Friday, 2 January 2015

A Review of Clifford Pier - Great Singaporean Food in a Hotel, Awful Hotel Wine List

During the dog days of another Singaporean Christmas, I thought a little treat was in order.  So I snuck across the OUE Link Bridge to Clifford Pier, which was been winning quite strong reviews for its distinctly Singaporean menu.

For the longest time, Singaporean food in a top hotel meant one thing to me: Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt.  And I do still have a soft spot for the Hyatt as I once spent a week there at one of the Singapore Tourism Board's legendary foreign media junkets.  But at the end of the day, Straits Kitchen is a buffet, and a not-too-comfortable one at that.  Clifford Pier elevates our expectations when it comes to a Singaporean cuisine restaurant, with a modern yet classic dining room.  The ceiling is way-high and there is enough room between the tables to wheel a procession of hawker carts if you so wished.

The Clifford Pier offers a two-course (entrée and main) Executive Set Lunch for $29++.  It's not cheap for hawker food, of course, but bear in mind that in this case, you are paying for the decor, the accoutrements, etc.

First Entrée: Mixed Satays (Chicken, Beef and Lamb; $19, available on set lunch menu)

Lunch doesn't get off to a particularly promising start.  The satay marinade is quite pleasant, but that's really it.  The cooking on the skewers of meat screams "hotel kitchen" to me, lacking discernible char or caramelisation, or even the smoky charcoal-ly nose that makes a good satay so irresistable.  The meat is also disturbingly mono-textural and free of fat, an unnecessary concession to the prices charged and five-star international clientele.  They are also quite stingy with the condiments; the few measly cubes of onions and cucumber you see in the photo are all the accompaniments I got, and a bit (lot) more of the satay sauce would also have been welcome.

Second Entrée: Sup Kambing ($15++, available on set lunch menu)

My disappointment with the satay was more than erased by the arrival of this unctuous, more-ish broth.  It is a spicy orchestra, with all the various components (cinnamon, cardamom and white pepper, amongst others) playing their parts in perfect harmony.  It's a slightly luxe version of the mamak stall original, of course, with the tender meat having been simmered off the bone and presented in free-floating, occasionally cartileginous shreds.  Hunks of bread add substance and also help to tune down the spicy crescendo on the palate.  Delicious.

Main Course: Hainanese Chicken Rice ($19++, available on set lunch menu)

Chicken rice, if you ask any self-respecting Singaporean, is really about three things: the rice, the chilli sauce and the chicken, in that order.  That's partly why eating chicken rice can be a frustrating experience, because there is no undisputed champion across all three heads. You knew that while enjoying the exquisite rice at Boon Tong Kee (my old haunt while I was living near Balestier), that the chilli could do with a bit more of a ginger-y kick, or that the chicken, tender and slide-down-the-throat as it was, was rather bland.  Or that the chicken at Wee Nam Kee could be a bit less cooked and better presented.  I could go on.

I must say, against all expectations, that Clifford Pier makes a good fist 0f things across all three.  The rice has a lovely bite to it, and is gorgeously infused with lots of garlic and chicken stock.  The chicken, meanwhile, is smoother than a baby's bottom, and I like that the soy-based sauce on the chicken is light and doesn't overpower the meat.  The chilli is OK (with the shockingly red chilli and minced ginger arriving in separate compartments of a sauce dish), but does not live up to the promise of the other two.

Dessert: Baba au Rhum ($15++, a la carte only)

Before I knew it, it was time for dessert.  The sweets menu is rather discouragingly titled "Desserts and Afterthoughts".  There is a good selection of local kuehs and desserts on the menu, but from my experience, most kuehs in Singapore are "afterthoughts" in the correct sense of that word.  In any event, I can't resist ordering a rum baba when I see one on the menu.  This version was fine, with the berries lending a nice acidity to liven up the thick yeast cake, but I cannot forgive the split chantilly cream on the side.

Gripe Time: The Wine List

A quick browse through the wine list got my blood pressure spiking.  A leisurely run through almost gave me apoplexy.

Am I exaggerating in my usual fashion?  Well, riddle me this: in what universe does a restaurant sell a glass of 2011 Joseph Cattin Riesling, a previously unfashionable variety from an unheralded winemaker in an unpopular region from a mediocre vintage, for S$25++?  The remainder of the list is similarly overpriced and about as inspirational as a faded tea towel, with the usual big industrial names at bigger-than-usual prices.

But the icing on the cake was yet to come.  Given the frankly abominable wine selection, and liking the food as I did, I asked one of the staff what the corkage policy was.  The answer astounded me: $70++ per 750mL bottle!  I asked if they did a 1-for-1 deal, and the second answer was about as helpful as poke in the eye.  "Sir, if you are only bringing one bottle in, you have a slim chance,  but if you are bringing five or more bottles in, you will need to discuss with management".  No wiser as to what the situation actually was, I asked again whether 1-for-1 was allowed.  "No sir, if you are bringing one bottle in only, you have virtually no chance".  I could have pointed out that there was a veritable gulf between "a slim chance" and "virtually no chance", but frankly that wasn't going to get me anywhere.  Basically, they don't allow 1-for-1.

I find it incredibly frustrating when restaurants impose daft corkage charges, ostensibly to ensure the commercial viability of a shite wine list.  As much as I love Alsace wine, I (and I hope there are other similarly sensible people reading this post) will NOT be compelled by tyrannical corkage policies into ordering a glass of regionale-quality riesling for $30 nett.  It is worth noting that at the recent Booze wine sale, you could have bought a bottle of an equivalent level Cattin wine for $25 nett.  Woops.


Satays aside, I was very impressed with the local food on offer here.  I would definitely come back, and I would certainly also recommend this as a place to bring your less adventurous overseas visitors for a taste of Singapore.  

Service manages to be nice and completely characterless in that inimitable Fullerton fashion, and wine service is a true afterthought.  But treat it like you would any other Singaporean cuisine restaurant (i.e. expect bugger-all service and be happy to go without wine) and you will be fine.  I just think that given this location and (as the publicity materials never stop reminding you) its importance to Singapore's mercantile and immigration history, Clifford Pier needs more investment to ensure it shines as a proper showcase of the local cuisine.

80 Collyer Quay
Singapore 049326
Tel: +65 6597 5266
Corkage Policy: $70++ per 750mL bottle, BYO not otherwise allowed.   Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations recommended 

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