with Herbs


Drat and tarnation.  I so wanted the meal to end on a high note, but the green beans in this soup looked and tasted burnt, and the taste of bitter carbon had tainted the entire bowl.  Luckily, there were mooncakes on the side, which had a suitably thin crust, but I thought the lotus paste had not been cooked long enough to achieve that deep, dark colour and flavour.

Conclusion

I am always sceptical when people say things were better in the old days.  This is especially true for cuisines and restaurants: if things were better in the old days, pray tell why have things moved on the way they have? 

It is difficult for us, as human beings, to be objective about places that have played a significant role in our lives.  Every one of us has a place that they can't visit without remembering birthdays, engagements, weddings, or even just family gatherings or first dates.  And they don't have to be posh joints either.  I remember a little family-run café down the street from my family home in Sydney which my then-fiancée and I would frequent.  Throughout the 18 months of our engagement, you would find us there late every Friday night tucking into chai lattes (her) and a slice of warm chocolate cake (me).  While they served a toothsome eggs benedict and knew how I liked my coffee, I would be hard-put to differentiate it, food quality-wise, from any good Sydney café.  But there it was, looming large as the backdrop to many happy hours of my life, and I shed a quiet tear when it closed.  As a writer, I try to taste objectively and divorce the reality from the nostalgia, the taste from the memory.  And it is damned difficult to do.

I came to Red Star with a sceptical but open mind.  I knew that people like Tony have been coming here for decades, and I took their lavish praise with a grain of salt.  I had never been here before and had no attachment to this place.  I tasted its food as an objective assessor, and I loved it.  It was not the best Chinese meal I have ever had, but it was certainly one of the most unique, and it gave me an appreciation of how times and tastes have changed, sometimes but not always for the better.

It will never have the same meaning to me as it does for generations of Singaporeans, but Red Star can still produce fine Chinese cuisine.  And I was lucky to have tasted it tonight and experienced, if only for an evening, what it would have been like to be at a Singaporean Chinese banquet back in the 1970s.

RED STAR RESTAURANT
54 Chin Swee Rd
Singapore 160054
Tel: +65 6532 5266
BYO Policy: BYO welcome, no corkage charge.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations recommended

3 comments:

  1. Love the brutally honest commentary Julian. It is so refreshing to read a critique, and not be patronized by hipster bloggers who care more about which Instagram filter to use than the food. Keep truckin!

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  2. Thank you for the kind comments Jason, they are much appreciated.

    And I will share my thoughts on the local "food blogging" scene in another post once I brush up on my vocabulary of obscenities!

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    1. Looking forward to your unleash... =D

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